April 24, 2003
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For bioterrorism technology research—
YSI receives $920,000 state grant

YSI Scientist Mike Dziewatkoski looking at a water monitering instrument.

The threat of bioterrorism has started to drive market needs that now involve a Yellow Springs business. In February, the State of Ohio awarded to YSI Incorporated a $920,000 Technology Action Fund grant that would enable the company to develop a system for detecting pathogens in drinking water. The project, if successful, has the potential to create hundreds of high-tech jobs in the area.

One month following the 9/11 disaster when the threat to air and waterways was heightened, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began working cooperatively with industries with experience in water detection, including YSI, which had been developing water monitoring technology for decades, according to Vice President of YSI Environmental Gayle Rominger.

While the company had previously been developing early warning systems for water contamination, it had not considered response to threats of mass scale, said Rominger.

“We had never thought about it at all, and I was sort of taken aback when we started getting calls in October from the EPA,” she said. “After some internal discussion we decided this was something we needed to pay attention to.”

YSI quickly partnered with the University of Cincinnati, which was researching a method of detection known as immuno-assay, a process that uses synthetic antibodies that attach to waterborn pathogens exactly like human antibodies do.

Over the next year YSI spent close to a half a million dollars designing a vessel that could apply the synthetic antibodies to detect pathogens in water, Rominger said. The company invented a microfluidic plastic pump that can take a few drops of water and, using fluorescence, test instantly for an unlimited number of bacterial and viral pathogens such as anthrax, botulism or the ricin toxin.

“A lot of the genius is taking the technology and putting it into a package that can be used in the field,” Rominger said.

YSI scientist and project manager Mike Dziewatkoski left a previous job in Boston to get involved with what he called “new and exciting research that is pretty much at the cutting edge.” For a company in a rural setting to have such a sizable grant is unusual, he said.

“Visitors are amazed at the open spaces, and then to suddenly come upon a company with this sophisticated technology,” he paused. “It’s been a good environment for us to do our work in.”

The new technology has the potential to create a good number of high paying jobs in marketing, product development and technological support, as well as some manufacturing jobs.

“If this was accepted globally as a standard product for this work, hundreds of people could potentially be hired,” Rominger said.

That amount of growth would probably require some company expansion. While the expansion will probably take place in Yellow Springs, it could also happen in Dayton or Cincinnati, said Rominger, who said whether or not the company stays in the village depends on how the village responds to the company’s needs.

The number of employment opportunities satisfies the terms of the TAF grant, which was developed in 2002 as part of Governor Bob Taft’s Third Frontier effort to make Ohio a high-tech leader. Rominger said YSI could possibly start hiring in 2005.

There are a fair number of other companies looking at developing this technology, according to Rominger. But YSI has a lot of practical experience working with the water plants and creating something the plants can use.

“Terrorism has only been a market opportunity in the U.S. in the past 18 months,” she said. “The big thing YSI has going for it is 30 years’ success in the market, and YSI is extremely blessed with a very strong brand name.”

The biotechnology and medical diagnostic fields are rife with market opportunity for developing new products. According to Rominger, if you can measure things in water then you can measure things in other media, and the technology could also transfer to monitoring air quality.

“It could be a whole platform technology,” Rominger said. “There’s always an opportunity for something less complicated. There’s always room for new technology.”

—Lauren Heaton