The same process that keeps paint on car bumpers may keep fillings in your teeth longer.

Engineers at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Missouri-Kansas City have created a plasma brush for dentists. It uses a cool “flame” to clean and prep teeth for filling in about 30 seconds. The flame alters the tooth surface to strengthen the bond with filling material.

The brush is one of the innovations that spawned Nanova, Inc., a company based in Columbia, Mo. Its products have grown out of work done in faculty labs at the two universities.

The company president, Hao Li, is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at MU. He founded Nanova in 2007, soon after coming to Columbia.

He first sunk his teeth into dentistry as a graduate student in his native China in the 1990s. His master’s thesis was on dental implants.

Since then, he has worked with many doctors and dentists to develop more biocompatible composites and medical devices.

The plasma brush team included Yong Wang, Ph.D., a professor at the UMKC School of Dentistry; Quingsong Yu, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering at MU; Mark Chen, Chief Scientist from Nanova; and Liang Hong, Ph.D., an associate engineering professor at University of Tennessee in Memphis.

Bonding Experiences

Hao is mining intellectual capital across the UM System. His mission is to develop and market devices in the dental, orthopedic and cardiovascular areas.

He’s working with professors at UMKC on biocompatible bone cement. His collaborators are Kathleen Kilway, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at UMKC and Lynda Bonewald, Ph.D., and David Eick, Ph.D., from the UMKC School of Dentistry.

Both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health funded Hao’s work.

Bringing the Nanova’s products to market will require venture capital. This required Hao to acquire some new skills.

Business Boot Camp

His education began with a visit to the Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations at MU. OTMIR works to capitalize on the university’s intellectual property by securing patents and negotiating with CEOs and management teams to license Mizzou technology and generate revenues.

“I learned how to get a company incorporated and how to work with the university,” Hao says. He has learned how the patent process works and how to license IP in effective ways.

OTMIR is now helping Hao through the process of applying for a third group of patents, according to Wayne McDaniels, the associate director of OTMIR who works with Hao.

“Having a good relationship with the tech transfer office is a critical step in the evolution of a bringing a product to market,” Hao says.

He also worked Denise Fields, the new business entrepreneur officer at the University of Missouri and UMKC SBTDC’s Senior University Industry Relations Officer.

“She helped us develop strategies, set priorities and use our resources wisely,” Hao says. “She not only has good business sense, but is connected with investors.”

Product development was more challenging than he initially expected.

“As professors, we lack expertise in launching, operating and managing a business,” Hao says. “Fortunately we found people with expertise in these areas to help us.”

His wise counselors inspired him to take an unusual course: license work done by other professors.

Pooling IP Property

Hao extended the reach of Nanova by licensing intellectual property developed by others in the University of Missouri System. “Colleagues collaborating is common,” McDaniels says. “However, licensing intellectual property developed in someone else’s lab is not.”

The UMKC team had already conducted animal trials on the bone cement with promising results. This gives Nanova a head start in the race to market.

Hao is currently in license negotiations with the UMKC Office of Technology Transfer for the rights to a novel biomaterial that was codeveloped by researchers at UMKC and Missouri Science and Technology. The first three of Nanova’s licenses are with IP created at MU in Columbia.

“The expertise of the tech transfer community has helped us use our resources wisely,” Hao says.

Having this support has freed Hao to work toward his ambitious goal to build a commercial enterprise.

The company now has eight employees in Columbia and rents office space from MU.

The plasma brush just started its first human trial in July 2012. The initial target is to enroll 100 participants.

If the human trials are as successful as the animal trials and the device wins FDA clearance, the plasma brush could be available in your dentist’s office as early as the end of 2013.