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Businessweek Archives

The Smoothest Bike Ride Of All

Developments to Watch


SHOCK ABSORBERS ON mountain bikes are a must for smooth rides over bumpy terrain. Now, for tenderbottoms and others who want the ultimate in riding comfort, Active Control Experts Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., and K2 Corp., maker of Pro-Flex and K2 bikes, have developed a "smart shock." It features variable electronic damping that can respond instantly, while the wheel is still bouncing, to the size of each rock and bump. The technology is similar to that used in the shock absorbers of Formula One racing cars.

A thousand times a second, a sensor measures the speed of the shock's piston and sends the data to a microprocessor. In turn, this chip uses the signals to control a valve actuator that adjusts the flow of oil in the shock. The intended effect is to smooth out rides over rough terrain, thus allowing bikes to travel faster. The system also alleviates common problems with conventional mountain-bike shocks, notably their tendency to bounce like a pogo stick.

The smart shock weighs less than a pound, and is available on K2's 1998 full-suspension bikes costing $2,000 to $4,000.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNST Geoffrey SmithReturn to top

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TARANTULAS ARE NOTORIOUS villains in horror movies. But these hideous spiders could star as heroes in the search for treatments for neurological disorders.

Researchers at Neurex Corp. in New Orleans say they have isolated a compound, SNX-482, from the venom of the African tarantula (also called the Cameroon Red) with a unique property: It blocks so-called R-type calcium channels in nerve cells.

Scientists have known for several years about R-type channels, which help regulate brain function. But researchers don't know exactly what role these channels play in the brain or in disease. Because the newly discovered compounds are the first substances to block only R-type channels, they may enable researchers to target these channels and figure out how they can be manipulated in the treatment of disease.

This isn't the first time Neurex has turned to a toxic source. The company is in clinical trials with a treatment for chronic pain that uses a compound from the venom of a carnivorous marine snail.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top

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FOUR YEARS AGO, THE PENTAGON WORRIED THAT IT WAS too dependent on foreign producers for the flat-panel displays used in planes, tanks, and ships. So it joined with 100-odd companies to form the U.S. Display Consortium (USDC) to nurture a domestic flat-panel industry.

The gambit is about to pay off.

Early next year, dpiX Inc.'s Palo Alto (Calif.) factory will use USDC-developed tools to crank out 19-inch color displays that put Asia's big flat panels to shame, according to dpiX President Malcolm J. Thomson. The dpiX display, he says, is the first liquid-crystal display (LCD) to combine supersharp digital resolution with vivid colors, a wide viewing angle, and the ability to handle video images at 30 frames a second. Says David E. Mentley, a vice-president at market researcher Stanford Resources Inc.: "It's really, truly impressive."

Also impressive is the price: $10,000. But Thomson predicts deep price cuts as volume goes up, though it may take a couple of years to get to $2,000. The LCD technology stems from a $150 million research program at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, which spun off dpiX in 1996. USDC has plowed $100 million into honing production equipment. Now, a few USDC members are "making strong progress in penetrating Far East markets," says Thomson, who also chairs USDC.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNST Otis PortReturn to top

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