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University : Innovation + Job News

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U of M's first-in-nation indoor solar simulator helps pull in $2.4M in research funds

A new, first-in-the-nation indoor solar simulator at the University of Minnesota is already pulling in millions in research funding for the school.

The equipment is set up in a roughly ten-by-ten-foot space in a windowless room at the College of Science and Engineering. It uses seven high-watt bulbs, the kind you'd find behind a movie theater projector, and focuses them with a set of special reflectors.

The light that comes off the reflectors can match the intensity of 3,000 suns.

"It's really a 'wow' kind of thing, to see that you can put a plate of steel in front of it and burn a hole that's about an inch in diameter pretty quick," says Jane Davidson, a mechanical engineering professor and one of the lead solar researchers.

Davidson and others will use the simulator to try to develop new methods and technology for capturing and storing the sun's energy with chemical reactions. The extreme heat can be used to convert water and carbon dioxide into synthetic hydrocarbon fuels. The challenge is finding ways to do so that are both practical and economical.

"The power of the facility and the ability to control it are really amazing, and it's going to be a wonderful way for us to proceed, in a very controlled laboratory setting, to develop these solar reactors," says Davidson.

The simulator cost about $450,000, but it's already brought in a couple of big grants. University researchers have won nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.4 million  in grants from the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

Source: Jane Davidson, University of Minnesota
Writer: Dan Haugen

Steady State Imaging raises $250K to refine, commercialize MRI technology

A Minneapolis imaging company is hoping its MRI technology can become a magnet for investors.

Steady State Imaging recently disclosed that it's seeking to raise $4 million to continue refining and commercializing its technology, which enables MRI machines to image both soft and hard tissues. The fundraising round kicked off in October with the sale of $250,000 in equity, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The technology is a software platform called SWIFT (short for SWeep Imaging with Fourier Transformation), which was developed by Dr. Michael Garwood at the University of Minnesota's Center for Magnetic Resonance Research and can be installed on existing MRI machines, much like a firmware update can upgrade a cell phone or video game console.

Currently, MRI machines are good at imaging soft tissue in the body, such as your brain or muscles, but it's not the best option for imaging hard tissue like bone or cartilage. X-rays are still the most common method for imaging those harder tissues, despite the risks from ionizing (x-ray) radiation.

"Dr. Garwood's technique really broadens the applicability of MRI. It allows for really good imaging of hard and soft tissues," says Steady State Imaging CEO Danny Cunagin. "You can kind of think about his invention as combining an X-ray machine and an MRI machine in one device, without the ionizing radiation of X-rays."

Another benefit of the software is that it allows MRI machines to run much quieter than most do today, which makes it more patient-friendly, says Cunagin. It's currently for sale for in the pre-clinical market, and Cunagin says they expect to announce a clinical partner within the next three to four months.

Steady State Imaging was incorporated in 2005 and relaunched in 2008 under new leadership. It employs about half a dozen people at its office just west of downtown Minneapolis. Cunagin says the latest round of fundraising will allow the company to refine the software based on feedback from existing users, as well as prepare for commercialization in the clinical market.

Source: Danny Cunagin, Steady State Imaging
Writer: Dan Haugen

U of M apparel design professor explores future of everyday "smart clothing"

Could the clothing we wear someday help us monitor our heart rate, track our performance, or even recover from injuries?

That's the future Lucy Dunne is exploring as an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota's apparel design program

Dunne studies wearable technologies, sometimes referred to as "smart clothing." The term describes to clothing or accessories that incorporate come sort of electronic component.

It's an emerging field with a lot of interest but few products on the shelf so far. One example would be Nike shoes that can send information to an iPod or iPhone. Then there are tackier, or should we say more novel, applications, like the mp3 player jacket or light-up T-shirts.

More serious applications, though, revolve around sports and medicine. One challenge with integrating body monitoring technology into clothing, says Dunne, is that in order to pick up a quality signal, such as a heartbeat, most sensors need to be tightly affixed to the body, often with a strap or a patch.

"I was originally a clothing designer, and in clothing design you can't ask the consumer to make those kinds of compromises, where they're uncomfortable or they feel like they look weird," says Dunne. "So my interest is in translating those sensing techniques into everyday clothing."

Dunne recently received a garment-tech innovation award for her work studying how signal quality is affected by looser fitting clothing (or "Joint Sensing in Everyday Clothing: Analysis of Garment Ease and Signal Noise in a Garment-Integrated Optical Bend Sensor.")

The hope is that her work will one day lead to everyday smart clothing that does more than light up or play music.

Source: Lucy Dunne, University of Minnesota
Writer: Dan Haugen

U of M architecture student designs Ethiopian school to spur learning by curiosity

A University of Minnesota architecture grad student has designed a unique elementary school and clinic, and now he's part of a team that's raising money to build it in an Ethiopian village.

The project started when Andrew Blaisdell was connected through the College of Design with Wosen Kifle, a Minneapolis resident and Ethiopia native who was looking for help designing a facility for his family's land near Addis Ababa.

Blaisdell made the school project the centerpiece of his thesis, focusing specifically how a school could be designed to reflect changing technology and encourage learning through curiosity. His paper revolves around the theory that computers are going to make all information accessible to everyone within a couple of decades, and how that will change the role of a teacher.

The initial expectation was for a very modern, very Western-style building, but, says Blaisdell, "As you can see from the renderings I've put on the website, it's anything but western."

The open structure is made from compressed earth block, a labor-intensive but low-cost material that is widely available in the area. One of the centerpieces of the design is a wall of television-shaped cubby holes, where Blaisdell imagines students could place interesting things they discover to share with their peers.

Kifle has set up a nonprofit, and he and Blaisdell are trying to make the school a reality by raising $470,000 through its website, http://www.furischool.org.

Source: Andrew Blaisdell
Writer: Dan Haugen

NewWater announces University of Minnesota patent licensing deal

A local cleantech startup announced last week that it's signed a patent licensing agreement with the University of Minnesota.

NewWater was co-founded last year by two recent College of Science and Engineering  graduates, Joe Mullenbach and Alex Johansson. The licensing deal allows the company to move forward with its efforts to develop and commercialize an atrazine filter for drinking water that's based on university research.

"Having exclusive access to this intellectual property allows us to openly discuss our plans with potential development partners," says Mullenbach.

We wrote about NewWater earlier this summer after it was selected as a semifinalist in both the Minnesota Cup and Cleantech Open contests.

The University of Minnesota said in a press release that NewWater is the tenth startup spun off from its technology in the past 18 months. As part of the deal the school holds an equity stake in the company.

The technology is based on enzymes developed by University of Minnesota biochemist Lawrence Wackett and microbiologist Michael Sadowsky. The enzymes initiate a bacterial process that decomposes atrazine into harmless by-products, according to the announcement.

Atrazine is among the most widely used herbicides on the planet. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is re-evaluating atrazine in light of recent studies that have linked low levels of the chemical in drinking water to birth defects, low birth weights, and menstrual problems.

Mullenbach says NewWater's filter will be able to help municipalities save money and meet more stringent drinking water standards than is possible with the activated carbon filters currently used.

Source: Joe Mullenbach, NewWater
Writer: Dan Haugen


U of M biofuels spin-off BioCee raises $357,070 from investors

A biofuels company spun off from the University of Minnesota disclosed last week that it's raised more than $357,000 in investment capital.

BioCee, which was founded in 2007, is working on a method for creating liquid hydrocarbon fuel from bacteria, water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide.

The company also disclosed in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it is seeking to raise another $500,000 in the next year.

Co-founder Luca Zullo said it's the company's policy not to comment on fundraising and financial matters.

The company previously received a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as a $150,000 small business research grant from the National Science Foundation.

BioCee is also a semifinalist in this year's inaugural Cleantech Open North Central competition, which covers a seven-state region.

Source: U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
Writer: Dan Haugen

U of M student's database could aid the development of cancer drugs

A gene database developed at the University of Minnesota could help reduce the time and cost involved with vetting new cancer drugs.

The school is in the process of copyrighting the database, known as OncomiR, and has plans to license it to pharmaceutical companies and other researchers.

"Our final goal is to make this database the one-stop shop for any information related to this gene," says Rasik Phalak, 24, who created the database while earning a computer science masters degree.

OncomiR and Phalak are also semifinalists in the student division of this year's Minnesota Cup entrepreneurship contest.

As a graduate student, Phalak helped Dr. Subbaya Subramanian, a med school researcher, organize his data related to microRNA. MicroRNA is a gene type scientists think may contain clues about the causes of cancer growth.

OncomiR organizes all of Subramanian's data into a single database. Phalak also developed a web application that allows drug researchers to search via a web browser.

"With this, they'll get a good starting point, which will help to eventually reduce the time and the cost involved in the entire process," says Phalak, who plans to continue to populate and update the database.

Source: Rasik Phalak, OncomiR
Writer: Dan Haugen

DriveAlternatives iPhone app helps drivers find alternative fuel stations

Drivers looking to kick their gasoline habits can now get directions on their iPhones.

A new iPhone app by Minneapolis-based DriveAlternatives lets users search for and get directions to the nearest alternative fuel stations and carshares anywhere in the country.

The startup claims to have built the nation's largest database of its kind, compiling information from government and industry sources, as well as some 10,000 phone calls to fuel stations. The app's database covers biodiesel, E85 ethanol, hydrogen, compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as carshare locations.

CEO Kavi Turnbull started thinking about the problem five years ago while he was working for statewide DFL political campaigns, which tried to fill up on ethanol or biodiesel whenever possible. Turnbull's job included finding these types of fueling stations and relaying the information to staff out on the campaign trail.

It turned out to be a tricky and at times frustrating task. The Department of Energy hosted a searchable database on its website, but at the time much of the information was outdated or incorrect.

"I was just sick of bad data," says Turnbull.

Turnbull went on to earn an MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While studying there and interning at a venture capital fund he developed the business plan for DriveAlternatives.

The app is free to download. The company plans to make its money selling advertising and sponsorships to alternative fuel stations. The number of such stations is projected to surge from around 15,000 today to more than 1 million five years from now.

The app will count on crowdsourcing from users and station owners to help keep the database up to date. Turnbull expects the early adopters to include fleet operators, especially government agencies that require employees to use ethanol or other biofuels when available.

Source: Kavi Turnbull, DriveAlternatives
Writer: Dan Haugen
38 University Articles | Page: | Show All
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