A “LEAP” forward for NDSU professor, RFID technology

For close to five years, Dr. Val Marinov worked quietly alongside students and faculty at the NDSU Research and Technology Park to develop cutting-edge technology for microelectronics assembly. The technology, known as Laser Enabled Advanced Packaging (LEAP), makes it possible to embed ultrathin radio frequency identification (RFID) chips on flexible substrates, such as paper.

RFID-enabled paper already existed at the time, but the chips were far too thick and rigid for practical application. By thinning the chip and using a laser beam to transfer it onto the host structure, LEAP allows for devices that are faster, cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and adaptable to the naturally curvy form of our world.

The researchers already knew  they were onto something big. When the BBC ran a story on their findings in May 2013, the rest of the world did, too. “After the BBC published this short piece about our technology, people from all over the world started to contact me and express interest in adopting that technology,” Marinov said.After that, Marinov knew that he couldn’t leave the technology sitting in the lab; however, he also knew he couldn’t take it to the next level using resources from NDSU. “I was facing a dilemma, whether to just let this technology collect dust in the drawer or go a step further and do something on my own,” he said.

So, as any true innovator would, he went a step further.

Marinov took to CoFoundersLab, a matchmaking site for entrepreneurs, to find a business partner. That August, he came across the profile of Ronn Kliger, a former semiconductor executive in Cambridge, MA. They exchanged a string of emails and phone calls. Kliger eventually booked a flight to Fargo. By November, Uniqarta, Inc. was up and running.

Marinov (left) and Kliger

Marinov (left) and Kliger

Marinov and Kliger formed Uniqarta with the hopes of commercializing the technology Marinov’s team created. They do not develop products for market; rather, they market the method for creating flexible, ultra-thin electronic devices, which companies can license and apply in their own facilities. The applications, according to Marinov, are endless.

Marinov offered the example of a Social Security card printed onto ultra-thin RFID-enabled paper. tThe cardholder’s information could be encrypted and secured in the imperceptible chip inside. “Basically this is an example of having a security document where the counterfeiting of that will now be impossible because you also need to replicate the electronic device,” he said. “Very few people can do that, if any.”

Another area of interest for Uniqarta’s technology is wearable electronics. Picture a patch you wear like a bandage. Only this patch monitors your vitals and communicates them to another device.

Perhaps the most exciting applications for LEAP lie in the Internet of Things, the much-talked-about concept in which things, not people, talk to each other over the net. “The Internet of Things is considered one of the emerging, and one of the most critical, strategic technologies in this country,” Marinov said. Imagine having a carton of milk embedded with an ultra-thin chip in your fridge. When the milk expires, its carton can communicate to the fridge, and the fridge can then communicate to you. It could even place an order for a new carton of milk to the grocery store. “It opens up the possibility for an endless number of applications for our technology,” Marinov said.

Uniqarta is a member of NextFlex, a public-private consortium of companies, universities, and nonprofit organizations working to advance manufacturing of flexible hybrid electronics in the US. Through NextFlex, they are able to build connections within the industry and identify potential partners.

They are also communicating and working with companies outside of NextFlex who are interested in adopting the technology, including a Fortune 500 company. It’s too early to share specifics, but Marinov promises, “it’s a name that everybody will know.”

Dr. Marinov will be speaking about Uniqarta at 1 Million Cups on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Stage at Island Park.

Katie Beedy