The Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) announced recipients of its second-annual innovation awards Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair’s Tech Prairie STEAM Expo, recognizing individuals from the IIN’s 15 hubs who have made key advances in research, technology commercialization and education.
The awards were presented to faculty, staff or scientists from IIN hubs in four of the IIN’s key subject areas: computing and data, environment and water, food and agriculture, and health and wellness. The IIN also presented awards for an open category of innovation and to a student innovator from IIN hubs.
“It is our honor to celebrate these innovators and their discoveries,” said Jay Walsh, vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois System, which coordinates the IIN. “They all are shining examples of the fantastic research and discovery happening across our state.”
Innovators were honored for developments in using numerous data streams to provide in-depth forecasting systems for agricultural ecosystems, the discovery and utilization of microbial biomes to produce new materials from organic waste, creating a new method to manufacture biodegradable plastic from agricultural biomass and food waste, and a new program that gives children the opportunity to gain real-life space exploration experience.
“These innovators are an example of one of the things I love most about our state: we have brilliant people coming up with solutions to some of the world’s most difficult challenges,” said Bruce Sommer, director of economic development and innovation at the University of Illinois Springfield, whose office facilitated the awards program. “I am encouraged by the diversity of our recipients and the incredible work that they are doing.”
IIN Innovation Award recipients
Computing & Data Category
Kaiyu Guan, Blue Waters associate professor in ecohydrology and remote sensing, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Dr. Guan developed the technology to observe and measure land and water resources for every farm on the planet, which powers his startup company Habiterre. Habiterre integrates data streams from satellites, airplanes, automobiles and ground sensor networks to create a comprehensive view of farmland. Those data streams are processed with the company’s fusion algorithms, which eliminate gaps in the data and remove the effects of clouds, and have been verified with actual “ground truth” information, creating a quantitative analysis of individual fields at a 30-meter (100-foot) resolution and at a daily frequency, recording the past 20+ years. Then they apply scientific models and proprietary algorithms to evaluate crop growth conditions, water use, biochemical status, and management practices. Starting with a well-established scientific model for simulating entire agriculture ecosystems, Habiterre added proprietary improvements that incorporate hundreds of variables above and below ground, then it constrained the model with actual observations, create a reliable, realistic and holistic view of each farm. This effort has created the most advanced model for crop growth, carbon cycles, and nutrient dynamics. Using AI and advanced mathematical tools to combine the data and model, we have created the first real forecasting capabilities for agro-ecosystems. Habiterre can directly see how different components of carbon, water, and nutrients change during the growth season and how they are impacted by farming practices. Additionally, the company can create simulations that make it possible to predict the outcomes of various changes, from switching crop varieties and management practices, to assessing the impacts of climate change. With the aid of supercomputers and cloud computing, they can process millions of farm-level simulations simultaneously, allowing us to achieve field-level accuracy over large geographic areas.
Environment & Water Category
Scott Hamilton-Brehm, associate professor in biological sciences, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Dr. Hamilton-Brehm is an innovator in the discovery and utilization of geothermal and subsurface microbial biomes to perform “green” remediation and recovery of organic waste to produce new materials and to produce value-added materials and food. Hamilton-Brehm holds two patents, led the student team that received funding as one of the finalists in the Carbon Removal XPRIZE competition, and was part of the team selected for funding through the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge. Dr. Hamilton-Brehm also led the efforts by SIU to produce for the State of Illinois over 100,000 vials of Viral Transport Medium (VTM) during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Carbon Removal XPRIZE award focused on the innovative use of Oxidative Hydrothermal Dissolution (OHD) to convert captured carbon, in the form of almost any plant-based waste biomass, into a water-soluble liquid. The resulting liquid can then be pumped into natural or man-made geologic recesses where microbes will eat the waste, thereby sequestering the carbon contained within the waste. The advantage of this approach over air-based carbon capture is dramatically revealed when one recognizes that one pound of raw plant matter contains about the same amount of carbon as one million liters of air. Hamilton-Brehm and his team were selected as one of the top 60 teams worldwide for the XPRIZE. More recently, Hamilton-Brehm and his team played a crucial role in obtaining funding from NASA through the Deep Space Food Challenge program to develop their next-generation food production system called µBites, which will utilize plastic and biomass waste as the carbon source for food generation.
Food & Agriculture Category
Lahiru Jayakody, assistant professor in microbiology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Dr. Jayakody is a young innovator in synthetic microbiology and green chemistry and holds or has applications for seven patents. His patents on engineering robust microbial cell factories apply to developing multiple technologies, including valorization of unconventional feedstock such as industrial-wastewater streams and waste plastic. He developed a novel thermo-bio-catalytic hybrid process to valorize untapped waste carbon in the agricultural biomass, i.e., high-toxic aldehydes and aromatics, industrial food waste, and waste plastic. His innovative approach merged engineered microbial-based biofunneling and biofunctionalization of organic substrates with Dr. Ken Anderson's (2021 IIN Innovation Award) Oxidative Hydrothermal Dissolution technology (OHD), to produce advanced platform chemicals to replace incumbent petrochemicals and microbial-based food ingredients for next-generation food production. Jayakody partnered with one of the world's leading green tea manufacturers, Ito En Japan, to develop and commercialize technology to manufacture novel biodegradable plastic from waste tea, coffee, and postconsumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. The generated chemicals will be used to make advanced PET alternatives and smart food packaging materials. He also leads the team "µBites," which has invented a next-generation food production system using this technology. His innovative synthetic microbial-based process converts waste plastic into edible, 3D printed, customized, nutritious food for astronauts. His team was one of 18 winners of the Phase I NASA Deep Space Food Challenge and the only Illinois-based team.
Health & Wellness Category
Mohammad Islam, research assistant professor in chemistry, University of Illinois Chicago
Dr. Islam has recently engineered a cell-based method of preventing infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Spike protein (S) of SARS-CoV-2 uses human receptor containing angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) cells to initiate viral entry into the body. By preventing the receptor binding domain (RBD) of S protein from binding with ACE2 cells, SARS-CoV-2 can be prevented from infecting the human body. Dr. Islam developed an ACE2 decoy receptor that binds with the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein with low nanomolar affinity and 10-fold affinity enhancement over the wildtype. Dr. Islam used computational mutagenesis and molecular dynamics simulations to design the soluble decoy ACE2, which is known as ACE2-FFWF. This research was published in the Journal of Chemical Information and Modelling, (J. Chem. Inf. Model. 61, 4656–4669) where Dr. Islam acted as the principal investigator and the corresponding author of the paper. Dr. Islam’s research develops and advances a new class of soluble sACE2 that can act as potential therapeutics against variants of concern, namely omicron, alpha, beta, delta, delta plus, and gamma.
Keith Jacobs, statewide 4-H STEM specialist, University of Illinois Extension
Keith Jacobs is uniquely contributing to the recruitment, diversification and mentoring of the next generation workforce in computing and STEM. Jacobs designed a new program called “4-H in Space” that gives middle and high school youth the opportunity to gain real-life experience in space exploration by building, programming, and launching real satellites into orbit. The students gain deep experience in subjects like coding, mechanical engineering and astronomy, all of which help hone their STEM skills. Jacobs expects to reach some 2,000 young people in this first year of the program, with a goal of reaching 10,000 young people by 2025. Additionally, Jacobs developed partnerships with the Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems in Illinois (LASSI), and the International Space Station national Laboratories (ISSNL) to create unique hands-on learning opportunities for youth in the program. A select group of youth– the Illinois “Mission Command” team – traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2022, where they designed an experiment to be launched and tested on the International Space Station. In collaboration with the LASSI group in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Aerospace Engineering Department, Mission Control youth will code and launch a cube satellite in 2023. Youth will then monitor and analyze data received from the programmed sensors in space. The youth in Mission Control reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Illinois, and reflect Jacob’s commitment to inspiring under-represented youth to pursue STEM careers. Jacob’s innovative program design is already being scaled to other states through the network of land-grant universities. To date, he has trained and mentored 4-H staff in three other states. In 2023, his curriculum “4-H in Space” will be made available, with the potential reach the 7 million youth in 4-H across the country.
Pierre Paul, We Hear You, Distillery Labs
Paul and his team have developed We Hear You, an AI-based sign language translator as well as a personalized automatic door opener fob for persons with disabilities that are accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Currently, the ADA guidelines only provide guidance based on the minimum standards and requirements that have to be met. We Hear You's mission is to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities, and they are actively seeking to create solutions that proactively resolve the challenges that they continue to face even when there are accessible pathways throughout their daily journeys. Pierre and his team have validated the problem they're solving in providing innovative solutions that solve accessibility issues. They have won a number of competitions including the Social Innovation Challenge, and the Big Idea Competition while at Bradley University. Additionally, they have been incubated at Bravelaunch, gBETA Distillery Labs, and most recently at UIUC’s iVenture Accelerator.