The Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) announced its first group of 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 three of the IIN’s key subject areas: environment and water, food and agriculture, and health and wellness. IIN also presented an award to the most impactful innovation by a team, as well as two awards to student innovators from IIN member universities.
“We are thrilled to celebrate these innovators and their discoveries,” said Jay Walsh, interim vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois System, which coordinates the network of IIN education and innovation hubs. “They are all examples of the incredible research, discovery and education going on at our state’s universities, and we are incredibly grateful for the impactful work that each one of them is doing.”
Innovators were honored for developments in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the eye; robots that measure critical plant traits; converting biomass, coal and other substances into high-value chemicals and liquid fuels; more functional, touch-sensitive prosthetics; COVID-19 testing; next-generation battery technology; and transforming a dilapidated research facility into Southern Illinois University Carbondale's (SIUC) Green Roof Project, a home for experiential and experimental learning for all students.
“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
Environment & Water Category
Kenneth B. Anderson is director of the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center and professor of geochemistry at SIUC.
Anderson is an innovator in geochemistry, currently in the application of processing biomass such as agricultural wastes, coal, oil sands and oil shales into high-value platform chemicals and liquid fuels. Anderson holds 15 patents and has several active applications in the field of organic chemistry, most notably in the structural characterization and reactivity of coal and the novel utilization strategies of coal and biomass. He is the founder and chief technology officer of Thermaquatica Inc., a 2010 spinout company from his research at SIUC. His most significant patents are in two families — a process for using superheated water to dissolve coal, biomass and organic solids, and using oxidative hydrothermal dissolution (OHD) to produce organic materials. OHD technology is used to produce chemicals similar or identical to petroleum-derived products from low-cost alternatives like waste biomass or coal. The resulting products can be sold as fine chemicals, used in manufacturing of biodegradable plastics and polymers, and/or converted to liquid fuels.
Food & Agriculture Category
Girish Chowdhary is director of the Distributed Autonomous Systems Laboratory and Donald Biggar Willet Faculty Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and co-founder and chief technology officer of EarthSense.
EarthSense enables the creation of highly productive, resilient and sustainable crops, and fundamental improvements in farm profitability. Its first product, the TerraSentia robot field phenotyping system, provides 100 times as much trait data for a tenth the effort, compared to current methods of field data collection. The compact, easy-to-use, under-canopy robot measures critical plant traits such as stem width, leaf area index and leaf and stem diseases with unprecedented accuracy and ease. EarthSense's machine vision and machine learning-based analytics seamlessly convert terabytes of multi-sensor field data to quantitative, consistent and objective information to reduce these risks. The TerraSentia robot uses a number of sensors to collect data on crop health, as well as machine learning-based analytics to convert this data into actionable insights for farmers. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, EarthSense is working to adapt its autonomous robots for cleaning in hospitals and public spaces. By reducing the need for sanitary workers, EarthSense’s robotic cleaning units can help lower the community transmission rates of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Health & Wellness Category
Aadeel Akhtar is founder of PSYONIC, which is based at the EnterpriseWorks incubator in the UIUC Research Park. Akhtar has developed algorithms that make upper-limb prosthetics much more functional to use. Some send electrical currents to stimulate the nerves so that users can “feel” what their prosthetics are touching; others record the electrical currents caused by muscle contractions, making it possible to control movement. Akhtar holds four patents on advances in prosthetics that have all gone into PSYONIC’s first product, the Ability Hand. The Ability Hand was designed to be controlled by both muscle sensors and Bluetooth, and provide tactile sensory data to its user, all while withstanding the normal stresses of everyday life without cracking. Akhtar’s 20-person team prioritized affordability throughout the design process and built a hand inexpensive enough to be covered by Medicare.
Elizabeth Gaillard, a professor of chemistry and biological sciences at Northern Illinois University (NIU), studies diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading causes of blindness in the United States and around the world. Gaillard’s research is changing the way sufferers of ocular diseases like AMD and diabetic retinopathy are diagnosed and treated. Gaillard currently has more than 80 publications and six patents that include therapeutic uses of glutathione mimics, a prodrug used to administer antioxidants for disease prevention and treatment; a method of detecting biomarkers of inflammation in Bruch’s membrane; and a timed-release liposomal drug delivery system. Her prodrug provides a method of treating the oxidative stress and preventing radiation damage to healthy tissue with administration of the prodrug. Gaillard’s work of detecting biomarkers of inflammation in the human retina’s Bruch’s membrane is used in finding and diagnosing symptoms of immune-mediated processes during aging and AMD. To commercialize her research portfolio, Gaillard launched a startup, Therome Innovation Partners, in 2018. She is actively engaging with the entrepreneurial communities at NIU and startup incubators MATTER and Innovation DuPage to move her concept forward.
Teams (Other Category)
SHIELD - Target, Test and Tell
Members of the UIUC team are Martin Burke, the May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation; Timothy Fan, professor of veterinary clinical medicine; Paul Hergenrother, the Kenneth L. Rinehart Jr. Endowed Chair in Natural Products Chemistry and Professor of Chemistry; Nigel Goldenfeld, the Swanlund Chair and professor of physics; William Sullivan, professor and director of the Rokwire open-source mobile application platform; and Rebecca Lee Smith, associate professor of pathobiology.
The SHIELD: Target, Test, Tell team is a community of scholars with a science-based approach that developed a saliva-based COVID-19 test and mobile application to safely reopen the UIUC campus in fall 2020. Since then, the test has been used at dozens of college, universities, community colleges and companies across the state. This fall, it will be used in more than 1,000 K-12 school buildings to enable safe, in-person learning throughout Illinois.
The saliva-based test is easy to administer, scalable, sensitive and specific to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Current notification time for the saliva test is less than 24 hours. Through cost and speed advantages, the saliva tests can increase access to testing and help control the spread of the virus by identifying pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. The companion Safer Illinois app is a convenient, secure tool to manage COVID-19 status that provides building access to individuals with a verified vaccination card or recent negative test result. More than three million tests have been performed at the three U of I campuses and another 500,000 at schools, colleges and universities, companies and government entities across the state.
Alex Kosyakov of UIUC is founder of Natrion, a battery research and development startup. It was launched from UIUC in 2018 by Kosyakov and co-founder Tom Rouffiac. Natrion, a leader in the research and development of next-generation battery technologies, has created a new high-performance, flexible and durable solid-electrolyte thin film for the production of all-solid-state batteries (ASSBs). Called the Lithium Solid Ionic Composite (LISIC), this technology has been designed as a "plug and play" component that can be rapidly implemented by lithium-ion battery manufacturers to turn their existing product lines into ASSBs that mitigate fire risk, improve lifespan, and enable the construction of longer-range electric vehicles. Natrion recently was named the grand-prize winner at UIUC’s 2021 Cozad New Venture Challenge and won first prize at the 2021 University Pitch Madness competition, which featured startups from nine midwestern universities.
Nelson Fernades is founder and project manager of SIUC’s Green Roof Project. The project transformed an existing, 10-year-old urban horticulture research facility that had fallen into disrepair into a unique, multidisciplinary innovation hub for experiential and experimental learning. The space, located on the roof of the SIUC Agriculture Building, and its accompanying research were developed by fostering a cross-functional and cross-university team of students to further develop a location for sustainable/renewable energy technology research initiatives at SIUC and beyond. In order to revitalize and modernize the space, Fernandes initiated a social media campaign to recruit students to assist with a major clean-up of the space and to determine the next steps of the project. Problems to be solved included the site’s watering system challenges, selecting the appropriate data acquisition device, expanding student use of the Green Roof, and securing funding to support these activities.