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New Startups Take on Societal Challenges in Health, Environment

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When it comes to finding solutions to some of the largest challenges facing society today, research and innovation are some of the best tools available.

The University of Minnesota’s 10-year strategic plan, Driving Tomorrow, lays out the role that cutting-edge University research will play in addressing the grand challenges that face Minnesota, the U.S. and the world. The plan highlights how innovative research conducted by interdisciplinary teams can lead to new solutions that help society succeed in finding ways to feed the world sustainably, foster just and equitable communities and more.

The focus on the five Grand Challenges is growing throughout the University’s research endeavors, and its startup enterprise is no exception. Fiscal year 2016 saw another record number of startups launched, and several of these companies are working to implement promising new discoveries that connect to these priorities.

Below, Inquiry highlights two new startups that are further developing U research to create solutions in the Grand Challenges areas of advancing health through tailored solutions and assuring clean water and sustainable ecosystems.

Advancing Health Through Tailored Solutions

Family members of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia often become their loved one’s caregiver. In 2015, more than 15 million caregivers provided an estimated 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. These caregivers need services and support to manage the challenges and stress that often accompany their role.

University startup ProValens, led by CEO Rick Tanler, collaborated with University researchers to develop a free online tool that helps caregivers of those with memory loss find information tailored to their needs. Caregivers using Care to Plan explore support options across seven subjects, ranging from learning new skills to better care for someone with dementia to changing the way they think about the challenges they face in caregiving.

Having access to the right resources can help caregivers in numerous ways, including in reducing their stress levels and feelings of depression, and balancing their time between work, caregiving and other life commitments.

U of M professors Joseph Gaugler, Ph.D, and Bonnie Westra, Ph.D., from the School of Nursing, along with Robert Kane, M.D., from the School of Public Health conducted the research supporting the usefulness of the tool.

“Many evidence-based programs have been created for caregivers, but a lot of times these interventions are delivered as one-size-fits-all solutions,” Gaugler said. “The goal with Care to Plan is to identify the needs of family caregivers, to generate an individualized recommendation and to get family members to access recommended resources more readily.”

Assuring Clean Water and Sustainable Ecosystems

Across the globe, communities are grappling with waste and environmental harm caused by the widespread use of petroleum-based plastics. In Minnesota, the Minneapolis City Council recently voted to ban many types of plastic bags starting in June 2017.

University startup Valerian Materials is creating a sustainable alternative by manufacturing high-performance, biodegradable plastics made from renewable sources that can be used for a wide range of applications. The company is based on technology developed by College of Science and Engineering researchers, including chemical engineering and materials science professors Kechun Zhang, Ph.D., — who also serves as the company’s president — and Frank Bates, Ph.D., as well as chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer, Ph.D.

The researchers’ work involved “rewiring” bacteria in a new way to make them efficiently transform sugar into a molecule that can then be converted into high-performance plastic. This process reduced the production cost, making the sustainable plastic cost-competitive with traditional plastics and feasible for use in many industries.

The plastics can be used in a wide range of materials, including elastomers (rubbery materials), foams, coatings, impact-resistant plastics, films and fibers. Ultimately, these materials could show up in everyday items like fabrics, packaging, paint and seat cushions, but they could also pay a role in various biomedical applications.

“We would really like to see these new materials perform in applications that have been traditionally occupied by polymers that are non-degradable and non-renewable,” Hillmyer said. “Sustainability goals are at the forefront of our efforts.”

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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