Past Early Innovation Awards

The Early Innovation Fund is a competitive funding program available to the UMN research community to fund short-term projects that advance early-stage innovations. 

Engineering and Physical Science Recipients

A Simple and Fast Method to Measure the Index of Refraction of a Liquid (Fall 2023)

  • Roger Rusack - Physics and Astronomy, Twin Cities
  • We have developed a new low-cost system to rapidly measure time interval changes with high precision. We will build a prototype with this system to measure the index of refraction in aqueous media to show that it can be used in process control in manufacturing.

Scaled Robotic-Arm-Gripper Setup for Collecting Human-Demonstrations (Spring 2023)

  • Karthik Desingh - Computer Science and Engineering, Twin Cities
  • To capture human demonstrations for an existing dual-arm robot manipulation setup, this work proposes to design and build a smaller version of the robot for users to move and demonstrate tasks effectively.

Increasing Commercialization Potential for Recycling Discarded Apparel through Automation Improvements for the FiberShredder and Notions Removal for Resale (Spring 2023)

  • Abigail Clarke-Sather - Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Duluth
  • A current prototype shreds discarded textiles into usable fiber in two minutes via a batch process.  For commercial sale, a nextgen continuous batch FiberShredder design requiring less human supervision is needed.

mmWave Distributed Radar Sensing System (Spring 2023)

  • Wen Zhou – Electrical and Computer Engineering, Twin Cities
  • Project focuses on understanding the needs/challenges in the distributed radar sensing industry (e.g. self-driving vehicles, precision agriculture) and developing a minimum module to demonstrate energy efficiency.

Antioxidant Treatments to Improve Weathering Resistance of Thermally Modified Timber (TMT): Critical Real-world Validation of Laboratory-Scale Results (Spring 2023)

  • Matthew D. Aro – Natural Resources Research Institute, Duluth
  • TMT uptake by consumers for decking and siding is limited by concerns about rapid graying. This project involves exterior testing of a novel wood treatment that shows promise for reducing problematic graying.

Biomass Microbeads to Replace Plastics in Consumer Products (Spring 2023)

  • Michelle Calabrese – Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Twin Cities
  • The group has developed biodegradable microbeads from non-modified biomass to replace plastic microbeads. This project focuses on scaling up the bead production process and conducting degradation studies.

Wide Operation Range Power Converter With Ultra High-Power Density (Spring 2022)

  • Peng Fang - Electrical Engineering, Duluth
  • Conventional power converters have poor efficiency under a wide voltage range operation. The project aims to build a new prototype to demonstrate the potential of a new innovation by achieving a much higher power density and much wider voltage range of operation. 

Health Sciences Recipients

Second-Generation Alpha 1-Antagonist for the Treatment of Hypertension (Fall  2023)

  • Chastity Healy - Integrative Biology and Physiology, Twin Cities
  • Hypertension prevalence is pervasive and affects nearly 50% of US citizens, so there is huge potential for a new, effective hypertension drug. This project will synthesize the compound and evaluate performance in an animal model. 

Synthesis and Application of Mutanobactin, an Anti-Bacterial and Anti-Biofilm Natural Product that Kills Highly Drug-Resistant Bacteria (Fall 2023)

  • Julia Willett – Microbiology and Immunology, Twin Cities
  • Antibiotic-resistant infections cause more than $2 billion in healthcare costs and more than 35,000 deaths a year in the US. The compound mutanobactin has been shown to kill drug resistant bacteria. This project will involve synthesizing mutanobactin and testing its antibacterial and antibiofilm efficacy.

Development of an Effective At-Home Device for Relieving Head and Neck Muscle Pain (Fall 2023)

  • Qiman Gao – Bakken Medical Device Center, Twin Cities
  • 10% of the US population has progressing head and neck pain that requires expensive medical visits and treatment. A team of pain specialists and engineers aim to offer a cost-effective solution by designing an effective and simple device to relieve head and neck muscle pain at home.

Engineering Human Bcl-2 Protein, Noxa, to Improve T Cell Therapy (Fall 2023)

  • Ameeta Kelekar – Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Twin Cities
  • Knocking out the Noxa protein significantly delays death in stimulated human CD8T cells without affecting their cytotoxic function and shows potential for improving immunotherapy. This project will evaluate performance in extending the lifespan of (a) CAR-T cells and (b) tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL). 

Inhalation-Activated Aerosolized Drug Delivery (Fall 2023)

  • Kari Roberts – Pediatrics, Twin Cities
  • This project focuses on development of a device for delivering therapeutics non-invasively to the lungs of neonates via a pacifier interface. Aerosol puffs from the pacifier will be synchronized with the inhalation phase of breathing for efficient and effective pulmonary delivery.

Mixed Reality Guided Nasogastric Tube Placement (Fall 2023)

  • Enio Torres – Radiology, Twin Cities
  • With real-time guidance and pinpoint accuracy, the goal of our Mixed Reality Tracking System is to reduce complications and enhance patient and provider experience in nasogastric tube placement. This project is focused on developing an initial prototype, and then iterating based on provider feedback.

Developing a Clinical Assay to Detect TP53 Mutant-Like Acute Myeloid Leukemia a Novel, Poor Prognosis AML Subset (Spring 2023)

  • Zohar Sachs - Hematology, Oncology, and Transplantation, Twin Cities
  • A patient subset that does not respond to standard therapies has been identified using computational methods. This work will develop a clinical test to identify these patients with TP53 mutant-like acute myeloid leukemia. 

Development of a Mechano-Diagnostic Platform (for Cancer Cells) (Spring 2023)

  • Matthew Pawlak - Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics, Twin Cities
  • The physical properties of cells dictate behavior. In cancer, these properties change and promote disease progression. This project aims to assess the potential of a cell force sensor to diagnose tumor samples. 

Development of a Novel Class of Antitubercular Drugs (Spring 2023)

  • Anthony Baughn - Microbiology and Immunology, Twin Cities
  • Drug resistant infections kill millions of people each year, with tuberculosis as the leading infectious cause of death worldwide. This project is focused on developing a new class of potent bactericidal drugs that are selective for TB.

Nasogastric Tube Insertion Confirmation Device (Fall 2022)

  • Jonathan Strutt - Pediatrics, Twin Cities
  • Nasogastric tubes are used to provide nutrition and medication for incapacitated patients, but confirmation of proper placement can be challenging. A novel device, based on pH confirmation of gastric contents, has been developed. This project will produce multiple single-use devices that can be utilized in a planned clinical trial. 

Suture Suspension Device for Sacrospinous Ligament Fixation (Fall 2022)

  • Rahel Nardos - Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women's Health, Twin Cities
  • This project is focused on innovating a safe, affordable, and re-usable device that can be used for vaginal pelvic organ prolapse repair in low-resource settings and has the potential to gain traction as a sustainable and cost effective alternative to disposable devices in higher income countries.

Synthetic Integrins for Cell-Based Immunotherapy (Fall 2022)

  • Joseph Muretta - Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics, Twin Cities
  • Cell adhesion and mechanics are critical for immune cell targeting of cancer cells. This project will test a first generation synthetic integrin invented at UMN for direct control of cell adhesion in engineered immune cells in order to evaluate its potential for use with immunotherapies against solid tumors.

Submerged Winding of Wet-Spun Fibers with Living Cells (Spring 2022)

  • Caleb Vogt and Angela Panoskaltsis-Mortari – Pediatrics, Twin Cities
  • A new method for 3D bioprinting, invented by the research team, uses cells spun into living fibers. Now, the team is developing a tension-controlled underwater winder that will coil and manipulate the 100-meter-long fibers without the cells drying out, as they would in currently available systems.

Blood-Brain Barrier Traversing Beta-Galactosidase as a Treatment for GM1-Gangliosidosis (Spring 2022)

  • Michael Przybilla – Pediatrics, Twin Cities
  • GM1-gangliosidosis is a neurological disease with no available treatment and is fatal in childhood. To treat this disease, beta-galactosidase needs to bypass the blood-brain barrier. This project will explore whether this gene editing platform and new molecule could solve this problem. 

Digital and Creative Works Recipients

Measurement of Garment Fit Using Remote Real-Time Multi-Band Scanning (Fall 2023)

  • Brad Holschuh – Design, Housing, and Apparel, Twin Cities
  • The effectiveness of protective masks and respirators are jeopardized by the lack of fit, yet few methods exist to reliably quantify their real-time fit characteristics. This project will develop a novel method for measuring garment fit using electromagnetic scanning.

CrunchFeed: The Diet Tracking App with Heart (Fall 2023)

  • Annie W. Lin – Nutrition Informatics, The Hormel Institute
  • Diet apps are being increasingly used to improve health. However, current apps have inaccurate databases, poor adherence to diet tracking, and incorrect food/portion size selection. We are developing an app to address these challenges, while accounting for personalized factors.

MyGender Dolls: Validation of a Therapeutic Intervention for Transgender and Gender Diverse Children and Their Caregivers (Spring 2023)

  • Dianne Berg / G. Nic Rider - Family Medicine and Community Health, Twin Cities
  • This validation study will further develop and systematically test a novel and culturally-responsive intervention for transgender and gender diverse children and their caregivers to advance health equity and justice.

Collecting Human Explanations: from Perception to Cognition (AI/NLP Enhancement) (Spring 2023)

  • Dongyeop Kang – Computer Science and Engineering, Twin Cities
  • This proposal aims to collect large-scale human explanations from annotations and eye-tracking data. The collected dataset will provide more intuitive and cognitive explanations for AI models.

Machine Learning-Based Decision Support System for Analyzing Medical Device History and Recalls (Fall 2022)

  • Soumya Sen - Information and Decision Sciences, Twin Cities
  • FDA’s 510(k) approval process for new medical devices relies on similarities with outdated existing devices, posing safety concerns. This project is focused on developing a machine learning-based system that automatically extracts and creates a device citation network from 510(k) files to study and predict recalls.

FreeMind - A Wearable Tool Design Idea to Aid Mental Health (Spring 2022)

  • Jomara Sandbulte – Computer Science, Duluth
  • The FreeMind application aims to enhance existing wearable fitness trackers by aggregating contextual data to better support users in mental health goals—particularly for stress management— by allowing users to learn new insights about themselves based on multiple data points.

Tangible E-Textile Interface for Digital Patternmaking with Soft Goods (Spring 2022)

  • Lucy Dunne – Design, Housing, and Apparel, Twin Cities
  • Designers often prefer working manually with fabric to develop garment patterns, but digitizing draped patterns is slow and cumbersome and introduces error. This project will develop an e-textile interface that digitizes a draped pattern in real-time. 

Ag, Hort, Resources, and Earth Science Recipients

Native Mycorrhizal Fungi Cultivation Method for Tree Seedling Success in Reforestation (Fall 2023)

  • Mikayla Haynes - Biology, Duluth
  • Native mycorrhizal fungi species are more compatible with native tree species than commercial mycorrhizal products and increase seedling growth and survival rates. This project aims to develop a native mycorrhizal fungi cultivation method for eastern white pine seedlings.

Bioengineered Yeast Strains to Produce Unique Flavors in Brewed Beverages (Fall 2022)

  • Lucas Busta - Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duluth
  • This project is focused on creating a bioengineered strain of yeast for brewing beer via genome editing. This yeast will create flavors normally introduced into the beer by expensive ingredients like hops, thus decreasing the cost and environmental footprint of beer making.

Calibration-Strip Remote Sensing Based Precision Nitrogen Management Tool and Software Development (Fall 2022)

  • Katsutoshi Mizutaa - Soil, Water, and Climate, Twin Cities
  • Growers are constantly under pressure to produce high yields with less fertilizer. This project will finalize development of a cutting-edge tool that allows growers to apply exactly as much fertilizer as the plant needs, which saves money for growers and reduces environmental pollution.

Low-Cost Genetic Test to Identify Invasive Highbush Cranberry (Fall 2022)

  • Alan Smith - Horticultural Sciences, Twin Cities
  • The American highbush cranberry (HBC) is ornamental with edible fruit used by tribal nations and others. The European HBC is identical but has inedible fruit. This project will focus on developing a genetic test that will identify and boost sales of American HBC and facilitate the elimination of the invasive European HBC.

LOONBuoy - Smart Sensing in Marine Environments (Spring 2022)

  • Craig Hill - Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Duluth 
  • Leveraging low-cost sensors for real-time, smart IoT marine ecosystem monitoring in an affordable and adaptable form. The LOONBuoy enables distributed water quality monitoring across urban and remote marine ecosystems, providing equitable data access to communities and agencies.