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Deshpande Center and J-WAFS announce fall 2017 research grants

Twenty-two research teams receive $1,443,000 to develop new technological innovations.
Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering

The MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation announced today the award of $768,000 in grants to 17 MIT research teams currently working on early-stage technologies. The Deshpande Center also manages the J-WAFS Solutions program for the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab, which awarded $675,000 in project funding to five teams. This year’s projects span a wide range of areas, including drug delivery, energy, 3-D printing, medical device, displays, and data communications.

The Deshpande Center was established in 2002 through a gift from Desh and Jaishree Deshpande. Since its inception, the center has provided over $17,000,000 in grants to more than 143 MIT research projects. It serves as a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting leading-edge research and bridging the gap between the laboratory and marketplace. Thirty-four projects have spun out of the center as independent startups, having collectively raised over $700 million in outside financing.

Funded through a research partnership with Community Jameel (the social enterprise arm of Abdul Latif Jameel Enterprises) and administered in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center, the J-WAFS Solutions program aims to help MIT faculty and students commercialize breakthrough technologies and inventions by transforming ideas into products and spinoff companies that have a transformational effect on water and food systems worldwide. The program supports projects that bring tangible economic and societal benefits to the communities where they are deployed.

“Projects funded by the Deshpande Center and J-WAFS have enormous potential to make an impact on our quality of life,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The support these programs give to move basic research to commercially viable technologies is critically important to the impact these ideas will have in the world.”

2017 Deshpande Center grant recipients:

  • "Structured Nucleic Acid Nanoparticle Therapeutic Delivery Platform" — Mark Bathe, Darrell Irvine, and Feng Zhang with Remi Veneziano and Matthew Stone

Targeted, efficient delivery of nucleic acid therapeutics is one of the largest current bottlenecks to the treatment of human diseases. This project will translate structured nucleic acid nanoparticles to the clinic by offering full synthetic control over the chemical composition of the delivery vehicle, homogeneous and reproducible composition, and variable vector conjugation for targeting therapeutic nucleic acid and small molecule payloads to diverse cells and tissues. 

  • "Solid-State Color Pixel for E-Paper Displays" — Geoff Beach with Mantao Huang

E-paper consumes minimal power and is more comfortable to read than light-emitting displays. However, existing technologies use fluid-based cells with relatively slow update speed and large cell size, which limits the pixel density and display resolution. This project will develop a technology for a simple color pixel structure that will ease fabrication and lower power consumption and cost, while delivering high resolution and compatibility with flexible substrates.  

  • "Active Structural Batteries" (renewal from 2016) — Angela Belcher with Alan Ransil

Currently 60-90% of the weight of the battery package in an electric car or an unmanned aerial vehicle is inactive and  does not contribute to energy storage. This project is developing a structural approach to build vehicle components from materials that do contribute to energy storage, which will enable electrical vehicles with longer battery lifetimes.

  • "Efficient Drug Discovery Screening" (renewal from 2016) — Paul Blainey with Anthony Kulesa and Jared Kehe

In the United States, antibiotic-resistant infections cause more than 23,000 deaths and $20-35 billion in direct health care costs. Modern biology suggests that combinations of drugs are more effective than a single antibiotic, however, screening all combinations is an intractable challenge. This project plans to bring combinatorial discovery within reach by lowering costs and increasing throughput more than sixfold over the current state-of-the-art. 

  • "Convection Enhanced Electrochemical Energy Storage" (renewal from 2016) — Fikile Brushett with Thomas Carney

Modern enclosed rechargeable batteries are generally limited in performance because inactive components occupy a majority of the battery weight and volume, leading to lower energy densities and higher costs. This project aims to develop a new energy storage concept — a convection-enhanced rechargeable battery that overcomes the diffusive transport losses, leading to higher energy density, lower cost, and safer operation.  

  • "Local Drug Delivery for Facilitating Expedited Urinary Stone Passage" — Michael Cima with Christopher Lee and Brian Eisner

Approximately 12 percent of men and 5 percent of women will experience at least one symptomatic urinary stone by age 70. Stones when lodged in the ureter result in extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, emergency room visits, missed work, and, for some, surgery to remove stones that fail to pass. Over 3.1 million workdays are lost and $5.3 billion in cost is incurred treating stones in the U.S., annually. This project will develop a locally delivered, outpatient-based therapy offering expedited stone passage. 

  • "Non-Invasive Hydration Sensor for Elderly Care" — Luca Daniel and Martha Gray with Ian Butterworth 

Particularly in older people, dehydration is the spark that can initiate dire clinical consequences, including falls, kidney failure, and increased infections. These could be prevented by oral rehydration, but presently, individuals and caregivers often don’t know they are dehydrated until it is too late. This project is developing a new sensor that can provide actionable information about hydration status.

  • "Bedside Testing of Coagulation Function and Biomarkers" (renewal from 2016) — James Fox with Galit Frydman

Many diseases disrupt the balance in our blood coagulation system and result in life-threatening bleeding and clotting events. While there have been many new anticoagulant drugs, the lack of timely testing for these new drugs is a crucial limiting factor. This project is developing rapid, bedside blood diagnostics and drug monitoring capabilities to be read in under 10 minutes. 

  • "Non-invasive White Cell Count Prototype" (renewal from 2016) — Martha Gray with Carlos Castro-Gonzalez

Several chemotherapy regimens yield better survival when administered with higher frequency and dose. However, because chemotherapy administration can only be given when there is an adequate white blood cell count (to confer the ability to fight infection) the typical treatment is conservatively set at a lower frequency and dose. This project is to develop a noninvasive white blood cell test that enables much more frequent measurement, thereby enabling physicians to personalize chemotherapy planning and improve the efficacy and safety of the overall treatment.

  • "Micro fabricated Polymer Biomaterials for Enhancing 3-D Tissue Culture Platforms" — Linda Griffith and Paula Hammond with Marianna Sofman

There is growing interest to develop more physiologically relevant 3-D tissue culture systems for improved disease modeling as well as long-term drug toxicity screening. This project will develop polymer microparticles with customizable biophysical and biochemical properties that can be designed to accommodate cells’ culture needs.  

  • "Digital 3-D Printing of Microparticles" — John Hart with Justin Beroz and Ulrich Muecke 

On-demand production, especially for complex and high value parts, would be valuable to many industries. Additive manufacturing processes broadly aim to enable this; however, state-of-the-art methods cannot achieve the dimensional resolution and surface finish required for many precision applications. This project will develop a new direct-write printing technology, to enable high resolution multi-material deposition, at speeds comparable to inkjet printing. 

  • "Engineered Protein Treatments for Hair Repair and Long-Lasting Color Retention" — Bradley Olsen with Sieun Kim and Lavinia Popescou 

Repeated washing, drying, straightening, and dyeing of hair breaks the protective cuticle and damages the hair. Treatment with lipids protects the hair surface and makes it easier to comb, but is easily removed by shampooing. Olsen’s lab is poised to develop novel polymer-based technology that binds to the hair, providing persistent bioactives that protect the cuticle and repair damage on a wide range of hair types.

  • "Low-cost Spectroscopy Solutions for Raman Sensing and Beyond" — Rajeev Ram with Atabaki Amir

The cost and size of high-performance spectroscopy instruments often limits their application. This project leverages recent advances in photonic integration and in image sensors to reconstruct optical spectra. Together, these technologies will build systems that have 100 times greater sensitivity at comparable spectral resolution, and one-tenth the cost of materials. 

  • "Mucin-inspired Agents to Manage Infections" (renewal from 2016) — Katharina Ribbeck with Kelsey Wheeler and Bradley Turner

The global rise of antibiotic resistance presents a clear danger and urges the development of innovative approaches to treat and prevent infections. This mucin-inspired project will enable healthy microbe diversity by developing a synthetic microbe-taming barrier to microbial infections. 

  • "Engineered Binding Proteins as Replacements for Antibodies in Immunoassays: — Hadley Sikes with Eric Miller and Ki Joo Sung

Protein biomarkers can be used to indicate illness and injury in humans and in organisms that are consumed as food. Assay development is limited by the availability of high-quality binding molecules, typically antibodies, with appropriate specificity for their target. This project plans to replace antibodies in diagnostic tests with engineered binders for faster development timelines and improved performance. 

  • "Optically Transparent Thermally Insulating Retrofits for Single-pane Windows: — Evelyn Wang, Gang Chen, and Xuanhe Zhao with Elise Strobach and Bikram Bhatia

Single-pane windows are the most energy inefficient component of our buildings, accounting for about $12 billion annually due to high heat losses. While newer installations often include energy efficient multi-pane windows, single-panes are being phased out at a rate of only 2 percent per year because of high replacement cost. This project will develop retrofits with the thermal performance of air-filled double-pane glazing and transparency as good as glass, with minimal weight addition and, nominal installed cost. 

  • "Digital Tools for In-Field Data Collection" (renewal from 2016) — Chris Zegras with Daniel Heriberto Palencia Arreola

New digital tools will provide an easy-to-deploy, easy-to-manage, low-cost, cloud-based, field data gathering system, leveraging smartphone technology. The platform takes the complexity out of the design of digitally based data collection, enabling users to quickly set up projects that allow an unlimited number of mobile devices to upload information to the cloud. 

Fall 2017 J-WAFS Solutions grant recipients:

  • "Developing Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis for 21st Century Agriculture" — John Lienhard with Kishor Nayar and Amit Kumar

This project seeks  to improve agricultural practices and crop yield, especially for hydroponic growers. The team is developing a system called Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis (ISED) to reduce water salinity. ISED selectively removes  ions  harmful to crops and retains those that are beneficial, an improvement over existing reverse osmosis desalination processes. 

  • "Reducing Runoff and Environmental Impact of Agricultural Sprays" — Kripa Varanasi with Maher Damak

This project is developing novel spray formulations to improve the application of agricultural pesticides. These new formulations enable the pesticide  drops to adhere better to leaf and fruit surfaces without bouncing or rolling off, thereby decreasing the volume of pesticide application and limiting  pollution of soils, surface water, and groundwater.  

  • "Field-scale Quality Assurance in India’s Dairy Industry" — Sanjay Sarma with Pranay Jain

Milk procurement in India’s dairy industry is complicated, uncontrolled, and vulnerable to tampering. The safety and quality of milk products are difficult to manage. To ensure real-time control across the dairy industry supply chain — from farmers  to collection centers  to processing plants, this project will develop a handheld device that can inexpensively test the quality of milk by measuring milk fat and protein.   

  • "Development of Low-Cost Water Filter Using Sapwood Xylem" (renewal from 2016) — Rohit Karnik with Megha Hedge, Kendra Leith, Luda Wang, Malavika Chauhan and Krithika Ramchander 

This project explores a novel approach to address the largely unmet need for providing safe and affordable drinking water to low-income groups by developing low-cost water filters that use the natural filtration capabilities of xylem tissue in wood. The project will validate filtration performance in the lab and in the field, while also assessing the usability, desirability, and affordability of low-cost filters and devising a strategy for local manufacture and commercialization. Filtration devices developed from this material could be low-cost household water filters in developing countries or could be distributed by relief agencies anywhere in the world in emergencies. 

  • "Rapid Detection of Pathogenic Bacteria" (renewal from 2016) — Tim Swager and Alex Klibanov with Myles Herbert, Kent Harvey and Qifan Zhang

Foodborne illnesses can lead to human suffering, expensive medical treatments, lawsuits, government sanctions, product recalls, tarnished corporate reputations, and sometimes even death. This project will develop an inexpensive biosensor able to rapidly detect multiple types of pathogenic bacteria in food and water to prevent widespread infection. 

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