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One Tucson company is developing a new cancer diagnostics platform based on the defensive systems of tumor cells.

Another is developing advanced systems for unmanned aircraft.

Still another is working on tiny, nano-scale particles to isolate substances like DNA.

These emerging technologies and others are getting some early help to someday reach the marketplace, under a special grant program aimed at helping high-tech entrepreneurs commercialize their discoveries.

The Arizona Commerce Authority recently announced 24 companies statewide - including five in the Tucson area - that will receive grants of between $3,000 and $7,500 each under the Federal and State Technology (FAST) program.

The Tucson awardees are:

• DemeteRx Pharmaceuticals, located in the Arizona Center for Innovation at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park, which was awarded $7,500.

• Colloidal Gen Inc., another Arizona Center for Innovation tenant, awarded $5,000.

• Latitude Engineering, an unmanned aircraft technology company at 744 S. Euclid Ave., which won a FAST grant of $7,500.

• Engineering Science Analysis Corp., a product engineering and prototyping firm that has commercialized vehicle-stopping equipment for law enforcement, awarded $7,500;

• TotalPersona LLC (, which was awarded a $3,000 grant. The company, 1518 W. Fort Lowell Road, provides secure software allowing for the exchange of information between schools and student families.

The other grant awardees are mainly in the Phoenix area (for a complete list, see the Commerce Authority's announcement at

All told, the Commerce Authority awarded $169,230 in FAST grants statewide, including a state match of federal money.

Available to companies with fewer than 30 employees and revenues below $2 million, the FAST grants are meant to be used for third-party technology validation, a commercialization feasibility study, or other commercialization help such as training to compete for federal funding under programs such as the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

Samantha Whitman said her company, DemeteRx Pharmaceuticals, will use about $5,000 of its FAST award to apply for a SBIR grant to advance its diagnostic technology.

Whitman's technology is based on discoveries made while she was working as a postdoctorate student in the lab of Donna Zhang, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, in the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy.

Zhang has developed cancer therapies based on a plant-based compound that exploits a signaling pathway that cancer cells use to protect themselves from damage.

While development of the drug is years away, Whitman said she's using the research on the signaling pathway to develop so-called companion tests to determine a specific drug's potential efficacy.

Whitman said the rest of the FAST grant will be used to help file patents on the technology.

Joseph Utermohlen, president of Colloidal Gen, said he plans to use the FAST grant money to further commercialization of his company's proprietary technology, which involves the use of ferrite iron oxides as a medium to magnetically separate biological material like DNA and proteins.

For example, Utermohlen said, current DNA extraction methods involve breaking down a sample into a "soup" of material and then extracting DNA by means of filtering or attraction to certain media.

Colloidal Gen's technology uses particles about 50 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in size to attract DNA (or other target material) and later separate it using magnetics, said Utermohlen, a former scientist at Ventana Medical Systems who's been involved in several startups.

While many of the FAST grant recipients are startup, early-stage companies, Tucson-based Latitude Engineering has been providing systems and engineering for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) since 2006, serving mainly as a defense subcontractor.

The company intends to use its FAST grant to develop more products for commercial UAV work, even as the Federal Aviation Administration labors to finalize rules to open up the airspace to commercial drone aircraft, Latitude owner and president Jason Douglas said.

"That proposition is risky, because the FAA rules are in flux," said Douglas, who formerly worked with Tucson-based Advanced Ceramics Research, a UAV technology company acquired by defense giant BAE Systems in 2009.

While the FAST grant amounts may not seem like much, they can make a difference.

Successful local FAST grant winners include Paragon Space Development Corp. and Ridgetop Group.

"That early money - it is so critical to early-stage companies," said Larry Hecker, a local corporate attorney, longtime high-tech booster and expert in entreprenuership.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at or 573-4181.