WPI Recognizes Novel Research by its Students, Faculty, and Alumni with 2015 Kalenian Awards

Winners of the university’s top prize exemplify innovation and entrepreneurship with projects from see-through tissue to cell-phone microscopes.
November 23, 2015

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Celebrating the "ideas and inventiveness" of its students, faculty, and staff, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has recognized four novel research projects with the prestigious Kalenian Award, the university's top prize. This year’s honorees, who will share a $20,000 prize purse, include a student group developing a cellphone microscope to diagnose malaria; a biology professor studying plant-based cancer treatments; a team of professors exploring an on-campus merger and acquisition center; and two alumni working on a chemical process that renders human tissue samples transparent for examination.

"Our community of innovators look forward to entering the Kalenian Award competition every year. I receive inquiries all year long, so this time of year is very exciting and rewarding," said Gina Betti, associate director of the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at WPI, who manages the Kalenian competition. "It is a privilege to find depth and breadth of innovation in the proposals. Going through the two-stage application is a valuable learning process. The prize serves to validate that effort".

The Kalenian Award was established in 2006 through the generosity of Alba Kalenian in memory of her late husband, Aram '33, an inventor. It provides seed funds to support and advance the ideas and inventiveness of WPI students, faculty members, and alumni and to encourage similar innovation and entrepreneurship across the academic community. Prior winning ideas have included an early detection device for Alzheimer's disease and method to produce iron and steel while limiting greenhouse gases. The 2015 award was presented by the Kalenian’s son, Paul, during a recent ceremony.

The highly competitive award evaluates the novelty of each submitted concept; its potential in a commercial market; how a business plan could evolve from the idea; and the concept's likelihood for success. This year, more than 70 people participated in the selective bid process; 26 proposals were reviewed and winnowed to the top four:

Cellphone Microscopes to Diagnose Malaria

Students Elizabeth van Zyl '17, Ben Pulver '17, and Taylor Flaxington '17 are developing a cellphone-based microscope and microfluidic cartridge for diagnosing malaria in the field. Their design features two components: a simple light microscope that uses the phone’s camera to take magnified images of blood samples, and slide cartridges for staining and preparing the samples. The user can employ the device to directly diagnose themselves, or the images can be sent elsewhere for confirmation. Together, these parts offer a diagnostic solution that costs as little as 50 cents per test and can be deployed around the world in countries with little access to medical testing and care.

"Receiving the award will allow us to pursue a patent on the device and further the development of the design so that it meets all of the necessary specifications," said Pulver.

Herbal Medicines to Treat Cancer

Pamela Weathers, professor of biology and biotechnology at WPI, is studying artemisinin, a potent antimalarial drug derived from the plant Artemisia annua (sweet Annie), which has also proven toxic to many cancer cell lines. Weathers said the award will help facilitate preclinical experiments using dried leaf artemisinin (DLA).

"We have preliminary data showing efficacy against two lines of nonsmoker, lung cancer cells, so now we would like to validate our findings in an animal model, which is the only way we can actually test the efficacy of orally consumed DLA."

Merger and Acquisition Center

Kevin Sweeney, Huong Higgins and Fabienne Miller, faculty members in WPI's Robert A. Foisie School of Business, will use their award to study the feasibility of establishing a merger and acquisition center at WPI.

"This activity helps position the university as a hub for connecting research and technologies by entrepreneurial alumni, students, and faculty of WPI to industries and markets, particularly when these entrepreneurs want to sell or acquire a business," says Higgins. "This is an opportunity to engage the university community more deeply in the innovation and entrepreneurship process, to help perpetuate energy, and to channel resources back into WPI."

Transparent Tissue

WPI alumni Nick Crider and Tom Villani of New Jersey-based Phytosys LLC are developing a technology called Visikol that can render biological tissues totally transparent, allowing researchers to see internal structures and cell types without slicing the tissue sample into hundreds of tiny pieces. It also enables tissue to be analyzed in 3D, rather than reconstructed from 2D slices or by using x-rays.


"Our next step, which will be funded by the Kalenian Award, is to develop this technique for use with specific types of cells, like tumor cells or neurons," said Villani. "This will allow us to begin marketing Visikol to researchers in the pharmaceutical and medical space."