University recognizes UD inventors

The University of Delaware recognized more than 225 inventors on campus for their efforts and contributions toward innovation and commercialization on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

The event, held at the Roselle Center for the Arts and coordinated by the UD Research Office, brought together researchers with inventions in engineering, health care, energy, transportation, agriculture, computer science and many other fields.

“A lot of you work in laboratories or out in the field — sometimes alone, usually without a lot of fanfare or attention, almost always without any guarantee of success. Yet that’s exactly where these innovations begin,” UD President Dennis Assanis said to the inventors in attendance. “We value what you do because invention, innovation and entrepreneurship are essential to our institutional mission, as well as to the prosperity and security of our society.”

The process, from invention to market entry, can take years and inventors — and inventions — often fail many times before they succeed. It is in these darker moments where dedication, diligence and determination can transform ideas into inventions with practical purpose that can improve people’s lives.

The Association of University Technology Managers reports that innovations developed at American universities in a recent 20-year period directly contributed nearly $600 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product and created or supported more than 4.3 million jobs.

UD innovations in the marketplace

Innovation is in high gear at UD. According to Charlie Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation, UD researchers have generated more than 500 inventions and secured 200 patents since 2008.

During the past year, the University’s research community expended more than $145 million in sponsored research grants to investigate pressing topics across the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences that are destined to yield more discoveries and inventions.

“The ongoing role of our Research Office team is to support UD’s research and innovation community in the most effective ways we can,” Riordan said. “Inventors on campus play many critical roles at UD. They create solutions to challenges, foster a strong spirit of entrepreneurship and inspire our students to dream big, to put their ideas into action and contribute to a better future.”

Several UD technologies had success in the marketplace during the past year. Among the highlights are:

Vehicle-to-grid technology (V2G) — Invented at UD, this technology makes it possible for electric vehicles to draw and discharge energy back to the power grid. The software technology aggregates all vehicles plugged into the system so that they perform in unison, helping to balance the grid’s supply of electricity with real-time demand. The V2G technology, which UD sold to Nuvve Corporation, currently is being put into service in several areas of the world, including in Delaware, Denmark, the Netherlands the United Kingdom and France. Nuvve expanded its reach to Japan earlier this year, partnering with energy providers and automakers there on a new V2G demonstration project. Closer to home, Nuvve is collaborating on a large-scale demonstration project with University of California San Diego. On the research front, advances continue in both software and hardware, as evidenced by a 2018 patent awarded to Willett KemptonFouad Kiamilev, Rodney McGee and Nicholas Waite for electric vehicle station equipment for grid-integrated vehicles.

Beneficial bacterium — Basic research aimed at providing safe, effective tools for agricultural growers led to the discovery of a beneficial microbe that can help plants fight fungal disease. Developed by UD’s Harsh Bais and Janine Sherrier, a former UD-faculty member now at University of Georgia, the UD-patented microbe is a unique strain of Bacillus subtilis, a natural, beneficial bacterium that lives on the surface of roots and the surrounding soil, or rhizosphere, that helps boost the protection of seedlings and plants from disease and promotes root growth. Today, the UD-discovered microbe is exclusively licensed by BASF and used in agricultural products, such as fungicides for soybeans and corn. A product involving the UD-patented microbe is in market for legume crops, and the microbe also may have potential applications in horticulture and forestry. Building on this work, Bais and UD colleague Yan Jin have acquired an invention disclosure for research using a strain of the beneficial microbe to increase water retention in soil to mitigate drought.

Medical training devices — Founded by Amy Cowperthwait, Avkin is a leading manufacturer of sensor-enabled, high-fidelity, wearable technology for healthcare simulation education. The patented devices are used for training healthcare workers and caregivers to perform clinical procedures, such as drawing blood, tracheostomy care or catheter insertion. Designed to be worn by a live actor, Avkin products provide a realistic, patient-centered simulation. Today, the UD-developed products can be found in select medical and nursing schools and health systems. Cowperthwait recently was an invited guest on a special edition of the Dr. Oz show, where she demonstrated Avkin’s first product, the Avtrach (for tracheotomy care) for Oz and Shark Tank’s Daymond John. Additional Avkin devices are in final testing and in development, and an Avkin team secured a patent for additional medical treatment simulation devices this year.

Shear Thickening Fluid (STF) — Pioneered at UD, shear thickening fluid is a smart material that can change from a liquid to a solid in response to mechanical stress or shear. In other words, the material moves like a liquid until an object strikes or agitates it forcefully. Co-developed by UD’s Norman Wagner and STF Technologies, the company he co-founded with UD alum Richard Dombrowski, the technology was originally developed as an armor technology, due to its puncture- and ballistic-resistance. It has been incorporated in materials including body armor, NASA flight suit development and, most recently, a sports bra with Reebok called PureMove, which made headlines with media outlets including Fast Company this summer. The innovative material, trademarked as STF-Armor, adds little weight to the fabric and does not reduce its flexibility. Other potential uses for STF technology include applications in inflatable space habitats, as well as protective equipment, firefighting and law enforcement gear, industrial gloves and hazmat suits.

UD infrastructure supports innovation

According to David Weir, director of UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP), the nation needs its universities to act as economic development engines, now more than ever.

Continued growth of UD’s Science, Technology and Advance Research (STAR) Campus through strategic partnerships and infrastructure development will firmly position the University as an innovation powerhouse that contributes to the prosperity of our community, state and region. Similarly, resources in place to support innovators on campus, such as OEIP, Horn Entrepreneurship and new and existing research facilities are also important.

But building physical capital must be complemented with investments in intellectual capital, Weir said.

“You and your inventions occupy an important position in the process that leads from the laboratory to the marketplace,” Weir said. “But even more, you are essential to the culture we are creating here at UD. We need to populate our campus with creative people. Through you, it will spread to fellow faculty and students.”

As the formal part of the event ended, attendees gathered for a group photo before scattering to catch up with old friends and colleagues or to meet new inventors on campus. It’s the kind of chance encounter that could spark new innovations, reignite memories or lead to fresh business, partnership or collaboration ideas.

Engineering colleagues Jenni Buckley and Sarah Rooney talked amicably about finding meaningful projects that can help future engineers enrolled in Senior Design, a one-semester capstone engineering design program, that enables students to test their innovative mettle.

“The only advantage I have over my students as an inventor is that I’ve been on this earth longer and I’ve seen more things, so I have a bigger library of ideas to pull from,” said Buckley.

She especially likes connecting students from different years on a single project. Since innovation doesn’t come with an age restriction, Buckley once polled approximately 800 freshmen in her engineering courses for ideas to resolve a mechanical device challenge that a team of seniors were tackling for their capstone project. “It was like crowdsourcing for early stage concepts, and one of those concepts actually worked out,” said Buckley.

Nearby,  Melinda Duncan, professor of biological sciences, reflected on how specific research can have far flung applications and live on in ways the inventor might never conceive. About a decade ago, Duncan patented a method to easily detect a protein in the human body called PROX1, which is important to the development of the eye lens. At the time, there was nothing commercially available in the market to do this. Today, the UD-developed technology is licensed to several companies and is used routinely throughout the world.

“When we were doing this work, we were wholly focused on the ocular lens, but this basic science…turned out to be really important in cancer, diabetes, lymphedema,” Duncan said. “So even though my work has moved in a different direction, my contributions are still regularly viable and helpful to people.”

Not all inventions go to market, of course, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go anywhere.

Delphis Levia, professor of ecohydrology and chairman of the Department of Geography, co-invented a laser instrument to measure the surface roughness of cylindrical objects some years ago. He and two co-inventors (Matthew Jarvis and John Van Stan, a former doctoral student) got a provisional patent and it proved a useful research instrument in a field setting, he said, but, despite a know-how licensing agreement, it never caught on commercially.

You never know where inventive ideas might go, though, and Levia’s ecohydrology students, past and present, are pursuing new understandings of ecohydrological processes to help address the world’s water crisis.

“We need better models and we need more knowledge about the process,” he said. “What are the measurement methods? What are the sampling protocols?”

He said the involvement of undergraduate students in research and innovation is powerful in every respect and an essential step to finding solutions in the future.

“As a first-generation college student myself, I know if I had not had that encouragement I would never have been a professor,” he said. “To involve students in the research enterprise is absolutely critical.”

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