UMass announces $250,000 in Technology Development Fund awards

BOSTON - New technologies aimed at reducing patients’ and health-care workers’ exposure to drug-resistant bacteria, detecting important ocean data, and determining genetic disorders linked to autism and other medical conditions could get closer to market thanks to $250,000 in seed funding announced today by University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan.

Ten faculty research projects will each receive up to $25,000 from the Technology Development Fund, which helps to commercialize scientific breakthroughs throughout the five-campus University of Massachusetts. The fund is overseen by the Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures (OTCV) at the UMass President’s Office in Boston.  

“As a public research university, UMass has a duty to drive innovation that strengthens the socio-economic fabric of our communities, nation, and world,” said President Meehan. “With these grants, we’re investing in world class faculty who are carrying out our mission through their cutting-edge discoveries, attracting the highest quality collaborators, and bringing the results of research to the marketplace.”  

The Technology Development Fund awards provide supplemental funding to help close the gap between UMass research discoveries and proven technology that address the most pressing issues facing the region, the nation, and the world, often laying the groundwork for major breakthroughs.

“These faculty projects showcase how UMass continues to realize long-term growth and achievement in its commercialization enterprise,” said Carl Rust, Executive Director of Industry Engagement and Business Development, who oversees the OTCV initiative.  

The UMass system drives discovery and economic growth throughout the state, conducting $752 million in annual research and development in fields critical to the Commonwealth’s economy. Pre-pandemic, the university generated $7.5 billion in statewide economic activity – a 10-to-1 return on investment by the Commonwealth.  UMass supports close to 50,000 jobs in Massachusetts, including nearly 18,000 faculty and staff members and more than 30,000 private sector jobs.  

Since 2004, UMass has invested nearly $3 million in faculty R&D projects through the Technology Development Fund. Projects are chosen for their commercial viability, in hopes that development of the technology will lead to a startup company or licensing agreement. Funding for the annual awards comes from commercial licensing income on previous faculty discoveries.

UMass continues to have a strong record of generating income from the commercialization of its academic research – $257 million over the last five years – and typically places among the top 25 universities in a national survey of income generated by technology transfer.  

This year’s recipients of the $25,000 Technology Development Fund awards are as follows:

Carlos Gradil, DVM, MS, PhD, DACT, Department of Veterinary & Animal Sciences - UMass Amherst 

This project is advancing a new ‘frameless’ magnetic contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) based on physics and specifically designed to conform to a female’s body. The long-acting magnetic device offers the same efficacy as current IUDs, but with greater safety, easy insertion and removal, and reduced pain risks without the need for strings. The modified devices will include traditional copper coatings to make these IUDs capable of providing a reliable, nonhormonal contraception option.

Alexander Suvorov, PhD, & Richard J. Pilsner, PhD, Department of Environmental Health Sciences - UMass Amherst

The team is examining how advanced paternal age at fertilization is a risk factor for many health conditions in offspring, including neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders and different forms of cancer. Researchers have developed a therapeutic intervention that resets encoded epigenetic information of sperm into a younger state. Significant demand is anticipated for these therapies that will restore “young” epigenetic program in sperm of older men to ensure healthy offspring.  

Adam Grabell, PhD, and Tauhidur Rahman, PhD, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences - UMass Amherst

The team has created EarlyScreen, a lab-based game and algorithm that detects the presence of psychological disorders in preschool children with a high degree of accuracy compared to commonly used diagnosis tools. Psychological disorders emerging in the first few years of life often persist across later developmental stages and into adulthood, resulting in significant impairment and societal costs. The emerging signs of psychological disorders are difficult to differentiate from normative misbehavior in early childhood, creating a “when to worry” problem for caregivers and providers. EarlyScreen’s algorithm automatically extracts features such as facial expressions, gaze, and head movement from video footage.

Amit Tandon, PhD, Department of Mechanical Engineering - UMass Dartmouth

There is a growing need for inexpensive devices that detect important subsurface ocean data (e.g., temperature, salinity, currents) in the upper ocean. The Aurelia is a unique simple-to-use low-cost design advancing the work done by a UMass Dartmouth senior design team, mentored and guided by Dr. Tandon. Aurelia features a low-cost depth control system to allow several dive/surface trips, an Android graphical interface for mission planning over Bluetooth, a mobile radio antenna for retrieval, and a smart charging system for quick re-deployment.  

Milana C. Vasudev, PhD, Department of Bioengineering - UMass Dartmouth

The team is developing a novel high-throughput screening (HTS) technique which will use a photonic crystal surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) substrate to detect exosomes shed by ovarian cancer cells. Electromagnetic enhancement using photonic crystals can enhance the SERS detection as compared to traditional methods. 

Mingdi Yan, PhD, Department of Chemistry - UMass Lowell

We discovered a new antimicrobial formulation that is potent against multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacteria. The formulation consists of gold compounds and has several unique features, including broad-spectrum antimicrobial activities that are active against both Gram-negative and Gram-positive pathogens. They are also active against SARS-CoV-2, making them superior candidates in the fight against "superinfections." Researchers’ long-term goal is to complete development of this technology to a stage where it can be licensed and brought through final development and clinical trials, resulting in a therapy for treating serious MDR infections where the current antibiotics are ineffective.

Weile Yan, PhD, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering - UMass Lowell

The project aims to develop sustainable solutions that meet the critical need for more efficient lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) recycling technologies amid the growth of the electric vehicle (EV) market and a surging wave of spent batteries awaiting disposal. Less than 5 percent of waste LIBs in the U.S. are being recycled. At the core of the technology is an electrodialysis device equipped with customized Li-selective polymeric electrolyte membranes running on a low-voltage DC that can be readily supplied by renewable energy sources. The system is able to convert battery waste mixture (i.e., black mass) to salts of cobalt, nickel, and lithium, or mixed-metal ingredients for efficient battery re-manufacturing. 

Yuyu Sun, PhD, Department of Chemistry - UMass Lowell

The project team has invented a new technology using N-halamine – a biocide with proven germ-killing property – to reduce the occupational burden of exposure by protecting health care staff from harmful microorganisms that can cause various infections. This discovery treats hospital garments worn by nurses and other health care personnel with the special antimicrobial function that can be easily monitored and recharged as needed, preventing serious complications among patients due to cross-contamination. The success of the proposed project will make the new technology more attractive for medical textiles and a wide range of other applications and more mature for commercialization.

Jie Song, PhD, Department of Orthopedics and Physical Rehabilitation - UMass Chan Medical School

The team has developed StaphShield, a metallic implant-coating capable of on-demand release of antibiotics to prevent biofilm formation and bone infection caused by S. aureus, a type of bacteria found on human skin. The technology provides timely release of antibiotics to kill the bacteria before they have a chance to colonize the implant or invade surrounding bone. Researchers aim to tailor the StaphShield formulation as off-the-shelf dip-coatings where the drug load could be conveniently adjusted based on different clinical needs and the coating could be consistently applied to commercial implants by medical staff without altering implant manufacturing. 

Joel D. Richter, PhD, Department of Molecular Medicine - UMass Chan Medical School

The Richter Lab team is researching Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), a genetic disorder that is the most common inherited form of intellectual impairment and most frequent single gene cause of autism worldwide. FXS is caused by a CGG triplet repeat expansion in the gene FMR1, resulting in the absence of the RNA binding FMRP. Children with FXS and an FMR1 mutation may have speech and development delays, hyperactivity, aggression, epilepsy, and other health issues. The team’s technology has discovered that white blood cells from FXS individuals 1 have altered RNA splicing, which serves as a statistically robust blood biomarker for the disorder that could facilitate the development of new therapeutic inventions to treat the disease.

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