|Josh Lichtman '09 (left) and Dan Wright '09 spent the summer working full time as interns for Bill Hanson '80.
Generations of parents have admonished their youngsters to eat their leafy greens. But buried in the crisp, inviting folds of lettuce and spinach deadly pathogens lurk. Likewise, the lip-smacking tang of rib-eye steak may literally be the death of you.
An alumnus and his biotech team—which includes Dickinson student interns—are on the prowl to make illnesses caused by contaminated fruits, vegetables and meat a thing of the past.
Physics major Bill Hanson ’80 took his 25 years of experience in high-tech electronic manufacturing, business management and research and development and launched his start-up company, Hanson Technologies, in 2003. In what was a former quartz crystal factory (now the Dickinson-owned Kaufman Building) on the corner of North and College streets in Carlisle, this faculty kid (he’s the son of the late geologist Henry Hanson and his late wife Janice), set out to build and market a biosensor that “could prevent vegetable and fruit producers from shipping infected materials,” he says. “They don’t want to make anyone sick—or kill them.”
In his corner conference room Hanson ticks off some scary statistics: “three deaths, 10 kidney failures, 200 hospitalizations from the [E. coli] contaminated spinach outbreak [last fall]. There are 5,000 deaths per year from food-borne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control.”
A pilot version of his disease-detection device was tested, May through July, by Harrisburg’s Verdelli Farms, a regional processor of fruits and vegetables, and a second pilot is scheduled by a California grower that ships 10 million pounds of produce a week.
Unlike the traditional screening process that typically samples about 700 items per million, Hanson’s testing device “will do 100 percent screening of fresh-cut produce,” he says. “We’ll have results in two hours, whereas it’s 12 to 36 hours for current methods.” He expects his biosensor to hit the market next year.
“I was told it would take five years to get it into production, and that’s exactly right,” says the affable Hanson. Helping to fund the lean years between research and development and actual production have been an array of investment funds, including $850,000 from Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania and $450,000 from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania. These are dollars that Hanson Technologies eventually will repay.
Others have seen the promise of Hanson Tech-nologies’ high-tech products. A $600,000 Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Develop-ment grant, landed by Dickinson, supports another biosensor-development project and several Dickinson student interns. Their aim is to detect mad cow-like chronic wasting disease in sheep and deer before it infests livestock around the state.
The first biology-major intern on board—Dan Wright ’09—worked during spring 2006 and has been employed continuously since last fall helping to develop the testing apparatus.
“I’m currently in the process of R&D for a biosensor that detects biological pathogens,” says Wright. “The sensor detects food allergens and possibly prion disease [a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affects humans and animals], which causes chronic wasting disease found in deer. [The sensor] is new state-of-the-art technology.”
David Kushner, the biology professor who coordinates the internships for Dickinson, says it became clear early on that the arrangement was a win-win situation for Dickinson interns, the entrepreneurial alum and the public at large.
Hanson Technologies is “a blend of business and biology, in relation to public health,” says Kushner. “They’re in there to try and do something beneficial for the public.
“When the opportunity to continue the internships last academic year came up, there was no question,” adds Kushner, who works with Hanson and his employee Maureen Dyer to identify promising student workers. They’re looking for personable sorts, not the stereotypical loner lab rat. “Science is a very social activity,” Kushner explains. “Identifying outgoing, independent, hardworking, bright and open-minded students is important.”
The students provide a definite boost to Hanson’s staff of 10 full-time employees. His goal is to have three or four interns in the lab at all times—he’s had about eight total, most of them from Dickinson. Two worked full time this past summer, Wright, and Josh Lichtman ’09. “Josh and Dan have done meaningful research—collecting and analyzing data,” says Hanson.
“They learn quickly and take off,” adds Dyer. “I’ve been very impressed at what first- and second-year college students could achieve in the lab.”
Kushner, likewise, has been impressed by the value of the experience. “It’s a great opportunity to see science in an applied way. They’re drawing on all of their classroom experience and putting their education to use.”
“It’s a great environment to have your first job,” Wright says. “They let you make mistakes, and they help you learn. It’s great seeing the different steps of a start-up biotech company: R&D, the human aspect, manufacturing … all the different steps that go into it. I got a lot of insight into how everything works.”
What he’s experienced has inspired his future career direction: “Eventually, I would like to have my own start-up that will develop genetically modified crops for developing countries. Plants engineered to grow more efficiently or carry increased nutritional value could dramatically increase the standard of living in these nations.”
Though a committed Californian, Wright has had his horizons expanded and can now see that sophisticated scientific research can be conducted even in central Pennsylvania.
“What Dr. Hanson is trying to do is really impressive—he’s trying to revitalize the area,” contends Wright. “This used to be a huge high-tech area, and he’s trying to bring it back [to the days when the quartz crystal industry was here]. He’s trying to give jobs back to the community, and I think that’s really admirable. He works way too much, but that’s what goes into a start-up.”
Nina Scupp ’08 assisted with the reporting of this story.