UConn Health Logo Health

Technology Commercialization Services News

UConn Professor Synthesizing Pure Graphene, a ‘Miracle Material’

Published by UConn Today on August 29, 2017

Jessica McBride

Formed deep within the earth, stronger than steel, and thinner than a human hair. These comparisons aren’t describing a new super hero. They’re describing graphene, a substance that some experts have called “the most amazing and versatile” known to mankind.

UConn chemistry professor Doug Adamson, a member of the Polymer Program in UConn’s Institute of Materials Science, has patented a one-of-a-kind process for exfoliating this wonder material in its pure (unoxidized) form, as well as manufacturing innovative graphene nanocomposites that have potential uses in a variety of applications.

If you think of graphite like a deck of cards, each individual card would be a sheet of graphene. Comprised of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, graphene is a two-dimensional crystal that is at least 100 times stronger than steel. Aerogels made from graphene are some of the lightest materials known to man, and the graphene sheets are one of the thinnest, at only one atom thick – that is approximately one million times thinner than a human hair. Graphene is also even more thermally and electrically conductive than copper, with minimal electrical charge.

Because of these unique qualities, graphene has been a hot topic for academic researchers and industry leaders since it was first isolated from graphite in 2004. Since then, more than 10,000 scholarly articles have been published about the material. But of these publications, only Adamson’s discusses a proprietary process for manufacturing graphene in its pristine form.

What others are calling “graphene” is often actually graphene oxide that has been chemically or thermally reduced. The oxygen in graphene oxide provides a sort of chemical handle that makes the graphene easier to work with, but adding it to pristine graphene reduces the material’s mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties in comparison to unmodified graphene like the kind Adamson produces.

It also significantly increases the cost to manufacture the material. Oxidizing graphite requires adding expensive hazardous chemicals, such as anhydrous sulfuric acid and potassium peroxide, followed by a lengthy series of manipulations to isolate and purify the products, known as a chemistry workup. Adamson’s process doesn’t require any additional steps or chemicals to produce graphene in its pristine form.

“The innovation and technology behind our material is our ability to use a thermodynamically driven approach to un-stack graphite into its constituent graphene sheets, and then arrange those sheets into a continuous, electrically conductive, three-dimensional structure” says Adamson. “The simplicity of our approach is in stark contrast to current techniques used to exfoliate graphite that rely on aggressive oxidation or high-energy mixing or sonication – the application of sound energy to separate particles – for extended periods of time. As straightforward as our process is, no one else had reported it. We proved it works.”

Soon after the initial experiments by graduate student Steve Woltornist indicated that something special was happening, Adamson was joined by longtime collaborator Andrey Dobrynin from the University of Akron, who has helped to understand the thermodynamics that drive the exfoliation. Their work has been published in the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal ACS Nano.

A distinctive feature of graphene that seems like an obstacle to many – its insolubility – is at the heart of Adamson’s discovery. Since it doesn’t dissolve in liquids, Adamson and his team place graphite at the interface of water and oil, where the graphene sheets spontaneously spread to cover the interface and lower the energy of the system. The graphene sheets are trapped at the interface as individual, overlapping sheets, and can subsequently be locked in place using a cross-linked polymer or plastic.

Adamson began exploring ways to exfoliate graphene from graphite in 2010 with a grant from the Air Force to synthesize thermally conductive composites. This was followed in 2012 with funding from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award. Since then he has also been awarded a $1.2 million grant from the NSF Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future program and $50,000 from UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund program.

“Dr. Adamson’s work speaks not only to the preeminence of UConn’s faculty, but also to the potential real-world applications of their research,” says Radenka Maric, vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health. “The University is committed to programs like SPARK that enable faculty to think about the broader impact of their work and create products or services that will benefit society and the state’s economy.”

Graphene for Water Desalination

While stabilized graphene composite materials have countless potential uses in fields as varied as aircrafts, electronics, and biotechnology, Adamson chose to apply his technology to improving standard methods for the desalination of brackish water. With his SPARK funding, he is developing a device that uses his graphene nanocomposite materials to remove salt from water through a process called capacitive deionization, or CDI.

CDI relies on inexpensive, high surface area, porous electrodes to remove salt from water. There are two cycles in the CDI process: an adsorption phase where the dissolved salt is removed from the water, and a desorption phase where the adsorbed salts are released from the electrodes by either halting or reversing the charge on the electrodes.

Many materials have been used to create the electrodes, but none have proven to be a viable material for large-scale commercialization. Adamson and his industry partners believe that his simple, inexpensive, and robust material could be the technology that finally brings CDI to market in a major way.

“The product we are developing will be an inexpensive graphene material, with optimized performance as an electrode, that will be able to displace more expensive, less efficient materials currently used in CDI,” says Michael Reeve, one of Adamson’s partners and a veteran of various successful startups.

The team formed a startup called 2D Material Technologies, and they have applied for a Small Business Innovation Research grant to continue to commercialize Adamson’s technology. Eventually, they hope to join UConn’s Technology Incubation Program to advance their concept to market.

For more information on the UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, visit the Office of the Vice President for Research website. The deadline to submit a brief letter of intents to the 2017 UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund competition is Sept. 1.

Adamson, together with collaborators Andrey Dobrynin of the University of Akron and Hannes Schniepp of the College of William and Mary, previously conducted research that sparked the idea for this invention through support from the National Science Foundation as part of the Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future initiative: DMR1535412. This NSF program supports the federal government’s Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness. However, no resources from this previous award were used to fund product development or testing of the current prototype device.  

 

UConn Researchers: Dyes Detect Disease Through Heartbeat Signals

Published on phys.org on August 22, 2017

Jessica McBride

Vibrant tones of yellow, orange, and red move in waves across the screen. Although the display looks like psychedelic art, it’s actually providing highly technical medical information – the electrical activity of a beating heart stained with voltage-sensitive dyes to test for injury or disease.

These voltage-sensitive dyes were developed and patented by UConn Health researchers, who have now embarked on commercializing their product for industry as well as academic use.

Electrical signals or voltages are fundamental in the natural function of brain and heart tissue, and disrupted electrical signaling can be a cause or consequence of injury or disease. Directly measuring electrical activity of the membranes with electrodes isn’t possible for drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of their tiny size. In order to make the electrical potential visible, researchers use fluorescent voltage sensors, also known as voltage-sensitive dyes or VSDs, that make cells, tissues, or whole organs light up and allows them to be measured with microscopes.

Not all dyes respond to voltage changes in the same way, and there is a common trade-off between their sensitivity and speed. Slower dyes can be used for drug screening with high sensitivity, but they can’t measure the characteristics of rapid action potentials in some tissues, like cardiac cells. Fast dyes can be used to image action potentials, but they require expensive, customized instrumentation, and are not sensitive enough for crystal clear results on individual cells.

Professor of cell biology and director of UConn’s Center for Cell Analysis & Modeling, Leslie Loew and his team have developed new fast dyes that are also highly sensitive, eliminating the speed/sensitivity trade-off.

Moving Ideas Beyond the Lab

Loew and research associates Corey Acker and Ping Yan have devoted much of their careers to developing and characterizing fluorescent probes of membrane potential like voltage-sensitive dyes. The team has even been providing their patented fast dyes to fellow researchers for the past 30 years, but they only recently became interested in commercializing their work.

To learn more about the science of entrepreneurship, they took advantage of several of UConn’s homegrown programs. Loew and Acker’s first step into entrepreneurship began in the fall of 2016, when they were accepted into UConn’s National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. They credit the program with giving them a solid foundation to evaluate their technology and business strategy.

Launched in 2015, Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more university technologies along the commercialization continuum. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn provides participants with small seed grants and comprehensive entrepreneurial training.

“Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how UConn can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services with the right training,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful Connecticut entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the state economy.”

Dyes detect disease through heartbeat signals
Research associate Corey Acker, left, and cell biology professor Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

Acker says the program also helped them identify an exciting new market opportunity targeting pharmaceutical companies. These companies need dyes that are both fast and sensitive for high-throughput screening of potential therapeutic targets. In high-throughput drug screening, scientists create special cell lines, and then use advanced equipment to robotically apply different drugs to rotating dishes of cells. The cells are stained with a voltage-sensitive dye that displays any change in membrane potential or voltage after drug application with changes in fluorescence. Acker estimates that pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) spend over $10,000 on these dyes for each week-long study.

The dyes that Loew, Acker, and Yan develop will also allow drug companies to respond to new cardiac safety screening regulations from the Food and Drug Administration called CiPA (the Comprehensive in vitro Proarrythmia Assay).

CiPA regulations aim to establish better ways to detect side effects of new drugs that could cause a cardiac arrhythmia. In a key component of CiPA, screening is completed in cardiac cells with a realistic electrical heartbeat. The Loew team’s fast-sensitive dyes could offer drug companies more effective options than are currently available. Since CiPA applies to any new therapies from weight-loss drugs to allergy medications, Loew and Acker anticipate high demand for their technology.

“We initially joined the Accelerate UConn program to learn how to build a business so we could sell our existing fast dyes to other scientists like us. Instead, we ended up discovering an entirely new customer segment with greater potential and more urgent need,” says Acker. “We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in this elite program based right here at UConn.”

Gaining Outside Input

By following one of Accelerate UConn’s most important tenets to “get out of the building,” Acker conducted dozens of interviews with experts from industry who use VSDs for drug screening. They all expressed a need for dyes with improved sensitivity, faster speed, and fewer unwanted interactions or toxicity with the cells being tested.

Loew and his team were confident they could deliver.

Loew, Acker, and Yan’s new dyes improve on the current sensors used for , which involve a two-component system and energy transfer between the components. The researchers produce dyes that use a novel VSD system where energy transfer is more efficient, resulting in faster, more sensitive, and less toxic dyes.

Loew says that support from UConn’s entrepreneurship programs was pivotal in transforming their initial discovery from project to product.

Dyes detect disease through heartbeat signals
Research associate Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes, that cause cells, tissues, or whole organs to light up as a result of electrical impulses and allow this activity to be measured. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

“We learned so much from these programs, and we’re still reaping the benefits,” says Loew. “Targeting the right customer helped us gain additional research funding through UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, and encouraged us to form a startup, Potentiometric Probes, to advance our product towards the market.

“We’ve been supplying VSDs to hundreds of cardiac and neuroscience research labs for over 30 years,” he adds. “We’re hopeful that Potentiometric Probes will assure that this continues, especially now that the demand is high and new commercial sector applications are emerging.”

The team is currently developing a new website that will be a resource for researchers using these voltage imaging techniques. Once launched it will be accessible at www.potentiometricprobes.com.

Looking to the Future

Through their UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization funding, the team has been able to develop and test two new dyes, and they have conceptualized a few additional possibilities. One of their current prototypes is extremely promising, Loew says.

Loew and Acker are continuing to optimize their dyes and pursue follow-on funding to commercialize their products through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and BiopipelineCT, which is administered by Connecticut Innovations.

They have also continued to grow as entrepreneurs by participating in the CCEI Summer Fellowship. Potentiometric Probes was named a finalist in this program, and will compete for an additional $15,000 prize in the Wolff New Venture Competition, also administered by CCEI.

The team members hope that one day their dyes will have a major impact for both the pharmaceutical industry and fellow university researchers.

“As academics,” says Loew, “we don’t really think about money. We’re just happy to do our science and hope that it helps people one day. But considering the needs of an end user beyond other scientists will potentially lead to greater adoption of our discoveries, more funding for our projects, and ultimately more scientific breakthroughs. That’s a culture change worth considering.”

UConn Researchers: Dyes Detect Disease through Heartbeat Signals

Published by UConn Today on August 21, 2017

Jessica McBride

Vibrant tones of yellow, orange, and red move in waves across the screen. Although the display looks like psychedelic art, it’s actually providing highly technical medical information – the electrical activity of a beating heart stained with voltage-sensitive dyes to test for injury or disease.

These voltage-sensitive dyes were developed and patented by UConn Health researchers, who have now embarked on commercializing their product for industry as well as academic use.

Corey Acker, left, and Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Research associate Corey Acker, left, and cell biology professor Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Electrical signals or voltages are fundamental in the natural function of brain and heart tissue, and disrupted electrical signaling can be a cause or consequence of injury or disease. Directly measuring electrical activity of the membranes with electrodes isn’t possible for drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of their tiny size. In order to make the electrical potential visible, researchers use fluorescent voltage sensors, also known as voltage-sensitive dyes or VSDs, that make cells, tissues, or whole organs light up and allows them to be measured with microscopes.

Not all dyes respond to voltage changes in the same way, and there is a common trade-off between their sensitivity and speed. Slower dyes can be used for drug screening with high sensitivity, but they can’t measure the characteristics of rapid action potentials in some tissues, like cardiac cells. Fast dyes can be used to image action potentials, but they require expensive, customized instrumentation, and are not sensitive enough for crystal clear results on individual cells.

Professor of cell biology and director of UConn’s Center for Cell Analysis & Modeling, Leslie Loew and his team have developed new fast dyes that are also highly sensitive, eliminating the speed/sensitivity trade-off.

Moving Ideas Beyond the Lab

Loew and research associates Corey Acker and Ping Yan have devoted much of their careers to developing and characterizing fluorescent probes of membrane potential like voltage-sensitive dyes. The team has even been providing their patented fast dyes to fellow researchers for the past 30 years, but they only recently became interested in commercializing their work.

To learn more about the science of entrepreneurship, they took advantage of several of UConn’s homegrown programs. Loew and Acker’s first step into entrepreneurship began in the fall of 2016, when they were accepted into UConn’s National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. They credit the program with giving them a solid foundation to evaluate their technology and business strategy.

Launched in 2015, Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more university technologies along the commercialization continuum. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn provides participants with small seed grants and comprehensive entrepreneurial training.

“Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how UConn can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services with the right training,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful Connecticut entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the state economy.”

Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Research associate Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes, that cause cells, tissues, or whole organs to light up as a result of electrical impulses and allow this activity to be measured. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Acker says the program also helped them identify an exciting new market opportunity targeting pharmaceutical companies. These companies need dyes that are both fast and sensitive for high-throughput screening of potential therapeutic targets. In high-throughput drug screening, scientists create special cell lines, and then use advanced equipment to robotically apply different drugs to rotating dishes of cells. The cells are stained with a voltage-sensitive dye that displays any change in membrane potential or voltage after drug application with changes in fluorescence. Acker estimates that pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) spend over $10,000 on these dyes for each week-long study.

The dyes that Loew, Acker, and Yan develop will also allow drug companies to respond to new cardiac safety screening regulations from the Food and Drug Administration called CiPA (the Comprehensive in vitro Proarrythmia Assay).

CiPA regulations aim to establish better ways to detect side effects of new drugs that could cause a cardiac arrhythmia. In a key component of CiPA, screening is completed in cardiac cells with a realistic electrical heartbeat. The Loew team’s fast-sensitive dyes could offer drug companies more effective options than are currently available. Since CiPA applies to any new therapies from weight-loss drugs to allergy medications, Loew and Acker anticipate high demand for their technology.

“We initially joined the Accelerate UConn program to learn how to build a business so we could sell our existing fast dyes to other scientists like us. Instead, we ended up discovering an entirely new customer segment with greater potential and more urgent need,” says Acker. “We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in this elite program based right here at UConn.”

Gaining Outside Input

By following one of Accelerate UConn’s most important tenets to “get out of the building,” Acker conducted dozens of interviews with experts from industry who use VSDs for drug screening. They all expressed a need for dyes with improved sensitivity, faster speed, and fewer unwanted interactions or toxicity with the cells being tested.

Loew and his team were confident they could deliver.

Loew, Acker, and Yan’s new dyes improve on the current sensors used for drug screening, which involve a two-component system and energy transfer between the components. The researchers produce dyes that use a novel VSD system where energy transfer is more efficient, resulting in faster, more sensitive, and less toxic dyes.

Loew says that support from UConn’s entrepreneurship programs was pivotal in transforming their initial discovery from project to product.

“We learned so much from these programs, and we’re still reaping the benefits,” says Loew. “Targeting the right customer helped us gain additional research funding through UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, and encouraged us to form a startup, Potentiometric Probes, to advance our product towards the market.

“We’ve been supplying VSDs to hundreds of cardiac and neuroscience research labs for over 30 years,” he adds. “We’re hopeful that Potentiometric Probes will assure that this continues, especially now that the demand is high and new commercial sector applications are emerging.”

The team is currently developing a new website that will be a resource for researchers using these voltage imaging techniques. Once launched it will be accessible at www.potentiometrics.com.

Looking to the Future

Through their UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization funding, the team has been able to develop and test two new dyes, and they have conceptualized a few additional possibilities. One of their current prototypes is extremely promising, Loew says.

Loew and Acker are continuing to optimize their dyes and pursue follow-on funding to commercialize their products through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and BiopipelineCT, which is administered by Connecticut Innovations.

They have also continued to grow as entrepreneurs by participating in the CCEI Summer Fellowship. Potentiometric Probes was named a finalist in this program, and will compete for an additional $15,000 prize in the Wolff New Venture Competition, also administered by CCEI.

The team members hope that one day their dyes will have a major impact for both the pharmaceutical industry and fellow university researchers.

“As academics,” says Loew, “we don’t really think about money. We’re just happy to do our science and hope that it helps people one day. But considering the needs of an end user beyond other scientists will potentially lead to greater adoption of our discoveries, more funding for our projects, and ultimately more scientific breakthroughs. That’s a culture change worth considering.”

Loew previously conducted research through an award from the National Institutes of Health (R01 EB001963-32), which was in continuous operation for more than 30 years and provided all prior funding for the development of voltage-sensitive dyes. However, no resources from this previous award were used to fund product development or testing of the current technology.

UConn Program Gives College Students Real-World Experience

Published by the New Britain Herald on August 6, 2017

Charles Paullin

NEW BRITAIN – Two students from Central Connecticut are getting real-world experience while pursuing careers in their fields of interest.

Ethan Cope of Kensington and George Andrews of Terryville recently participated in the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP), a summer immersion fellowship program.

“It’s not your usual experience; there’s a lot more put onto you,” said Cope, who earned his master’s degree in microsystems analysis in June before beginning dental school at UConn.

“Because it was with a small startup, you were exposed to so many different fields” said Andrews, who is entering his junior year, majoring in biomedical engineering.

The 10-week program, consisting of 18 students sponsored by their respective academic departments and based at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building of the UConn health facility in Farmington, pairs Connecticut startup companies with UConn undergraduates, graduate and recent graduates.

“When you’re in kind of a startup environment and there’s less people in the company, you might be doing a lot more than what you initially expected,” said Cope. “You kind of open your mind and explore opportunities more openly.”

Cope worked with Oral Fluid Dynamics and tested how sterilization affected a membrane flux and salt rejection for a medical device that he wasn’t allowed to go into specifics on because the product is still in early stages of development.

This meant coordinating the effort to procure membranes from Yale University, testing them on the variable sterilization methods and then returning them to Yale for study on the findings.

“I never thought I might go into sales, but now I may,” said Andrews.

Andrews worked with Avitus Orthopedics in the sales department, coordinating its marketing effort and scheduling meetings with doctors to discuss the distribution of a unique bone harvesting device.

This involved taking a trip to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland to test the product and learning the technique of cold-calling doctors to sell the product.

Throughout the program, seminars were held.

The program culminated with a Research Day at the headquarters, where MaryJane Rafii, a leader in the biotech industry, gave a keynote speech.

UConn Professor: Light Show Dances To The Beat Of The Music

Published by the Hartford Courant

Rebecca Lurye

EAST HARTFORD — LED strips and twinkle lights flash constantly in the office of University of Connecticut professor Ed Large, just waiting for a beat to latch onto.

They’re controlled by a brain, an intelligent listening system designed by Large, who himself is partial to jazz and funk. He thinks his invention, Synchrony LED, which listens to music and creates real-time light shows, is too.

“If you play a rhythmically boring song. it’ll just go with the beat and it becomes boring really fast,” Large said of Synchrony’s lighting effects. “But if you listen to music that has an interesting rhythm, that’s when it does super interesting things.”

Large teaches psychological science and physics and directs UConn’s music dynamics laboratory. Synchrony, his first commercial product after 25 years of research, will be available for sale to the public this winter.

Synchrony works in the same way that people bounce their knees to a tune; the same way that mangroves full of fireflies in Southeast Asia blink their lights in unison; the same way that pacemaker cells all fire at once to make our hearts beat.

People, organisms and even cells have a natural rate of internal vibrations, or oscillations. This back-and-forth activity tends to sync up with surrounding vibrations. In humans, this is particularly effective with music, which explains how a snappy tune can set people tapping their toes, nodding their heads and harmonizing to the beat.

Synchrony does the same, just with patterns of light.

And the more Large learns about the way the brain perceives sound, the more intricate Synchrony’s effects will become, he said.

“At this stage of programming, we’re not going to compete with a light show that somebody spent two months programming,” he said. “But we will.”

Large began the project in October from the office he rents at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonproft manufacturing innovation hub on Pitkin Street. He launched a Kickstarter campaign in June and, by July 12, raised more than $60,000 to move into final engineering and production.

Large says he’s already seen interest from other companies interested in using his technology in their own sound-capturing products and apps, which is exactly what he was hoping for.

“One goal of this was to show off to them,” Large said.

Unlike other sound-activated light shows on the market — some of which sell for about $25 — Large’s nearly $200 version does not need to be programmed and its visuals go beyond flashing in time with every note.

Using a built-in microphone and an advanced neural network, it synchronizes its rhythms like the human brain does, intelligently translating songs into patterns that mimic the way we process music.

“We’re taking a flashing light and making it feel really good to watch,” said Dylan Reilly, chief technology officer for Large’s company, Oscilloscape.

A starter kit, including a controller box and one LED strip or two LED strings, will sell for $189.

Large says it all started with the desire to understand how the brain predicts and hears the beat of a song.

“It seems like it’s so easy and it’s so obvious. You listen to music, and there it is,” Large said. “But no one knew how it was done.”

In the early 1990s, he decided to go to graduate school to study in the then-novel field of music cognition.

Since then, his experiments have ranged far and wide, including finding a bonobo at the Jacksonville Zoo that was amenable to banging on a drum to a steady beat.

Large wanted to prove that apes could sense oscillations in music the same as humans, and the same as Snowball the dancing cockatoo, whose head-banging and high-kicking moves gained Youtube fame in the mid-2000s. The parrot was deemed the first animal capable of “beat induction,” or perceiving music and synchronizing body movements to it.

Large has moved on to another group of bonobos in Iowa, but his auditory research has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which issued him contracts worth $2.5 million.

The technology behind Synchrony was developed with significant grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, Large said.

He went through several iterations of the product itself. The first concept, wearable pins, were bad business — too costly to manufacture for the price people would be willing to pay. A second idea, rave gloves, was a bit too complicated.

Then he hit on LED strips.

“It was really captivating. When you see it happen, you just can’t take your eyes off it,” Large said. “So we decided that’s got to be the thing.” Large says he plans to send the first round of products to his backers in time for them to string up their Christmas trees.

And though holiday lighting was Large’s original concept, and it remains one of his favorites, he says Synchrony works best with songs that have some funk. The more complex the music, the more interesting the visuals.

When he was developing the system, Large played Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on repeat.

And no, he’s used to saying: That didn’t ruin the music.

“You could play that song for me every moment of the day.”

Growing UConn’s Research Enterprise with an Inclusive Approach

Published by UConn Innovation Portal on 7/27/2017

Jessica McBride

Dr. Radenka Maric, newly appointed Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health, intends to grow the university’s research enterprise by increasing strategic connections within and beyond the university’s walls.

“Collaboration is going to become the model of the future for scientists,” Maric explains. “I want to bring more faculty, companies, and foundations together on collaborative projects to grow UConn’s capabilities and increase our chances of receiving substantial funding for cutting-edge research. We cannot do that alone.”

UConn officials say it is Maric’s combination of scientific and industry expertise that sets her apart. Her unique career path has helped her facilitate strategic partnerships with diverse stakeholders, which is important given the highly competitive funding environment and uncertain federal budget for research.

“She has a proven track record as an innovative thought leader and world-class researcher in both corporate and academic environments, and is highly respected by fellow faculty, graduate students, and others within the UConn community” says Jeremy Teitelbaum, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at UConn. “We are thrilled to have someone with Radenka’s unique background and global perspective to lead UConn’s continued growth in research, scholarship, and creative initiatives.”

Maric began her research career at the Japan Fine Ceramics Center where she managed technology development for fuel cells, electronics, and biomaterials applications. From there she moved across the world to the U.S. to work in the private sector at nGimat Corporation (formerly known as Micro Coating Technologies), a leading manufacturer and innovator of engineered thin films and nanopowder technologies. After five years with nGimat, she took on a leadership role at the National Research Council of Canada’s Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation where she led efforts to develop a breakthrough thin film deposition technology that enables next generation semiconductor and advanced fuel cell materials production at significantly reduced costs and enhanced performance.

In addition to her current responsibilities at UConn, she is also the founder of a biotech startup based on her research.

As Vice President for Research, Maric wants to build on the momentum she has already seen at UConn since coming to the university in 2010 through the Eminent Faculty Initiative in Sustainable Energy program. Increased focus on partnerships with industry leaders in UConn’s areas of strength, additional entrepreneurial training for faculty and students that leads to startup creation, and bigger emphasis on large-scale, multi-institution grants all provide an excellent foundation for improving and promoting UConn’s status as a top public research university, says Maric.

“The amount of talent at UConn and UConn Health is staggering,” says Maric. “During my time here, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of energy put in to making the university better. I want to galvanize our best resources – our people – and leverage our state-of-art research infrastructure to enhance opportunities for collaborations.”

In the first weeks of her tenure as VPR, Maric has already begun to reach into all corners of the state’s flagship university to connect faculty and students with opportunities that can help UConn grow and benefit the state. Specific efforts will focus on linking researchers across schools, departments, and campuses to enable cross-disciplinary research that aligns with federal science and health initiatives, such as those for manufacturing technologies, microbiome research, and the National Institutes of Health’s recent BRAIN Initiative.

She recently met with faculty and students from the School of Dental Medicine at UConn Health to discuss many opportunities that exist at UConn to expose scientific researchers to commercialization and entrepreneurship in order to translate their lab discoveries into products on the market.

Maric has formulated initiatives to carry out her ambitious mission including efforts that:

  • Utilize emerging data on federal funding priorities to align and promote UConn research capacity and increase UConn’s research competiveness based on these trends.
  • Enable and empower faculty to focus on large-scale global research opportunities with corporate and foundation partners.
  • Convene cross disciplinary research teams able to target and cultivate relationships with other academic institutions, national labs, industry, and government partners to build new comprehensive strategic partnerships.
  • Facilitate strong communications, dialogue, and coordination to foster an exciting intellectual environment that encourages new engagement among different schools.
  • Increase external promotions that demonstrate the unique value and capacity of UConn research, with particular emphasis in areas of interest to funding agencies, foundations, and industry.
  • Provide faculty with access to industry mentors, information about market opportunities, and seed funding to align their academic research projects with industry priorities and increase the quantity of UConn inventions.

“We want to grow our faculty; we want to grow our students; and we want to grow an increasingly strong portfolio of companies that are associated with UConn through the future Innovation Partnership Building (IPB) and other initiatives like the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP),” says Maric. “We want partners that will help us build specific research clusters as part of a consortium model to show that we have the critical mass to lead.”

Prior to her role as VPR, Maric served as executive director of UConn’s IPB. Her ability to build fundamental and applied research and technology commercialization capabilities with a keen eye towards government, industry, and academic interests has been instrumental to the $132 million project. Her leadership has already leveraged more than $80 million in industry and federal agency projects.  The IPB is scheduled to open its doors to industry and academic researchers in the fall of 2017. As VPR, the IPB will remain within the scope of Maric’s responsibilities and extends her ability to connect UConn with startups and industry leaders.

In addition to being responsible for managing successful partnerships with General Electric, Comcast, UTC Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney and Eversource that are key to the IPB,  Maric has a history of creating collaborations between UConn and industry, such as sponsored projects with United Technologies Research Center, Sonalysts, Proton OnSite, NGK Spark Plugs, Advent Technologies, Cabot, and Danbury-based FuelCell Energy.

“Dr. Maric is fluent in many languages, but one of the most important languages she speaks is that of industry,” says Dr. Hossein Ghezel-Ayagh, Director of Advanced Technology at FuelCell Energy and one of Maric’s frequent collaborators. “We’re looking forward to continuing our partnership with her, since she understands first-hand the needs of industry and the potential gain for all involved when researchers with diverse backgrounds and complementary strengths, such as industry and academic scientists, innovate together.”

Continuing to consider UConn’s impact throughout the state, Maric is also currently serving on CTNext’s Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group composed of leaders from in-state public and independent colleges and universities. The group is drafting a master plan that aims to facilitate collaboration and cooperation, identify funding opportunities, establish a state-wide intercollegiate business plan competition, and scale existing or emergent programs at institutions of higher education around the state.

Beyond science and technology, Maric is committed to supporting the arts, social sciences and humanities by facilitating partnerships and sponsorships for creative projects, concerts, and exhibits. She also hopes to encourage interactions between faculty from non-STEM fields like digital media and design with those from scientific disciplines like engineering. She is confident that these connections will lead to positive impacts for faculty, students, and the state.

“Connecticut has made a significant investment in UConn aimed at building infrastructure, improving education, and training the states’ future workforce. UConn’s research enterprise is a critically important part of making sure this happens,” says Maric. “It helps drive Connecticut’s innovation economy by forging important partnerships, commercializing life-saving technologies, supporting entrepreneurship, and preparing talented graduates for high-wage jobs.”

Maric earned her BS in materials science from the University of Belgrade, and her MS and PhD in materials science and energy from the University of Kyoto. Her research interests include nanomaterials and thin films, the effect of structure, defects, and microstructure on transport and electrical properties of surfaces and interfaces. In particular, she is interested in developing novel materials for fuel cells, batteries, and biomaterials. Maric has been invited to give keynote addresses at numerous international conferences, was named the Connecticut Technology Council’s Woman of Innovation in 2016, and was selected to be a Fulbright Scholar at Politecnico Di Milano in Italy in 2016-2017. She has authored over 100 journal publications and holds four patents.

UConn Incubator Company’s Cardiovascular Connected Healthcare Provides A Solution for AFIB

Published by Med Device Online on 7/19/2017

Bob Marshall

Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib, according the American Heart Association (AHA). A worldwide study of AFib epidemiology from 1990 to 2010 estimated its prevalence at 33.5 million males and 12.6 million females in the year 2010.

During AFib, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) do not beat effectively to move blood into the ventricles, which can result in clotting. If a resulting clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia, and this clot risk is why patients with AFib are often put on blood thinners.

The AHA provides these examples of how patients have described their experience:

“My heart flip-flops, skips beats, and feels like it’s banging against my chest wall, especially if I’m carrying stuff up my stairs or bending down.”

“I was nauseated, light-headed, and weak. I had a really fast heartbeat and felt like I was gasping for air.”

“I had no symptoms at all. I discovered my AF at a regular check-up.”

This third example is most troubling – due to a lack of symptoms and the intermittent nature of AFib, many people are unaware they have a serious condition that doubles the risk of heart-related death and is associated with a 5X increased risk for stroke. In addition, the prevalence of AFib increased by nearly five percent between 1990 and 2010, and the mortality rate doubled during the same time period, according to the above study.

Historical means of detecting AFib have included traditional electrocardiographs (ECGs) used during stress tests, Holter monitors, and event monitors. Holter monitors are portable ECGs worn to measure and record heart activity, continuously, over a period of 24-48 hours. The recordings then are reviewed by medical professionals to look for occurrences of AFib. Event monitors are used over a longer period of time (up to 30 days), and they are triggered by the patient when that patient experiences an irregularity, or “flutter,” and pushes a button to note the sensation. Recordings from just prior to the trigger are sent to medical professionals, who review the irregularity experienced by the patient and recommend further action, if necessary.

These means of monitoring are able to help identify whether a patient is experiencing AFib in some cases, but given the intermittent nature of the condition, such devices’ use for limited amounts of time can fail to capture proof of the cardiac rhythm problem. The electrodes attached to the skin can cause irritation — especially in the case of an event monitor, where the electrodes have to be removed and replaced every day or two over a period of several weeks. Additionally, it is a nuisance to remove Holter and event monitors for showering and bathing, and subsequently to reconnect them.

Cardiovascular Connected Healthcare Provides A Solution

All of these challenges led Dr. David A. McManus, an electrophysiologist and cardiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, to research with his colleagues and develop an alternative device. McManus is clinical director for Mobile Sense Technologies in Farmington, CT, as well as inventor of the company’s SensBand. The SensBand, claims to fill the gap between short duration adhesive monitors and long duration sub-cutaneous implants. It connects with the patient’s smartphone to provide continuous monitoring for AFib, and to enable data sharing with the patient’s doctor. Connected cardiovascular care provides a means to better engage patients in managing their own care, and is aimed at producing value-based outcomes. Detecting and monitoring AFib reduces stroke risk, improves the quality of life for patients, and reduces the overall cost of healthcare.

In 2013, McManus published in HeartRhythm the article A Novel Application for the Detection of an Irregular Pulse using an iPhone 4S in Patients with Atrial Fibrillation. In the piece, he describes a clinical study of 76 adult subjects with persistent AFib. Pulsatile time series recordings were obtained before and after cardioversion using an iPhone 4S camera. A novel smartphone application conducted real-time pulse analysis using 2 different statistical methods. The sensitivity, specificity, and predictive accuracy of both algorithms were examined using the 12-lead electrocardiogram as the gold standard. An algorithm combining the 2 statistical methods demonstrated excellent sensitivity (0.962), specificity (0.975), and accuracy (0.968) for beat-to-beat discrimination of an irregular pulse during AFib from sinus rhythm.

The application was further evaluated in a study of 2000 people in India. McManus has stated that his goal is simple. He wants to keep people with AFib living longer and living well. “If the disease is diagnosed in time, it can go from life-threatening to an inconvenience – something you die with, not from,” he said.

UConn Biologist Takes New Tack Against Herpes Virus

Published by Hartford Business Journal on July 10, 2017

Matt Pilon

Herpes is more common than you might think.

The virus’ various forms affect most people, though they are often unaware. Herpes can remain dormant in healthy people but sometimes lead to serious or fatal conditions in infants or those with weak immune systems.

While there are no cures for the various forms of herpes, antiviral drugs do exist to curb its effects but there is a constant search for new remedies.

Among the researchers searching for answers is UConn Health biologist Sandra Weller, who chairs UConn’s molecular biology and biophysics department. Her lab is researching treatments for a form of herpes called Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious problems in newborns, including developmental disabilities and deafness, as well as infections in organ and marrow transplant patients. It’s estimated that more than half of adults have been infected with CMV by age 40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An antiviral drug does exist to treat CMV patients — Ganciclovir — but some can build a resistance to it and the drug can also cause kidney problems.

Weller spent decades researching treatments for the more well-known genital herpes virus, but she shifted gears recently at the urging of a fledgling state-backed program called PITCH (Program in Innovative Therapeutics), launched by Yale and UConn to facilitate collaboration among researchers and venture capitalists and to speed promising drug compounds into the commercial pipeline.

“We consider [CMV] as having a larger unmet clinical need,” Weller said in a recent interview.

She and her team are targeting a particular protein that is believed to be essential for CMV to replicate itself. The goal is to find a natural or synthetic compound that can restrain the protein and prevent dormant CMV infections from reactivating.

Weller is working with Yale’s Center for Molecular Discovery because the school has a large library of drug molecules and enough capacity to work on multiple projects.

Last month, researchers at that lab began running a series of tests on Weller’s targeted protein using high-end equipment in a process called “high throughput screening.”

At the conclusion of their work, Yale researchers will tell Weller which compounds reacted with the targeted protein.

The screening services provided by Yale aren’t cheap. Weller would have had to seek funding to pay for them if it weren’t for PITCH, which received $10 million in late 2015 from the Connecticut Bioscience Fund, administered by Connecticut Innovations.

The technology originated at pharmaceutical companies and started becoming more common in higher education 20 years ago.

Market potential

While Yale could vastly narrow down the list of potential promising compounds, their findings won’t be quite ready for prime time.

From there the work will shift back to UConn, where Dennis Wright, a professor of medicinal chemistry and co-founder of PITCH, will assess the compounds and tweak their structures with the aim of making them more potent drug candidates.

“It’s about starting to put together a package of data that would make a compelling case to investors looking for an early stage opportunity,” Wright said.

Weller has already formed a company called Quercus. Her younger brother Brad Weller, an attorney who has worked for public companies, is CEO.

Should her research progress far enough, Quercus would license the intellectual property from UConn. If she gets an antiviral drug to market, Connecticut Innovations would receive royalty payments for its investment. There are several big pharmaceutical companies in phase 3 trials for CMV drugs, though they are targeting different proteins, Weller said.

Because CMV is a more complex strain of the herpes virus, Weller is hoping that whatever she develops might also be effective against other, simpler forms.

She likens members of the virus to cars. They all have the same core parts, but some, like CMV, have added features.

“It’s got a sunroof and a retractable antenna,” she said.

That makes CMV harder to work with, but offers a potentially more promising payoff.

Banned Invasive Plant Returning as Environmentally Safe Thanks to UConn Researcher

Published by Times Union on July 5, 2017

Brian Nearing

For the last two years, customers  have come into Faddegon’s Nursery asking Manager Randy Herrington for Japanese barberry, a popular landscaping shrub with pretty flowers.

And they have left disappointed, as Herrington has had to tell them the plant is an invasive species, banned from sale in the state since the spring of 2015.

Now, the barberry — one of 11 plants on the state’s banned invasives list — will be returning to nurseries, likely next year, thanks to research from the University of Connecticut that renders new variants of the plant sterile. Without seeds, the plant is unable to spread.

“We won’t have them now, but I expect by spring 2018, we will,” said Herrington. “It was a pretty big part of the landscaping market before the ban.”

Known scientifically as berberis thundbergii, barberries are spiny shrubs that are attractive, easy to grow and that deer do not like to eat, making them a popular choice with landscapers and homeowners.

Last month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation approved sales of four sterile versions of barberry, as well as sterile versions of two other regulated invasive plants, Chinese silvergrass and Winter Creeper.

That was welcome news to the New York State Nursery and Landscape Association, said Melissa Daniels, who is chairwoman of the group’s advocacy committee.

Her group had encouraged DEC, when the state adopted its invasive species ban, to leave open an exemption for so-called “sterile cultivars,” which means plants that do not produce seeds and consequently, eliminate the risk of seeds being spread by birds, other animals and water.

Such spread is a problem with barberry, where birds eat the bright red seeds each fall, and then move undigested seeds in droppings to sprout in new areas, such as fields and forests. There, the plants out-compete native species by crowding out sunlight and changing soil chemistry, which establishes new colonies that allow for continued spread.

By crowding out seedlings on the forest floor, barberry also can prevent forests from regrowing normally, according to DEC.  This concern also led to the banning of barberry sales in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

While the new barberry plant would end this aspect of continued expansion, it will not keep the seeds from existing patches of fertile barberry from spreading into new areas.

Daniels said that barberry, which arrived in the U.S. as an ornamental plant in 1875 when seeds were shipped to Boston from St. Petersburg, Russia,  was a “very important commercial species” in New York.

An environmental group that sits on the state’s Invasive Species Advisory Committee also said the new plant should not pose a threat.

“Of course, we still encourage homeowners to plant native, non-invasive species,” said Troy Weldy, director of ecological  management for The Nature Conservancy.

Some alternatives include smokebush, eastern ninebark, weigela, and old fashioned weigela.

Weldy said the return of Japanese barberry will also require “honest labeling” by plant sellers, since the average homeowner cannot distinguish between a fertile and sterile barberry. “Our concern is that some people could again begin selling the non-sterile barberries. That could be a challenge,” he said.

The University of Connecticut recently obtained U.S. patents on four infertile, seedless barberry varieties created by researcher Mark Brand.

The university has an agreement with a Connecticut-based plant grower, Prides Corner Farms, to grow and sell the new varieties.

Prides Corner will be the supplier to Faddegons, said Herrington. “It will take them a while to propagate enough plants,” he said.

Another university researcher is seeking a patent for a sterile version of another popular landscaping plant, the burning bush. With the scientific name of euonymous alatus, this plant is also popular with homeowners for its vivid red autumn foliage.

As a state-regulated plant, it can be sold in New York, but must be labeled as an invasive species that is “harmful to the environment.”

Herrington said that once an infertile burning bush is approved, that plant will also be sold at his nursery.

Barberry has also been linked to increased tick habitat, because the plants provide ground cover to mice, which can carry ticks, and also maintain higher humidity levels that ticks need to avoid drying out, said Weldy.

More ticks increases the risk of transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-born illnesses.

Weldy said barberry needs to be present in dense stands to encourage higher tick populations. A few plants around a typical home likely would not be a risk, although the plants could provide cover for mice, he said.