The Electronic Tongue Of Texas

The prospect of marketing an electronic tongue worth a potential fortune to the pharmaceutical industry has four University of Texas students salivating, to say the least.

The technology, developed by UT chemists and engineers, could become a hot property for the companies that market it commercially. At least 30 companies worldwide have inquired about licensing the tongue, including Vusion, a company created by four students for a class project.

The electronic tongue mimics the speed and sophistication of human taste buds. It looks like a round metal disk and consists of hundreds of chemical micro-sensors on a silicone wafer smaller than a penny.

Jason Levin is among four graduate business students hoping to raise enough capital to purchase a university license, The American-Statesman reported in Sunday's editions. The students want to market the innovation to the pharmaceutical industry as a control monitor for processing medicinal chemicals.

"It could give them instant feedback if there are problems with quality," Levin said. "We're not aware of any other technology in the marketplace that can do this."

Levin, with classmates Richard Burgess, Kent Bradshaw, and Paul Kunko, created Vusion for a class competition, picked the UT electronic tongue as its first product and won the contest.

"We'd like to license the technology to (Vusion) if possible," said Renee Mallett, assistant director of UT's Office of Technology Licensing. "But we can't give them special treatment because they're students. They have to come up with the necessary capital."

Mallett declined to say how much money the students need for a license, but said the tongue has so many potential uses that it probably will be licensed to several companies, with royalties going to the university and inventors.

Levin said Vusion plans to raise $150,000 for company operations through May, $2 million in June when it will hire a chief executive, scientists and engineers, and $3 million in June of 2000.

The tongue was invented by Dean Neikirk, an electrical and computer engineer, and chemists John McDevitt, Eric Anslyn and Jason Shear. They were inspired by European efforts to make bio-sensors as sophisticated as an animal's nose, and began work in 1996.

The commercial potential is vast. Some companies want the technology to test new food and drink products. The American military could use it to monitor the disposal of chemical and biological weapons.

The tongue also is being considered as a tool for enhancing the speed and accuracy of medical tests. The National Institutes of Health recently gave the UT researchers $600,000 to develop the tongue to try to replace multiple, lengthy tests of blood and urine with one rapid test.

Neikirk said the inventors would like to see the business students win one of the development licenses.

"Some big companies buy things and sit on them to avoid the competition," Neikirk sai. "And, with these guys, we'd probably have more input in seeing it come to fruition."