The University of Alaska Anchorage is getting into the business of creating businesses -- and it’s announced its first startup company, a venture created to sell new sensor platforms.

In the past, universities have had the reputation of being ivory towers, where deep thinking is done but few practical applications are found, but UAA has been trying to change that.

The university’s Board of Regents approved a business plan in August to commercialize innovative faculty and student research. Its first startup company is Zensor, a firm manufacturing remote sensing devices which was greenlit by regents last week.

“We want to create new businesses here in Anchorage and in Alaska and we want to bring in new businesses, new investment,” said Dr. Helena Wisniewski, UAA’s vice provost of research and graduate studies. “Zensor is an Alaska company; it's incorporated in Alaska, and the sensors will be manufactured here in Alaska.”

Dr. John Lund, an assistant electrical-engineering professor at UAA, makes the devices Zensor plans to market. He originally saw a need for remote sensing when he worked as a summer intern for the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and saw how much time and money was spent on inspecting culverts and telephone poles in remote regions of Alaska.

The sensor he developed to address that problem is a box small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Individual sensors are linked into one network, with each sensor collecting and storing data from every other sensor in the network.

“This is a sensor platform, so it doesn't necessarily measure one thing,” Lund said. “All the sensors are set up to measure temperature, but you can put an add-on module to measure sound, pressure, to measure tilt.”

According to Lund the sensors have a lifespan of 50 years or more, are maintenance-free, low-cost and require no batteries.

“They get a small amount of energy from light and what they do is they harvest that energy, they store that energy on a capacitor instead of using a battery,” Lund said. “They store that energy on a capacitor until they have enough to turn on, take sensor measurements, communicate with nearby sensors and report that data.”

A unit shown to Channel 2 used solar power, but Lund says the devices can operate with a number of energy sources including geothermal, micro-wind, or chemical energy.

UAA currently sees potential clients in security and surveillance, industrial installations, and climate change and ecology -- as well as a chance to fund future endeavors.

“Part of the purpose is to find an alternative source of funding and in the economic times that we're facing, that's not a bad thing,” Lund said.
Wisniewski says Zensor is completely separate from UAA, but the university will receive shares in the company as a result of its initial investment in research and patent applications.

Professors who develop products sold by Zensor also receive shares of the company.

Contact Tracy Sinclare