Thinking BIG

July 11, 2011 | CUNY Matters, The University

University researchers are now developing marketable products to help solve medical, energy and other global challenges. These profitable ideas will also benefit CUNY and the local economy.

What if. For science and technology researchers, these are the words that can start an idea on the road to invention — the connective tissue between something known and something imagined. In recent years, a particular brand of what-if has been percolating in labs around the University: the kind that can lead to something the world can really use.

What if, for instance, a way could be found to overcome the one problem that limits the capacity of a standard nickel-zinc battery, the kind in cameras and phones? Could you make one big enough to power a whole building?

What if electrical brain stimulation, a technique that has shown promise as a treatment for diseases like Parkinson’s, could be accomplished by simply placing electrodes on the scalp — rather than requiring a surgeon to drill a hole through the skull, as the technology now requires?

And what if there were a way to make plastics, wood and fabrics with surfaces embedded with a natural substance known to have immense antibacterial powers? Would fewer people die of infections in hospitals?

CUNY faculty researchers have been asking themselves these and a lot of other “what if” questions with real-world applications the past few years. And the answers are beginning to emerge from their labs — the first fruit of a decade-long initiative to recruit and support inventive researchers and partner with them in commercializing

discoveries. They are part of an effort to reimagine CUNY as the kind of “entrepreneurial university” that Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has said it needs to be to fulfill its mission as a modern public university in every sense.

“Our scientists are developing technologies that have the potential to make tremendous contributions to society,” says the chancellor. “Bringing them to the marketplace is essential, benefitting not only their creators, their colleges and CUNY, but local economies and the public at large.”

CUNY’s moves to scale up science and technology are broadening the University’s rich tradition of research that benefits society at large — building on the social sciences that have been a hallmark of CUNY research to foster discoveries in the physical sciences, biomedicine and technology that might make the world healthier, wealthier and maybe a little more wise.

The University’s science research faculty has grown by more than 700 over the past eight years — an expansion that was itself a bit of engineering. According to Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small, many were hired in clusters after a process that identified specialized, cutting-edge corners of chemistry, physics and biomedical engineering that could become “flagship areas” for CUNY. The infusion of talent and focus has helped lead to a threefold increase in government support for CUNY research in the past decade — to $152 million in 2010 — much of it, lately, in government grants targeting technology research with promise for the economy, energy and the greater American good.

A key to the University’s efforts is an intellectual property policy that is generous to faculty — more generous, in some cases, than those in place at major research institutions that have been commercializing faculty discoveries on a large scale for many years. Among other things, the policy allows faculty to start small companies, in collaboration with CUNY’s Technology Commercialization Office, to bring their inventions and discoveries to the marketplace.

“We’re in the start-up phase,” says Small. “We’re getting in the game. We’re competing.”

Chancellor Goldstein sees a connection between the commercialization of CUNY research and the University’s need to find creative solutions to its budget burdens. “This is a time when the same spirit of ‘what if?’ that drives our academic research must also drive our approach to financing,” he said in a speech earlier this year. “Universities must become incubators of new ideas, reorienting themselves to a new environment of institutional entrepreneurism.”

Here is a look at a few members of CUNY’s research faculty and how the technologies they’ve developed are helping the University re-imagine its role in the world.

Prototype device above, developed in a City College lab, shows promise for treating neurological diseases via painless, noninvasive

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

The inventor: Zaghoul Ahmed, Ph.D., Department of Physical Therapy at College of Staten Island and Department of Neuroscience at the Graduate Center.

The invention: PathMaker Neuromuscular Treatment System, a CUNY-trademarked method of treating spinal cord injuries by using electrical stimulation to strengthen neuromotor connections.

The ambition: Ahmed’s device and method have shown early promise as an effective technique for strengthening the neuromotor pathways that remain after a spinal injury, promoting significant and perhaps permanent improvement. The technology recently won a $250,000 BioAccelerate NYC Prize   from the New York City Investment Fund, an annual competition to encourage academic institutions in the city to translate biomedical research into practical applications. If the PathMaker system continues to prove effective — a trial involving 96 patients is now under way — CUNY could license the technology through the offshoot company.

In his words: “In neuroscience, there is a principle that when two neurons fire in synchrony the connection between them strengthens. It’s thought to be the basis for memory, learning and recovery from injury. The opposite is true when there’s a spinal cord injury. The connections from the brain to the spinal cord and the spinal cord to the muscle are weakened. The basis for the technology I have developed is that  applying stimulation to activate brain cells, spinal cord cells and muscle — at the same time — should strengthen the connections and improve function. It is premised on the existence of at least some minimal neuronal function. The electrical stimulation is applied along the entire affected spinal neuromotor pathway, from the brain to the affected extremity. It turned out to be very effective. We’ve published two papers reporting remarkable recovery, first with mice and then with five patients with cerebral palsy and spinal injuries. We have a 16-year-old with severe cerebral palsy affecting both her arms and legs. She has always been in a wheelchair. After three weeks of treatment, three times a week for 15 minutes, she was walking with crutches without assistance. We’re now testing it with 96 patients with cerebral palsy or limited movement after a stroke. We hope it will confirm what has been shown so far, that extended treatments signal natural spinal processes to grow new neuronal connections.”

Versatile Sanitizer Creates Antibacterial Materials

The inventor: Robert Engel, Ph.D., and two of his now-former students in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Queens College.

The invention: New antibacterial materials derived from substances known as “quats,” shorthand for quaternary ammonium salts, that can be applied to surfaces and even embedded in fabrics.

The ambition: By making surfaces themselves antibacterial, the processes developed in Engel’s lab can be used to make a wide variety of suddenly sanitary products. Arguably the most important would be hospital gowns and bedding, and even equipment surfaces that could fight the spread of infection instead of facilitating it.  Engel and his colleagues are in the early stages of licensing the CUNY-patented technology to manufacturers.

In his words: “We knew that in high concentration quats kill bacteria, and we decided to try to bind them to a range of surfaces, to see if we could arrange them in such a way that they would challenge bacteria in a relatively low concentration and could rip a hole in a bacterium when it fell on them. And it worked marvelously. E. coli would be hit by 100,000 of them simultaneously and the quats would just tear the cell wall apart. The key is in the processes we’ve developed for applying the quats to surfaces. In solution, you can’t get them organized — it’s like herding cats. But if you use the surface itself, either binding or embedding them, this makes a very nice system. It works with cloth, paper, wood, paints, cork, and a variety of other surfaces. So we can make the first antibacterial hospital gown. It can also be used in hotel bedding. We can embed it in plastics for athletic gear. It can be used in construction. We can treat wood to kill fungi, or to drive termites away.  We’re in the process of negotiating with three operations interested in putting money into it, who would license our process. One of our collaborators is a fabric finisher. We have gone to his plant and we’ve put this on the assembly line and run through 10,000 feet of fabric. It can be scaled up very easily.”

‘Brain Pacemaker’

The inventor: Marom Bikson, Ph.D., is a member of the biomedical engineering faculty at City College,  where he heads a lab that develops prototypes for medical devices.

The invention: Transcranial electrotherapy technology — a noninvasive method of delivering current to targeted areas of the brain, a technique that shows promise as a treatment for an array of neurological and psychiatric illnesses. CUNY patents cover the device itself, as well as the electrode configurations and algorithms that ensure that the current is precisely delivered to specific disease-related areas of the brain.

The ambition: Bikson and his team hope the technology will become a new weapon in the treatment of the most severe cases of brain diseases including Parkinson’s, epilepsy, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. It will be tested over the next year in clinical trials  at several centers including Harvard Medical School. CUNY’s Technology Commercialization Office has helped Bikson and his colleagues form a company, Soterix Medical, to test and market the technology.

In his words: “This idea grew out of my doctoral research on a procedure called deep brain stimulation, or DBS. DBS involves drilling through the skull of someone with a severe brain illness and surgically implanting electrodes to deliver constant electrical stimulation — like a brain pacemaker.  Despite tremendous clinical success, the risk, complications and cost of DBS surgery represent a significant barrier to many patients.  So I decided to think outside the box — and the box is the skull. In the last 10 years or so, there has been a lot of promising research showing that transcranial electrical stimulation — delivering current noninvasively, from outside the head — can induce what’s called neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to essentially rewire itself by forming new neural connections. This had the potential to not just treat the symptoms of neuropsychiatric diseases, as DBS does, but induce a lasting cure. The problem was it couldn’t be focused to target specific brain regions identified with specific diseases. This is where my biomedical engineering team came in. What we have invented is the first electrotherapy delivery platform that is noninvasive, painless, and allows current delivery to specific brain targets.

The goal is for the treatment benefits to last. That’s a pretty compelling clinical proposition. Of course, there are many questions to be answered. But I think we have something pretty special on our hands. We’re  motivated with every new story of a life transformed.”

Flexible Lasers Speed Wound Healing

The inventor: Vinod Menon, Ph.D., joined the physics department of Queens College in 2004, one of the first recruited to the CUNY research faculty through its strategic “cluster hiring” initiative. He and his colleagues develop lasers with practical applications.

The invention: The technique Menon has developed for creating flexible lasers and emitters that cover both visible and infrared light has the potential to be developed into a  light emitting bandage that accelerates wound healing.

The ambition: Menon is a strong advocate of CUNY’s commitment to helping academic researchers get  cutting-edge technologies developed and out to the world. He founded Hybrid Photonics, a company that has received funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to develop chip-scale optical signal processors. He is working with CUNY’s Technology Commerciali-zation Office to bring the laser bandage idea to the marketplace.

In his words: “It has been established that infrared laser light can help heal wounds by increasing blood flow and cell production. What we have done is use a low-cost technique, namely spin-coating process, to create flexible, micro-cavity structures that work as lasers. This means we now have a way of making lasers cheaper than traditional techniques and also getting lasers on a flexible piece of plastic. What we are trying to do is marry this to the known ability of infrared laser light to accelerate wound healing. It would be a self-powered, light-emitting bandage. The low cost of fabricating these devices will allow for easy and cost-effective scale-up of manufacturing.

“What we are trying to do now is identify potential industrial collaborators for further development of the light-emitting bandage. And then, to test it, we want to collaborate with a medical institution that does research on wound-healing. Taking things from the lab to the marketplace is a long, complicated process. When I came here in 2004, there was no system in place to help professors. Now there is. It is still a difficult process, but we are learning the ropes.”

Innovative Battery With Longer Life

The inventors: CUNY Energy Institute, a center based at City College comprising faculty from across the University. Led by Sanjoy Banerjee, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and the institute’s founding director, research teams are working on advanced sustainable energy and other technologies to meet U.S. energy challenges.

The invention: A nickel-zinc “flow” battery that uses an innovative system of circulating electrolytes to scale up the capacity and life of the traditional nickel-zinc battery, making it a cost-effective method of storing large amounts of energy generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind. The project is led by Banerjee and Daniel Steingart, Ph.D.

The ambition: The institute’s hope of developing a “flow” battery large enough to sustain a building is one of several areas that have drawn combined funding of nearly $20 million in the past two years from federal and state grants, along with private foundations and industrial donors. To advance the institute’s vision of forging entrepreneurial partnerships to bring its technologies to the energy marketplace, Banerjee recruited an executive director, Valerio DeAngelis, a chemical engineering Ph.D. with long experience in managing and developing new technology ventures.

In his words: “As an academic research center, we’re kind of an experiment,” says DeAngelis. “We are a university with the mindset of a company. We have two products. One is the students — we support 30 Ph.D. students — and the other is the discoveries. We expect the technology developed here to lead to several start-up companies and hundreds of future employment opportunities in the New York City area. And training the next generation of engineers is as important as starting a company. They are both vital to our vision of contributing to the energy independence of the United States by pursuing pragmatic research in energy storage, oil and gas, and making nuclear plants safer and more efficient.”