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K-State Today

May 22, 2020

Engineering student receives Phase II Small Business Innovation Research Grant from National Science Foundation

Submitted by Austin Pfannenstiel

Precision Microwave Inc., a startup medical device research and development company founded by Austin Pfannenstiel, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University, has been awarded a $749,554 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant. The funding will help Pfannenstiel conduct research and development work on a directional microwave ablation applicator for minimally invasive treatment of tumors including cancer.

The project proposes commercial development of the first directional microwave ablation applicator, or MWA, that can be employed in clinical thermal therapy procedures. During MWA, doctors use image guidance to insert a thin needle-like applicator into a target tumor and then energize the microwave antenna embedded in the applicator's tip to heat and kill the tumor in a minimally invasive outpatient procedure.

"MWA is especially important to the large population of cancer patients who are poor candidates for surgery or other physically demanding therapies, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, due to tumor location or poor health," Pfannenstiel said. "All existing MWA systems are only capable of producing a roughly spherically-shaped treatment zone centered on the axis of the applicator, which is not well-suited for treating tumors located near critical anatomy or irregularly shaped targets. This limitation often leaves doctors with a difficult choice of risking undertreatment and disease recurrence or risking over treatment and damage to critical healthy anatomy that may cause pain or complications."

The co-principal investigator on the overall project and principal investigator of the K-State sub-award is Punit Prakash, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Warren Beard and David Biller, both professors of clinical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are co-principal investigators on the K-State sub-award. 

According to the researchers, Precision Microwave's innovation enables directional control of the heating pattern to allow the physician to instead place the applicator alongside the tumor and direct heat toward the target and away from nearby sensitive tissues. New clinical techniques enabled by directional MWA could facilitate faster, safer, more effective, and lower-cost treatment of localized tumors, and potentially broaden the range of diseases that could be treated in a minimally invasive manner.

"The National Science Foundation supports small businesses with the most innovative, cutting-edge ideas that have the potential to become great commercial successes and make huge societal impacts," said Barry Johnson, director of the NSF's Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. "We hope that this seed funding will spark solutions to some of the most important challenges of our time across all areas of science and technology."

"This grant offers us an unmatched opportunity to advance medical device technology originally developed at Kansas State University to a mature enough stage for commercialization and to finally get it into the clinic where patients could benefit. It is also a great opportunity to help the local technology industry and hopefully create some good jobs in the community," Pfannenstiel said.

Small businesses with Phase II grants are eligible to receive up to $500,000 in additional matching funds with qualifying third-party investment or sales. Precision Microwave previously received Phase I funding of $225,000 from the NSF in July 2018, won first prize of $14,750 in Kansas State University’s Launch a Business program in June 2017, and participated in the NSF's Innovation Corps customer development program in early 2017. 

All proposals submitted to the NSF SBIR/STTR program undergo a rigorous merit-based review process. To learn more about America's Seed Fund powered by NSF, visit seedfund.nsf.gov/.