Friday, July 25, 2014

NC Innovation, From Barcodes to Berries

by Frank Vinluan

If you’ve made a retail purchase recently, chances are good you used technology developed in Research Triangle Park without even realizing it.

The modern day barcode has its origins in the 1970s research of IBM scientists Joseph Woodland and George Laurer. Their work in IBM’s RTP labs was accompanied by the scanning technology to read Universal Product Codes. This technology was so transformative for retail that it found widespread adoption. These days, no one even gives the technology that facilitates their shopping transactions a second thought.

Silicon Valley and Boston always top the lists and rankings of technology and life sciences hubs. Like barcodes, Research Triangle Park often remains a distant thought. But there’s a lot happening in North Carolina that the rest of the country doesn’t know about. There’s more happening here than drug research and new cloud-based software. And it’s not just in the Park.

When I first started covering technology and biotechnology in North Carolina, an N.C. State University professor I met during a startup event reminded me that as big an imprint technology and biotechnology have made on North Carolina’s economy, agriculture remains the state’s biggest business. Tobacco still reigns as the state’s top cash crop. North Carolina is also the nation’s leading producer of sweet potatoes. Yet these old standby crops are ripe for innovation. Vaccine developer Medicago operates a manufacturing plant in RTP that can manufacture vaccines from tobacco leaves, a process that is faster and less expensive compared to traditional vaccine production methods. Researchers at N.C. State are studying how to use industrial sweet potatoes—full of starch and not the kind that you’d serve at Thanksgiving dinner—as a biofuel feedstock.

North Carolina is the U.S. home to several global agricultural technology companies. Bayer CropScience, BASF Plant Science, and Syngenta all maintain key operations around the Park and across the state. Bayer CropScience has made a concerted effort to expand in this region; the company recently committed to spend nearly $30 million to build a new state-of-the-art greenhouse at its RTP site. This expansion follows construction on bee research centers in RTP as well as another site south of Raleigh.

North Carolina’s technology innovation is not limited to the Research Triangle. The North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, once a busy textiles town north of Charlotte, is an example of North Carolina’s transition from the old economy to a new one. What was once the birthplace of new towels and bedding is now the site of research on a broad sample of North Carolina crops.

The Research Campus is the realized vision of David Murdock, chairman and CEO of Dole Foods. Dole is a California company but Murdock calls North Carolina home. Murdock, 91, is a firm believer that nutrition holds the key to his own longevity and health. He founded the campus in 2008, aiming to make it a center of food research by emulating the public-private partnership model that made RTP a hub of biotech and tech innovation. The campus currently houses industry operations from Dole and General Mills, as well as labs for university research partners from several North Carolina universities. At some pharma companies, genetic scientists study the human genome to find the causes of diseases and to develop targeted therapies to treat them. At the Research Campus, plant scientists study the blueberry genome to find specific compounds in the berry that have an effect on health and disease.

In Winston-Salem, Anthony Atala directs the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Atala envisions a day when organs can be grown in labs to alleviate the shortage of donor organs. He developed a way to grow tissue in the lab from a patient’s own cells. This technology spun out of the Institute as regenerative medicine firm Tengion. The company has since translated the technology from Atala, a urologist, into a way to help bladder cancer patients who have had their bladder removed. If the technology succeeds in clinical trials, these patients would have a better way to urinate. The company is also pursuing a second clinical program to treat patients whose advanced chronic kidney disease requires dialysis or worse, a transplant.

I have covered business, technology, and life sciences in North Carolina for seven years—long enough to see software entrepreneurs grow their startups into mature companies, but still short of the average time needed to take a new drug from discovery through regulatory approval. When I talk to people in different parts of the country, the first thing they ask about North Carolina is basketball. The second is barbeque. Few ask about biotechnology. No one says anything about barcodes. That’s too bad. While I’m sure that IBMers are quite proud to have changed the consumer shopping experience, and it’s a great North Carolina innovation story, a lot has happened here since the barcode. I look forward to telling Xconomy readers all about it.

Frank Vinluan is a contributing editor at Xconomy, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at

Monday, July 21, 2014

FBI Issues Warning For Unapproved AC Coolant

ATLANTA (AP) -- As the U.S. tries to phase out a polluting refrigerant that is used in millions of air conditioners across the country, unapproved coolant is popping up on the market — with potentially dangerous consequences.

The FBI is warning people to be on alert for refrigerant substitutes that have not been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some contain propane, which is flammable and can explode or catch fire if, for example, a technician servicing an air conditioner gets too close to the coolant while soldering. So far, the explosions have been rare.

The problem has cropped up as the U.S. phases out R-22, a chemical used for decades as a refrigerant in air conditioners and refrigerators. Because R-22 destroys the ozone layer, it is being banned globally under an international treaty. The EPA is guiding the switch over to ozone-friendlier refrigerants, and has listed approved ones on its website.

The phaseout caused prices of R-22 to skyrocket, increasing the demand for cheaper, unapproved replacements, many of which are made in China and sold on the black market. Products like "Super Freeze 22a" have been selling mostly online or over the telephone to home owners and "do-it-yourselfers," circumventing stores and regulators, the FBI said on its website. The FBI has launched an investigation into the sale of unapproved refrigerants but declined to answer questions from The Associated Press.

It is unclear how many people may have fallen victim to a refrigerant scam. Reports of fires or explosions seem rare. The EPA, without citing specific examples, said it knows of cases in the U.S. and abroad where people have been injured after using unapproved refrigerants in air conditioners. Additionally, the agency took action against at least one U.S. company in 2013 for selling an unapproved refrigerant that had the potential to explode.

There have been scattered reports of deaths overseas. A New Zealand firefighter was killed and seven others were seriously injured in a 2008 explosion blamed on a propane-based gas being used to cool a refrigeration warehouse, according to local media reports at the time. More recently, dock workers in Vietnam and Brazil were killed after giant shipping containers exploded when suspected counterfeit refrigerant was placed in their cooling units, according to shipping reports obtained by the U.N. Environment Programme.

The Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade association, has yet to hear about an accident occurring domestically, said Karim Amrane, vice president of regulatory policy and research with the group.

Allison Bailes, founder of Energy Vanguard, an energy efficiency consulting and design firm in Decatur, Georgia, said consumers should choose only contractors who are licensed, preferably those who have North American Technical Excellence certification.
"Tell them you want the type of refrigerant — if it needs refrigerant — that it is manufactured for. If it's supposed to be R-22, then put R-22 in it," Bailes said. Companies that skirt the law are "creating the potential for greater cost to their customers and causing injury or death to techs who work on those systems later."

Environmental Protection Agency:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Got Unconventional Repairs? Save Time With TEAMSESCO’s ‘Non-Standard’ Repair Service

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'If You Can Think It, We Can Make It': A Look Inside Brooklyn's New Lab

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Apple buys 100 acres of land for third North Carolina solar farm

Apple on Monday reached a deal with the city council of Claremont, N.C. to annex 100 acres of land for a new 17.5 megawatt solar farm, the construction of which is expected to cost some $55 million.
As approved by the Claremont City Council, Apple's latest solar farm project will bring 100 acres of land into the city's corporate limits and should generate about 75 jobs, which the company agreed to source locally, reports the Hickory Daily Record.

As it stands, the land is currently valued at $1.4 million, but Apple will be giving two parcels back to the city for use as greenways, recreation space and other public works projects. According to the publication, the tracts are worth a combined $96,000.

After Apple draws the requisite permits, takes control of the land and fulfills other development related minutiae, construction of the farm is expected to be completed in five years.

The Claremont solar farm will be Apple's third such facility in the area surrounding its Maiden, N.C. iCloud data center, which itself boasts a 100-acre solar installation putting out 20 megawatts of power. In September of 2012, the company purchased another 200 acres of land a few miles away in Conover, to be used for a second 20-megawatt farm.

As noted by Apple VP of Environmental Initiatives Lisa Jackson, the company's data centers are run off 100 percent renewable sources like solar and biogas, as are 94 percent of its corporate structures. The next step, according to Jackson, is to take brick-and-mortar Apple Stores completely off the grid.