AMS Spring 2023

Phase Gets Grant to Make Microfluidic Devices

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I’m fascinated by microfluidics. With microfluidics, you could mix, deposit, separate, or reroute tiny amounts of liquids at specific moments. Think of a 3D printer depositing a millionth of a Liter in one millisecond. Microfluidics is an enabling technology like the laser. We can imagine what it can be used for, but it may very well make much more possible. But for now, things like lab on a chip, organ on a chip, and inexpensive medical tests are firing up people’s imaginations. Through the discrete simulation of organs and how they interact with microfluidics could power millions of tests that would accelerate drug discovery by quickly allowing specific tests to happen. Or millions of drug tests could be done at home to track and find all manner of illnesses. For us, working in 3D printing, microfluidics could power the 3D printing technologies of the future. Moreover, microfluidics can also be made with 3D printers.

Traditionally they´re made with cumbersome molding processes that limit the possible geometries. What’s more, even if you can make a geometry, it can often still be optimised by improving the flow through 3D printing. Startup Phase, Inc. has just gotten a grant from the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s One North Carolina Small Business Program to help commercialise its technology. Previously the firm had collaborated with the National Institutes of Health (NHI) and Virginia Tech. Phase’s 3D printing technology uses biocompatible materials and lets them embed electronics inside the 3D printed microfluidic. This is a powerful combination that could connect them to reporting, sensors, IoT, RFID, or networks to allow for tracking. Furthermore, the microfluidic device itself could be smarter or measure more.

Simeon Brown, a lead technician at Phase, shows off the company’s microfluidic manufacturing capabilities that use the company’s proprietary 3D printing technology

Simeon Brown, a lead technician at Phase, shows off the company’s microfluidic manufacturing capabilities that use the company’s proprietary 3D printing technology. Image courtesy of Phase.

Phase co-founder Jeff Schultz said,

“This grant from North Carolina will help us quickly scale up and start to produce microfluidic devices for widespread commercial adoption.”

Phase’s technology called LE3D (Le 3D, L E 3D, Lethrd, I think we can all agree that we should pronounce it as if it were French) is said to use a “gold standard” biocompatible material that competing 3D printers cannot yet process. So I’m guessing that it would be Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) which is printable to a certain extent but used a lot in microfluidics. Or it could be PLGA which is a super cool material that is printable in the lab but has not really been commercialised well, and it’s what you’d want if you were working in the brain. The brain, you say? So far, the team was trying to do some completely far out things such as “aim to demonstrate the ability to incorporate a human brain’s endothelial cells – single-layer cells that line blood vessels and regulate exchanges between the vessels and surrounding tissue – into a microfluidic device to simulate the barrier.”

Sometimes startups really need to tackle the hard stuff. And indeed would be very impactful in the body electronic devices that can distribute medication and act as active implants. Still, the regulatory process would be harsh indeed for something so complex and new. To me, if Phase would have a good 3D printing technology to print microfluidics well, then it should focus on commercialising this in the microfluidics industry and with people who wish to make microfluidic devices and work their way towards more complexity. It feels like they have a startup with so much promise that it could go nowhere. Sometimes being able to do plenty and having a lot of potential can make choices so numerous as to blot out success.

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