Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The University of Iowa Research Foundation (UIRF) has awarded $625,000 in gap funding to 10 faculty researchers whose projects have a strong potential for commercialization.

These include proposals for a light-driven desalination unit, a device for detecting delirium in patients, and a news aggregator than can assess the political bias of news articles and aggregate content according to users’ interests.

In place since 2007, the gap fund has been highly successful at helping principal investigators license their products and start new venture. Of all the gap-based startups begun since the program’s inception, 21 have raised more than $33.5 million in additional funding, according to Paul Dymerski, Director of UI Ventures.

“Gap funds are a great asset for our faculty to develop their technology toward commercialization,” said Jordan Kaufmann, Director of Startups. “They help to de-risk the technology, make it more valuable and move it forward more quickly.  The projects selected this year have great promise and I look forward to seeing them develop.”

The UIRF accepts gap fund proposals in the spring, beginning with a preproposal process and working with viable applicants to craft successful final proposals. Individual awards of up to $75,000 are given. The 10 projects were chosen from among 32 applications.

This year, funding was awarded to faculty from diverse fields, including the health sciences, engineering, and computer science.

Assistant Professor Syed Mubeen of the College of Engineering received gap funding for his light-driven sustainable desalination unit, an innovative system for generating clean water in a way that is more energy efficient than with currently available systems.

Mubeen’s innovation uses a two-phase approach. During the day, the unit will use sunlight to produce clean water from seawater and wastewater. At night, the brine will be used to produce electricity.

“What we are trying to achieve is not just energy-neutral, but something which has the potential of being an energy-positive process,” Mubeen said.

Though the technology is at a very early stage, Mubeen has high hopes for its success with the opportunities provided by the gap fund.

“I was extremely delighted to receive the funding,” Mubeen said. “This support will help us take the steps we need to a clear commercialization pathway.”

Another project, by Assistant Professor M. Zubair Shafiq of the Department of Computer Science, aims to provide political news consumers with a social media-powered, real-time, digital news recommendation service. In collaboration with the UI Department of Political Science, Shafiq and his team have developed algorithms to measure the inherent bias of a news article, as well as user sentiment when the article is shared or commented on in social networks.

“Right now, there is no major news aggregator if you are interested in politics,” Shafiq said.

With the 2016 presidential election less than a year away, interest in politics is high, Shafiq said. With the gap fund, he plans to start a new venture for personalized political news and have a prototype of his news service up and running ahead of Iowa’s presidential caucus in February.

Shafiq said his team was ecstatic about receiving the gap fund.

“It’s significant money that can allow us to develop prototypes, which hopefully can lead to fairly quick commercialization,” he said.

Shafiq hopes the service will educate people and provide access to news from diverse perspectives, rather than simply reinforce users’ biases. Eventually, the algorithms could be used to track public sentiment on presidential candidates as well.

From the Carver College of Medicine, Professors Gen Shinozaki and John Cromwell received gap funding for a delirium prediction and screening device, consisting of two parts: hardware to measure electrical activity in the brain and a software interface for displaying special-purpose information.

More than 7 million hospitalized Americans suffer from delirium each year, a number that is growing because of a rapidly aging population. Delirium has a high mortality rate but is rarely recognized and often misdiagnosed because of the lack of adequate assessment tools.

Delirium can be caused by medications, environment, or an undetected infection. Symptoms are often subtle at first; once they are more evident, it can be too late for treatment or other interventions.

“By detecting it early on, we can start looking for the cause of it,” Shinozaki said.

Shinozaki and Cromwell hope their device will offer a relatively inexpensive and practical tool that can be adopted widely for use in various healthcare environments. The gap fund will be used for a proof of concept study, a critical first step in the commercialization process.

“This is a very promising strategy to help our patients,” Shinozaki said. “I trust that it will change hospital practices totally.”

The full list of gap fund awardees is below:

  • James Ankrum, Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering: Development of a Self-Destructing Cellular Barcode for Single-Cell Analysis
  • Donghai Dai, M.D., Ph.D., Obstetrics and Gynecology, & Kristina Thiel, Ph.D., Obstetrics and Gynecology: Algorithm to Rank Actionable Mutations for Personalized Cancer Treatment
  • David Lubaroff, Ph.D., Immunology & Hank Harris, founder of HarrisVaccines, Inc., Alphavirus vaccines for the treatment of prostate cancer
  • Syed Mubeen, Ph.D., Chemical and Biochemical Engineering: Light driven sustainable desalination unit
  • Zachary Ries, M.D., Orthopedics: A safe and efficient method of rapid surgical wound closure
  • Rajan Sah, M.D., Ph.D., Internal Medicine: Use of Thymol and Carvacrol (monoterpene phenols) for induction of increased skeletal muscle endurance, lean muscle mass and reduced adiposity
  • Donna Santillan, Ph.D. Obstetrics and Gynecology, Mark Santillan, M.D., Obstetrics and Gynecology and Justin Grobe, Ph.D., Pharmacology: Advancing Copeptin as a Biomarker of Preeclampsia
  • Zubair Shafiq, Ph.D., Computer Science: Social Media Powered Real-Time Digital News Recommendation Service
  • Gen Shinozaki, M.D., Psychiatry and John Cromwell, M.D., Surgery, Delirium prediction and screening by non-invasive point-of-care device
  • Fatima Toor, Ph.D., Electrical and Computer Engineering and Ali Salem, Ph.D., Pharmacy: A Silicon Nanowire Array Optoelectronic Cartridge for Cancer Biomarker Detection

The UIRF and UI Ventures are part of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, which provides resources and support to researchers and scholars at the University of Iowa and to businesses across Iowa with the goal of forging new frontiers of discovery and innovation and promoting a culture of creativity that benefits the campus, the state, and the world. More at, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover.