Birth of the bioCool

A spacesuit inventor and a serial entrepreneur team up to develop high-tech industry in Sacramento

William Elkins’ early research in spacesuit technology helped him develop garments that American military personnel could wear to beat the heat in Iraq.

William Elkins’ early research in spacesuit technology helped him develop garments that American military personnel could wear to beat the heat in Iraq.

Photo By Larry Dalton

William Elkins started collecting patents on aerospace inventions around the same time the United States started working on its first manned space flight. Elkins designed space gear even before there was a NASA, building and testing some of the nation’s first spacesuits. Throughout the years, his new technologies have evolved, finding uses in the medical field and in national defense.

With a new design for garments to help soldiers work in blistering climates—Iraq, for instance—Elkins recently moved from the Bay Area with his wife to a modest home in the Del Webb retirement community south of Lincoln; that seems to be as close as the 75-year-old inventor wants to get to actually retiring. He’s now one of a small group of inventors relying on the McClellan Technology Incubator (MTI), housed on the former Air Force base, to develop their big ideas into lucrative companies here in Sacramento. MTI, through mentoring and funding, hopes to turn small entrepreneurial ventures like Elkins’ bioCool into big companies capable of replacing some of the 13,000 jobs lost after the military base was ordered closed in 1995.

Inventors like Elkins, who’ve failed to find funding on their own, are willing to pay MTI to help them improve their business plans, prepare to compete in their chosen markets and fund the various stages of product development—without heading to Silicon Valley, the traditional hot spot for technological entrepreneurship.

As a point of comparison, MTI’s executive director, Chris Gill, claimed that Silicon Valley managed to launch 80 new tech companies last year while this area managed to launch zero.

Elkins, sitting with his large Siberian husky in his living room, explained that his career in engineering grew out of his early interest in flying. At 5 years old, a relative plopped him into the cockpit of a mail-delivery plane. By 15, even before he’d learned to drive a car, Elkins was soloing in the air. A fighter pilot in the Korean War, and later a researcher for the Air Force, pre-NASA, Elkins designed devices to help the first astronauts withstand the physical strain of space travel. He still holds the world record for sustained G-forces (16.5 times his body weight).

In 1993, Elkins was inducted into the U.S. Space Foundation’s Hall of Fame for helping to develop the technology he now wants to send to Iraq. Elkins helped develop the first “liquid-cooled garments”—personal cap-and-vest combos that look like regular fabric but actually are filled with a network of small coils that continually circulate freshly chilled liquid. Worn over the head and torso, the cap-vests can make a 110-degree day feel about 70 degrees, said Elkins.

“This little head liner,” said Elkins, holding up a simple cap that fits over the entire head, except for the face and ears, “which is about one-tenth the area of this [cap- vest unit], provided 40 percent of the cooling.”

Since the early 1990s, Elkins has developed versions of the cap-vest for military personnel serving in hot climates. Worn over a T-shirt and under other gear, the unit cools the surface of the skin, which, in turn, cools the blood, says Elkins, and the blood cools the rest of the body as it circulates. For soldiers in Iraq, such a system, when coupled with a supply of drinking water, can reduce heat stress and dehydration.

Early versions of the cap-vest, which were tested by explosive-ordnance-removal teams in Desert Storm, weighed about a pound. The current “integrated hydration system” includes drinking water, a frozen cartridge to keep the circulating liquid cool and other gear. It weighs about six pounds, minus the water, which troops would have to carry in anyway, said Elkins.

Elkins had hoped to provide cap-vests to soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but he couldn’t get them developed in time. Now, Elkins estimates that U.S. forces will be stationed in Iraq for at least a decade, so there’s still an opportunity—once his company gets off the ground. In effect, Elkins is still an engineer with a promising idea. In the old days, he would have taken that idea to Silicon Valley, shopped it around and waited for funding. But a number of months ago, Elkins chose to go to UC Davis for help instead. People there pointed him to a local solution: MTI.

Now, Elkins regularly receives assignments from Gill, his new consultant: investigate the competitive landscape, outline the technical requirements and learn how customers like the American military like to do business.

The team of Elkins and incubator hope to be funded by September of this year and to have bioCool cap-vests in Iraq in 2005. The first step is to produce prototypes, and for that, bioCool needs funding.

Elkins is one of 12 development teams currently working through business-development plans with MTI.

County supervisor Roger Dickinson explained that the county, which joined the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and federal agencies to develop MTI, originally envisioned the incubator nurturing companies until they grew big enough to move into other facilities in McClellan Park. Potentially, these companies could employ thousands of people in a variety of fields. “The original idea was to take advantage of the unique opportunity the facility at McClellan offered,” said Dickinson.

Though hopes were high, and McClellan Park has replaced approximately 8,000 jobs since its closure, few of those jobs are because of the efforts of MTI.

Launched in a 28,000-square- foot facility, MTI was not an immediate success. “Truthfully,” said Dickinson, “it never quite got off the ground in the way we hoped.” Companies were under-funded, or their ideas were not expandable, he said. When the economy soured, less seed money was available to entrepreneurs.

Gill said that the incubator simply “languished for three years.”

An enthusiastic Englishman who joined MTI in November 2003, Gill hopes to be its savior. He’s launched eight companies in 30 years, he said, and he calls himself a “serial entrepreneur” who prefers the excitement and challenge of “the entrepreneurial phase of growth.” An MTI press release listed Gill’s credentials: He was president and chief executive officer (CEO) of CGS&M Associates, was on the board of Toolworks and was business adviser to a software consortium as well as to several semiconductor companies.

To revitalize the stalled incubator, Gill first proposed that what MTI needed was an “idea factory,” a local research hub wealthy enough to develop new technologies as part of its regular work. UC Davis was an obvious choice.

“If the Sacramento region wants to reap the benefits of these ideas, you have to offer attractive enough bait,” said Gill. That bait, according to Gill, is a wet lab facility that will offer UC Davis inventors a place to conduct their research and experiments.

The campus was already considering building its own wet lab facilities when Gill found that the space right next to the incubator at McClellan was already a wet lab. It could be upgraded for a mere million dollars, said Gill—though still expensive, this was one-sixth of the cost of a proposed wet lab UC Davis was considering for its own campus.

According to Dickinson, the proposed wet lab offers enough benefit to the region that the county is committing $200,000 to help with its development and likely will identify a source for another $100,000 to complete the first phase of development.

With new wet labs, Gill expects to help UC Davis inventors streamline the process of taking their ideas into the public sector. The final piece of the puzzle is funding.

Gill claims that funding for MTI projects, including bioCool, will come from two main sources. The first will be a network of local high-net-worth individuals willing to invest based on Gill’s recommendations. The second will be an investment fund offering $1 million to $2 million in seed money to viable projects. Both sources are in the early stages of development.

Neither Gill nor Elkins would speak in detail about the funding for bioCool, but Gill estimated that the first phase would provide 50 prototype units, and Elkins’ history with NASA and his relationships with military personnel will streamline the process of getting cap-vest units overseas.

Once the technology has been tested by the military, Elkins will turn his attention back to medical uses for his technology—medical and pharmaceuticals innovations could make up the bulk of MTI’s business in the future. It will depend on the incubator’s proposed partnership with UC Davis.

As an example of how challenging even the first phases of research can be, Elkins worked with Huan Wang, a neurosurgery resident with the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, to conduct a small pilot test using his cap to cool the brain after severe head trauma. For a test that included eight patients in a study group and six in a control group, Wang estimated the research cost $150,000 in grants and donations. The results were published in 2003 and show that brain temperature can be lowered by up to four degrees Celsius, reducing trauma, swelling, blood loss and pain. But that, said Wang, is only the beginning. Now comes the challenge of improving the cap, getting it tested in emergency situations and getting it approved.

Gill cautions against launching in multiple markets at once, so he and Elkins are concentrating first on impressing military personnel. Once the technology is tested in the defense industry, there will be greater opportunities in medicine. BioCool, just like every other project of MTI’s, is, after all, a money-making venture, which has Gill thinking in terms of “human capital,” salesmen and representatives who can really promote bioCool technology.

“He needs a good CEO,” said Gill, who expects that both engineers and academics need more than one levelheaded entrepreneurial enthusiast to survive.