Inventors Spotlight: Steve Tung and Bo Ma

Steve Tung and Bo Ma in their laboratory.
Photos by Whit Pruitt, University Relations

Steve Tung and Bo Ma in their laboratory.

Coronavirus and E. coli outbreaks have brought the importance of swift, accurate detection to the forefront. University of Arkansas researchers are meeting that need by developing an accurate, affordable handheld device that has applications not only for virus and bacteria detection, but for biomedical research and clinical diagnostics. And, they are leveraging the university's entrepreneurial ecosystem to commercialize their invention and share it with the world.

U of A professor Steve Tung and engineering postdoctoral research fellow Bo Ma have been awarded a second commercialization grant from the Chancellor's Fund in support of their portable handheld DNA-sequencing system. Their successful, first commercialization grant led to the redesign of a DNA sequencing chip to automate sequencing. Phase II will lead to the development of a handheld prototype based on the improved sequencing chip, as well as a smartphone app for data analysis.

Tung and Ma's portable device potentially could be used to identify on-site causes of food-borne illnesses and virus outbreaks in real-time. The time saved with their handheld device versus the traditional practice of taking samples to a lab for testing could help limit or halt the spread of these outbreaks.

Idea to Startup

Tung, who holds a 21st Century Professorship in the College of Engineering, was the principal investigator of a prior National Science Foundation grant that led to the development of the nanochannel DNA sequencing device that he and Ma continue to refine for commercialization. U of A biological and agricultural engineering professor Jin-Woo Kim was the co-investigator on the NSF grant.

Ma received his PhD in microelectronics-photonics from the U of A and a certificate of entrepreneurship from the Sam M. Walton College of Business. He built on his Walton College experience by serving as the entrepreneur lead of an NSF-funded National I-Corps team, which gave him valuable training in customer discovery and business model development. Ma founded Genome X LLC, a startup company dedicated to commercializing the DNA-sequencing device. The company's launch was supported by the Gap Fund, a subset of the Chancellor's Fund. Both the Commercialization and Gap Funds are supported by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

Tung and Ma's device uses a nanochannel chip to lengthen DNA strands.
Tung and Ma’s device uses a nanochannel chip to lengthen DNA strands.

Breakthrough Technology

Tung and Ma's device distinguishes itself by using a nanochannel chip to lengthen DNA strands and measure tunneling current, a process that allows the user to determine what genetic information is contained on the DNA segment with a higher degree of accuracy and consistency at a lower cost than current commercially available systems. The data produced by sequencing the DNA can be used in a number of different ways such as showing genetic alterations that cause disease as well as identifying a particular virus or bacteria present in a sample.

"Steve Tung and Bo Ma exemplify the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship we are building and fostering at the University of Arkansas," said David Snow, executive director of U of A Technology Ventures. "Their handheld device, developed and patented at the U of A, holds significant promise. Twenty years ago, next-generation genetic-sequencing platforms revolutionized science and health care by integrating 'sequencing by synthesis' chemistry and data science into new machines roughly the size of a china cabinet. This technology incorporates electrochemistry and data science into a third generation of devices that can potentially reduce sequencing time and cost by another order of magnitude. Additionally, the elegant simplicity of this technology allows the platform to be shrunk into a handheld device for potential point of use/point of care. This is very exciting!"

About the University of Arkansas Technology Ventures: The University of Arkansas Technology Ventures has initiated a program to commercialize a wide range of research tools, whether patented or not. Technology Ventures manages, protects and commercializes the intellectual property portfolio of the University of Arkansas. Technology Ventures serves the university's faculty, staff and students as well as external inventors and entrepreneurs to disseminate knowledge, technology and products to the public market to generate revenue and future research support. In this way, we also serve the public as it is our responsibility to enable public utilization of products derived from university research.


Andy Albertson, director of communications and entrepreneurial support
Office of Economic Development


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