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Technology transfer reaps rewards for UConn
November 9, 1998

Imagine an invention that could tell electric utilities where their underground distribution cable was leaking.

By using the machine, the utilities could determine the size of the leak and its precise location, and decide rationally and based on economics whether to repair it immediately or, if the leak was minor, defer maintenance.

Imagine a group of university engineering faculty and students wrestling with the problem, inventing technology to make the detector work and then making business decisions and licensing deals to take the technology from the drawing board to manufacturing to the field.

Put away your imagination, because this scenario actually played itself out over a number of years on campus.

Last week, the principals of Imcorp of Storrs handed over a $19,500 check, covering royalties on the sale of the first six partial discharge locators, to President Philip E. Austin and Health Center Chancellor Leslie S. Cutler, chair of the Center for Science and Technology Commercialization Advisory Committee. Chancellor Mark Emmert and Vice Provost Robert Smith also attended the event.

Considering that U.S electric utilities alone have invested more than $150 billion in underground distribution cables, and the market for this invention is worldwide, it seems fair to expect that the University will continue to receive royalties from Imcorp.

"This collaboration is an excellent example of the mutually advantageous relationship UConn is forging with Connecticut's business community," says Austin. "As a land-grant university we view these connections as central to our mission. Not only are they critical to the economic development of the state, but they are invaluable to the University as it continues the pursuit of academic excellence."

"I've always been a proponent of technology transfer," said Matthew S. Mashikian, founder of the flourishing young business known as Imcorp. Mashikian is an emeritus professor of electrical and systems engineering and is now in his third career, as business president, after stints as an industrial engineer and as an academic.

"Can you conceive of a medical school without a teaching hospital nearby? Of course not," he said. "Why then conceive of a good school of engineering without someplace nearby where engineers, physicists, technicians and students can get good practical training and experience.

"In a small sense, Imcorp is that someplace," Mashikian said.

Imcorp is headquartered on the Depot Campus. The list of people involved in developing the company is long, but some names stand out: Leonid Azaroff, Institute of Material Sciences; Rajeev Bansal, Harold Brody, Dave Jordan, Robert Northrop from the School of Engineering; Peter McFadden of the president's office; and Thomas Giolas and Charles Goodwin of the Research Foundation. Imcorp's chief engineer is UConn graduate Chunming Han.

Imcorp's discharge locator consists of several instruments that attach to an underground cable and send out increasing amounts of electricity. Under the stress of the increased voltage, defects in the cable emit very small electrical pulses.

Imcorp's equipment can detect those pulses and by using the process known as reflectometry - measuring and then calculating the difference between the direct signal and the reflected signal - pinpoint within three feet where the partial discharge is.

At a replacement cost of $30 per foot for underground cable - $158,400 for each mile of cable - the economics of being able to precisely detecte the site of any leaks makes the $65,000 cost of the equipment well worth it.

Northern States Power, a Minnesota and Iowa electric utility, has signed on and formed a subsidiary business for detecting underground cable leaks in the United States and Canada. The subsidiary, Ultra Power, now employs more than 20 people, has serviced more than 40 power companies and surveyed more than 1,000 miles of cable.

"We're pleased to be in business with Imcorp and Matt Mashikian," said Wanda Reder, president and chief executive officer of Ultra Power. "This is breakthrough technology that makes work easier and saves money. We think the future of Imcorp and Ultra Power is very bright."

Patrick Keefe