MassVentures Announces $195,000 in Seed Funding for Faculty Research Projects

Acorn Innovation Fund Aids in Commercializing Scientific Breakthroughs Across the Commonwealth

BOSTON (August 3, 2021) New technologies at Massachusetts research institutions could get closer to market thanks to $195,000 in seed funding announced today by the MassVentures Acorn Innovation Fund.

Thirteen grants of $15,000 each were awarded to faculty researchers from Boston University Medical Center, Northeastern University, Brandeis University, the University of Massachusetts and Worcester Polytechnic Institute to assist them in testing the viability of their technologies and potentially bringing their research to market.

 The Acorn Awards are funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and overseen by MassVentures. “These awards help bring promising research to market for the benefit of the Commonwealth, which is central to our economic development mission,” said UMass Vice-Chancellor for Academic Programs & Senior Vice President for Economic Development, Katherine Newman. “We are thankful to the Legislature for establishing the Commonwealth’s Innovation Commercialization Seed Fund, which makes these grants available.”

 This year’s recipients, selected from a field of 36 applicants, were chosen for their project’s technical merit, commercial viability, project plan and strength of team, according to Vinit Nijhawan, managing director of MassVentures. Projects selected span from medical technologies that help treat breast cancer and kidney disease, to novel moisture sensors to reduce food waste, to technologies and products that benefit the environment, including new methods for detecting PFAS, the “forever chemicals” in water, biolubricants created from yeast, and closed loop processes for recovering metals from Lithium-Ion batteries.

 “The strength of the selected projects and diversity of academic researchers demonstrates that Massachusetts leads the nation in translating basic research to the market,” Nijhawan said.

 “Northeastern University’s faculty and researchers are committed to innovation and making a positive impact on the world, and MassVentures’ support helps us advance those causes and speed the introduction of use-inspired research to market,” said Northeastern University Provost David Madigan.

This year’s recipients of the MassVentures Acorn Innovation Fund awards are as follows:

Steven Borkan, MD, Boston University/Boston Medical Center: “NPM-Based Peptide Therapeutic for Acute Kidney Injury (AKI)”

Grantee has discovered a renal targeted prototype peptide that shows promise for treating kidney disease in laboratory animals and may eventually be applied to humans. The peptide therapeutic prevents & treats acute kidney injury (AKI), reduces renal death in vitro, preserves kidney function, and prevents animal death in vivo after acute ischemia.

Jennifer Broderick, PhDUniversity of Massachusetts Medical School “Cell Type-specific Gene Silencing Tethers”

This innovation advances the ability to target cell type with a systemically delivered therapeutic agent to better hone disease treatment. MicroRNA (miRNA) tethers silence genes (that is, turns off their expression) in one or a small number of tissues because silencing occurs only in those cells that produce a specific miRNA. miRNA tethering is the only therapeutic strategy that limits gene silencing to the intended cell type even when the therapeutic agent is delivered systemically.

Karen Dunphy, PhDUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst“Personalized Breast Cancer Treatment Decisions with E2-Path Diagnostic”

E2-Path Diagnostic is a pathology tool that will help oncologists personalize medicine and treatment options for breast cancer patients. This diagnostic directly tests an individual’s functional estrogen response to guide selection of therapeutics. The Acorn Innovation award will fund experiments to standardize the diagnostic.

Yuxiang Liu, PhD, Worcester Polytechnic Institute: “Fiber Optical Moisture Sensors in the Agriculture Industries: System Development and On-site Demonstrations”

Grantee proposes to develop and test fiber optical moisture sensors for the agriculture industry. These hair-sized sensors are capable of real-time, accurate monitoring of product moisture during processing, which helps enhance the process control and reduce food waste.

Sanjeev Manohar, PhDUniversity of Massachusetts Lowell“Smart and Economic Multifunctional Coatings”

Grantee has developed an extremely simple, safe, and cost-effective coating technology that has excellent antibacterial properties and can also dramatically decrease indoor air pollution. The technology enhances the ability of titanium dioxide nanoparticles to destroy bacteria and viruses while simultaneously mitigating potential safety issues related to nanoparticles.

Yousof Naderi, PhD and Dr. Kaushik Chowdhury, PhD, Northeastern University: “iSurface: Programmable Intelligent Surfaces with AI-enabled Autonomous Sensing, Computing, and Networking”

Grantees propose iSurface, an “intelligent surface platform,” that is the first-ever programmable and AI-driven plug-and-play solution that transforms ordinary surfaces into intelligent contactless sensing, computing, and networked surfaces.

Suzanne Paradis, PhD and Vernon Clarke, PhDBrandeis University “Sema4D represents a new and exciting disease-modifying therapeutic strategy for the treatment of intractable seizures”

Sema4D reduces ongoing seizure activity in laboratory animals by rapidly driving new inhibitory connections in the brain. Sema4D seeks to address the problem of drug resistance and acquired tolerance, offering hope for the long-term management of chronic epilepsy and the acute treatment of “intractable status epilepticus,” or continuous seizures.

Michael Ross, PhDUniversity of Massachusetts Lowell“Nanostructured SERS Architectures for Handheld Detection of PFAS in Water”

This handheld approach to detecting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in water, offers a rapid assessment for detection of these persistent, toxic chemicals. The technology uses novel nanofiber materials to capture PFAS and handheld Raman (spectroscopy or light scattering) technology to identify their unique chemical footprints. This technology is useful for water utilities, environmental testing, and for assessing workplace hazards.

Sukalyan Sengupta, PhD and Chen-Lu Yang, PhDUniversity of Massachusetts Dartmouth: “Resource Recovery from Spent Lithium-Ion Batteries (LIBs)”

This sustainable, closed loop process recovers high-purity metal precipitates (Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel, and Manganese) from spent Lithium-Ion Batteries (LIBs) that can be reused as a raw material in the manufacture of new LIBs. Recovery is achieved by sequentially and selectively applying organic ligands (molecules or atoms) to the complex metals. The organic ligands are reused over multiple cycles in a zero waste process. Read more.

Aatmesh Shrivastava, PhD,  Northeastern University: “Ultra-low Power Wake-up Radio”

This project aims to advance an ultra-low-power, wake-up radio solution for Internet of Thing (IoT) applications with up to six orders of magnitude reduction in power consumption when compared to existing solutions. IoT technologies, such as for managing energy use in homes, are kept in the sleep mode most of the time to keep power consumption low, and wake-up solutions are needed to trigger the sensors to carry out a task. This new technology will enable continuous network connections, allowing for applications otherwise not possible.

Benjamin Woolston, PhD,  Northeastern University: “A Co-Culture Method for Enhanced Biofuel and Biochemical Production from Untreated Waste Gases”

Fermentation of waste industrial gas streams is a promising method for producing renewable biofuels and biochemicals from the waste streams. The process requires microorganisms and is limited by the sensitivity of the anaerobic microorganisms involved to oxygen. This grantee is developing a symbiotic co-culture approach that overcomes these issues.

Dongming Xie, PhD, University of Massachusetts Lowell: “Biolubricants from Yeast”

Worldwide, nearly 40 million tons of lubricants were produced from petrochemical processes in 2018 for use in machinery and tools. As much as 40-50 percent leaks into the environment, such as from chain saws in forestry operations, polluting soil, air and groundwater. This project uses a novel yeast biomanufacturing technology to directly convert waste cooking oils into non-toxic, biodegradable wax esters to replace the petroleum-based lubricants.

Mingdi Yan, PhD and Olof Ramstrom, PhD, University of Massachusetts Lowell: “Preclinical Studies on a New Class of Antimicrobial Agents against multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa”

Grantees’ products are a new class of antimicrobial agents to fight multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a leading Gram-negative pathogen that is highly resistant to antibiotics and carries high mortality rate. Their products have unique mechanisms of action, low toxicity, and broad-spectrum activities, and thus the potential to treat future super-infections.

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