Inventing solutions

New program accelerates commercialization of problem-solving innovations
Photos by Adam Küykendall
The aha moment: Researchers from UMaine and Sappi North America discovered that an existing technology — patterned paper — can be used for an environmentally friendly diagnostic device.

Inventing solutions

New program accelerates commercialization of problem-solving innovations

Photos by Adam Küykendall

At the University of Maine, faculty and students collaborate to make significant discoveries that solve meaningful problems to improve lives and create jobs. And now a new university technology accelerator program provides the resources and expertise to allow researchers to move their inventions out of the lab and into public and
commercial use.

Earlier this year, five inventions created by UMaine faculty-led teams were the first to benefit from the Maine Innovation, Research and Technology Accelerator (MIRTA) program. MIRTA was made possible by the University of Maine System 2018 Research Reinvestment Fund, a pool of competitive internal grants allocated to advance research projects along the path from discovery to becoming commercial products with public benefit.

All projects are tied to Maine businesses or industries critical to the future of the state.

“Every day, the University of Maine strives to turn research and development activities into new opportunities that will create jobs and grow Maine’s economy.” Renee Kelly

MIRTA is part of UMaine’s statewide focus on innovation, economic development and workforce development — a commitment to create meaningful employment and help improve the lives of people across Maine and beyond through ongoing research and outreach.

“The goal is to significantly advance research innovation to marketable new products and services,” says Renee Kelly, UMaine assistant vice president for innovation and economic development. “Every day, the University of Maine strives to turn research and development activities into new opportunities that will create jobs and grow Maine’s economy.”

The first five MIRTA teams spent 20 hours a week for 16 weeks learning about the market and intellectual property analyses, and business model development needed to bring their invention to market. Most of the teams included undergraduate and graduate student researchers.

Guiding the research teams were business incubation staff from the university’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development, and an advisory committee of industry and technology experts, many of whom are UMaine alumni, who provide feedback and advice.

At the end of their program, all five teams had clear commercialization plans to move forward, from starting a company to licensing and collaborating with business partners.

This fall, MIRTA’s second cohort includes teams researching projects ranging from digital visual aids for people with visual disabilities to replacing plastics with biodegradable materials.

Profiles of the first five MIRTA teams led by faculty inventors:

Healthy Hives

In a single year, the successful pollination of crops by honeybees is reflected in the foods found in nearly every average American meal. In particular, the $28 billion wild Maine blueberry crop is dependent on pollination by commercial honeybees. But in 2014–15, bee losses in Maine reached 60 percent due to colony collapse, a global problem not yet fully understood. To learn more about bee colony health and prevent collapses through early intervention, a radar-based, noninvasive beehive activity monitor was invented to record the insects’ movements. Armed with the customer and market knowledge gained through MIRTA activities, Healthy Hives inventor Nuri Emanetoglu plans to launch a startup company in late 2018, with companies in Ellsworth and Portland expected to collaborate on manufacturing.

A radar-based beehive activity monitor developed by inventor Nuri Emanetoglu is designed to record the insects’ movements to and from the apiary to inform colony health.

Geospatial Innovations
Supporting Landscape Management in Maine

The forest industry has a long, rich history in Maine, and continues to have significant economic impact in the state, contributing $8.5 billion to the gross domestic product and supporting 33,000 jobs. To keep this industry strong and the resources sustainable, forest managers require ongoing, accurate data collection. Currently in Maine, a lack of broad-scale geospatial information about forest and landscape conditions is a barrier to planning and prioritization. The Intelligent Geosolutions mapping approach is gathering this critical information using machine learning algorithms. Inventors Erin Simons-Legaard, Kasey Legaard and Aaron Weiskittel have created a low-cost, high-resolution, near-real time geoinformatics system to better compile broad-scale spatial information about timber and nontimber resources. Those forest attributes can include tree species biomass and relative abundance, forest types, wildlife habitat suitability, disturbance history and canopy change.

Beverage Contamination Detector

Across the country, demand for beer and wine is on the rise. There are more than 6,000 wineries in the United States — a number that’s growing by more than 6 percent a year. And in Maine, the number of breweries has jumped 30 percent in the past year to more than 120. To meet the ever-increasing market demand, wineries and breweries need a faster, more cost-effective means of identifying spoilage than the current costly yeast tests that take days to return results and require specialized equipment.A portable device for point-of-use beverage spoilage yeast testing has been developed by inventors Laurie Connell and Corey Hirn. The technology delivers on-site microbe detection using RNA-related probes to return results in 15 minutes, compared to the industry standard method that takes five days.

Point-of-Care Diagnostics, Simplified

The need is ever-increasing for handheld point-of-care biomedical diagnostic testing devices, such as those used in blood and urine testing, in the health care and pharmaceuticals arenas. These kinds of tests enable providers to detect diseases earlier and provide diagnostic testing to underserved populations. Despite the numerous benefits these devices bring to the health care community, they are costly to produce. Can the devices be made more cost-effective and environmentally friendly, eliminating the use of plastics and glass? In collaboration with Sappi North America in Westbrook, Maine, a UMaine research team is developing new methods of using patterned release paper in biotechnical applications. The team is led by inventors Caitlin Howell, Amber Boutiette and Matthew Talbot in collaboration with Amy Blakeley of Sappi. The goal is to develop low-cost, paper-based devices that leverage the existing patented patterning technology and microfluidics engineering in disposable, biodegradable devices that could ultimately increase accessibility to health-related diagnostic testing worldwide.

In professor Caitlin Howell’s Biointerface and Biomimetics Laboratory, undergraduate and graduate students collaborate on research that focuses on the intersection of biology, engineering and materials science. UMaine student researchers on the project include, left to right, Jenny Baranker, a biochemistry major from Virginia Commonwealth University; UMaine graduate student Amber Boutiette from Skowhegan, Maine; and UMaine biomedical engineering majors Chris Toothaker from Bradley, Maine and Bailey Corless from Wallingford, Connecticut.

Making Peripheral Neuropathy Right

Neuropathy, the death of peripheral nerves, is a health condition that can result in pain and loss of mobility and, in some cases, can lead to amputation. Causes range from diabetes and aging to certain viruses and exposure to some chemicals. It is estimated that, in the U.S. alone, approximately 30 million people are affected and one out of every four Americans will be affected by it. How can peripheral neuropathy be detected and diagnosed as early as possible to avoid extreme measures like amputation? A research team led by Kristy Townsend and Rosemary Smith has developed a microneedle medical device for early detection and diagnosis of small-fiber neuropathy. The device also has the ability to deliver noninvasive, pain-free treatment on and below the skin. The flexible microneedle array is capable of nerve conduction measurements and drug delivery, and has the potential to stimulate nerve regrowth.

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