An exterior shot of WPI Seaport, which is made up of floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and is in front of a body of water.

Innovation Day at the Seaport Space

Extending the reach of WPI’s research and early-stage technologies
May 30, 2018

In an effort to increase WPI’s reach and engagement, the university recently showcased faculty and student research projects during Innovation Day at the Seaport facility.

The program featured 14 short presentations for projects as varied as wearable sensors to prevent skin ulcers, an assistive device for drop foot patients, a gyroscopic shoulder prosthesis for arm amputees, enzyme-driven repair of damaged concrete, and an adaptive converter for improved electrical grid reliability.

Todd Keiller, director of intellectual property and innovation, explained that similar programs have been held in Worcester at the university’s Venture Forum. “The impetus there was, how do we expose early stage technologies to the communities and network to find commercial homes for them?” he said. “So, here at the Seaport space, if we can get one or two good leads—and we have one already who wants to engage in a licensing discussion—it’s a total win for us. Since it worked in Worcester, we said we would try it here.”

Keiller said the event fits into the university’s strategy for the Seaport space. “Many of the people walked here, and would not have driven out to Worcester,” he explained. “If we can do it in Worcester and here, we’re going to get different audiences that may work for the same goal.”

Bogdan Vernescu, vice provost for research, said the earlier Worcester forums were successful in matching students who have intellectual property ideas with venture capitalists and companies. “We wanted to do the same thing here,” he said. “This is the first time doing it, and we are going to continue to create a regular attendance at these events in Boston so we can expand the reach that WPI research has beyond the Worcester area.

“We assume there is a lot of capacity, due to all the universities in the area,” Vernescu said. “The assumption right now is that there is more capacity than the local universities can offer. We’re filling in a gap.

“This is one of the types of events that we will see more of in the Seaport." He added, "We’ll repeat this a few times a year. We hope to become more visible here, to make our research more visible, but also to bring companies back to Worcester to work with our students.”

John McNeill, head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, showcased wireless sensor patch technology, which enables the continuous monitoring of bed sores. The battery-powered device monitors and detects the skin pressure, temperature, and humidity of a hospital patient who is confined to a bed. The constant monitoring alerts hospital staff on a base station or smart phone when the patient’s skin is at risk of developing a sore, and proper treatment and prevention tactics can be applied to keep the patient healthy. The device, which is flexible and noninvasive, adheres to human skin similar to that of a cardiac patch, and can be worn for up to seven days before it is disposed of. Aside from keeping patients healthy and sore-free, the technology costs only $10 per sensor, which would decrease the $11 billion that is annually spent on U.S. health care costs.

Karen Troy, associate professor of biomedical engineering, displayed two projects. The idea for the first, a bone strength recovery device, resulted from studying the rate of bone fracture healing in smokers. She realized there was not a good objective and quantifiable way to measure how human bones heal. Currently, doctors take x-rays of patients with broken and fractured bones, examine how the bone appears to be healing, offer a subjective guess as to how well a patient is healing, and estimate how long it will take to fully heal. In order to offer patients a more objective, accurate view on how a fractured bone is healing, Troy and her team developed a bone strength recovery device that can monitor healing fractures. The device is strapped around a part of the body that has a fractured bone, and then gentle pressure is applied to the fractured area. Imaging sensors attached to the device then take high resolution images of the fractured area. That shows doctors how stiff the healing fracture callus is, which indicates the state of healing.  The goal of this device is to help doctors evaluate the healing extent of fractured bones, detect healing complications early, and help with potential development of drugs that can assist with quicker healing, something not yet available on the market.

In her second presentation, Troy featured a solution that can measure bone and joint deformities in patients with arthritis, which stemmed from a seed grant by WPI and UMass Medical School. She and her team developed imaging and custom algorithms that can generate an image of the current state of arthritic joints and worn-down bone, or “unhealthy bone.” Next, researchers generate an image that estimates what the unhealthy bone looked like previously when it was “healthy.” The devices can mesh the two images to show the difference between each state of those bones. Doctors can then administer treatment based on the patient’s individual needs. They can also use this technology to conduct early detection and treatment of bone erosion, minimizing a patient’s risk of developing irreversible bone damage that can cause permanent disability.

Alexandra Miller ’20, who is majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in theatre, presented her invention, “Get Up ‘N’ Go,” retractable metal arms that can be attached to a walker. The device, which she designed in high school, was inspired by her grandfather, who used a walker to get around post-knee surgery. Her grandfather often had trouble getting up to stand with the walker; he wanted to pull himself up with the walker to stand, instead of push himself up on the seat to get to his feet. As a result, Alexandra developed “Get Up ‘N’ Go,” which clamps onto the frame of a standard walker, and provides arm rests and ground stabilization to help users transition between sitting and standing.

Julia Dunn, Steven Franca, and Lauren Guertin, biomedical engineering majors in the Class of 2019, presented “The Compact Retract,” a device designed to improve the gait of someone with foot drop, an abnormality that causes a person’s forefoot to drop while walking and can lead to falls and toe drag. The trio came up with the idea while working in a design course, and were tasked with finding a better assistive device for drop foot patients. The students built their device with a compression sleeve, a retractable piece from a headphone set, and other parts. The Compact Retract slides over the foot and up the bottom half the leg; as the person walks, the retractable part of the device helps pick up the foot, making walking up and down stairs easier. The device is also more comfortable, less bulky, and less expensive to manufacture than current products on the market. 

Over the course of the summer, the students will work on more prototypes. They will also begin testing the Compact Retract on drop foot patients in the near future.

Marko Popovic, assistant research professor of physics, also presented two projects during Innovation Day at Seaport. The first, called hydro-muscles, features a soft compliant actuator powered by pressurized fluids or gases that resembles human muscles, their movement and appearance. Hydro muscles, made of rubber parts, can be applied to numerous parts of the human body, such as the hand or foot, and help people better move and strengthen those extremities. Hydro-muscles are also inexpensive, can be made quickly, and are customizable to patients’ needs.

Similarly, Popovic’s second presentation featured the gait-assistive shoulder prosthesis. This device is designed to provide those, such as an amputee, better shoulder articulation. Once affixed to a person’s shoulder, it exerts a moment on the user’s trunk similar to an arm during walking or other dynamic motion assistance. Popovic also shared that a prototype actuator has been incorporated into the prosthesis, which can exert torque that is equivalent to the human shoulder, and will further help the movement of those who are missing an arm.

Ross Lagoy, a PhD student in biomedical engineering, presented two projects. He worked on the first, Hydrogel Encapsulation of Living Organisms for Long-term Microscopy and Screening Applications, with Kyra Burnett, PhD student in biomedical engineering. Lagoy explained that the technology can immobilize small model organisms and keep them healthy for over 24 hours. The hydrogel is porous and compounds can be delivered through the gel that will diffuse and get to the organisms, allowing researchers to look at different physiological properties that are affected by the diffused compounds. Because it’s clear, researchers can look at transparent animals and how the compound affects different types of cellular processes, like neural activity.

The project came about in response to challenges in imaging with dual-view light sheet microscopy, which is not compatible with other materials that immobilize animals, due to the index of refraction being imaged through. “So, we developed a new material that matches water, essentially, in its index of refraction,” Lagoy said. “You can image through it and keep animals still. This type of microscopy gives very good resolution of cellular structures.”

His second project, Serial Liquid Delivery to Microfluidic Devices from Microwell Plates for Automated Experiments, was designed to automate the process of interfacing multiwall plates to microfluidic devices in a way that prevents bubbles from being introduced.

“There are two common elements to Hyroput screening; that is, using multiwall plates to store compound libraries, and microfluidic devices, in which you can send liquids to biological samples in very precisely timed durations,” Lagoy explained.  “But the way of interfacing multiwall plates that have compounds to microfluidic devices is underdeveloped, so we want to automate this process because there’s lots of wells sitting there.” Transferring it manually takes a lot of time, so Lagoy’s team automated this and found a way to transfer tubing from each well in a multiwall plate without introducing a bubble, which could affect the experience.

Lagoy developed these microfluidic devices to image neural activity in worms. He first did this manually by transferring one well to another to look at how animals respond to different odorants. “That’s not bad to do manually, but if you want to scale this up to do 96 to, say, 384, we want to automate the process. We automated it in this way and figured out how to do it without introducing bubbles.”

Pavel Terentiev, a postdoc in computer science, presented Holographic Visualizations of Complex Disease Networks Using Augmented Reality. Terentiev and his company, In Virtu Data Solutions, are trying to solve the problem of visualization of complex and multidimensional data sets from different and heterogenus sources. “We tried to construct 3-D models that could be observed by a group of people through a mixed reality device, and explore this in a natural and perceptible way to get inside the data,” he said. “Also, we are trying to enrich data so we can produce visual models with additional data.

“There was an opportunity in my lab to do research in this direction, and I was excited about the technology of mixed reality visualization. It was only two years ago that it was introduced to the public. That was my motivation. The first results I got with this technology were really exciting, and I believed at that moment I saw how vastly this technology might be exploited to data analytics.”

Suzanne Scarlata, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, presented Universal Repair of Concrete Using Enzymes.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is to rapidly repair concrete surfaces to give a product that is identical to the original structure,” she said. She described it as an infrastructure repair that’s easy, green, and a rapid, off-the-shelf method to repair cracks in something as small as a sidewalk or on airport runways. “There are so many infrastructure problems, especially in the developing world, that you want something easy and low-cost.

Nima Rahbar is in the Civil Engineering department, and is interested in material research. He came up to me after a talk and told me that people were using microbes for concrete repair, but there might be health hazards associated with it. I thought this was bizarre, and that there are better ways of doing it.”

Amy Peterson, assistant professor in chemical engineering, presented two projects. The first, Self Healing Coatings, is aimed at providing a solution for the nation’s failing infrastructure. “America is currently facing an infrastructure crisis. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimates it will take close to $5 trillion to rehabilitate U.S. infrastructure,” Peterson explained. Reinforced concrete is the most widely used infrastructure material, but its durability suffers due to corrosion of the rebar, which causes expansion of the rebar, and spalling of the concrete off the rebar, she said.

“In my PhD, I studied strategies for self-healing within fiber-reinforced composites, so I had a background in self-healing materials, and I was interested in coming up with a project to work on with my co-inventor, Aaron Sakulich, who works in concrete. We sat down over lunch one day and came up with this.”

Her second project, Controlled Deformation Additive Manufacturing, offers the potential to manufacture items in shapes that had previously impossible to create, or could only be created with a lot of waste. “So it’s offering a lot of creativity for designers of new structures. However, there are significant problems related to the reliability of processes, as well as warping of structures due to residual stresses and limited strength of these structures, particularly in polymer additive manufacturing,” she said. “We’re aiming to overcome this by annealing out these residual stresses and building structures in such a way that when they are annealed they will have the desired final dimensions.

“We are interested in processing-structure-property relationships in polymer additive manufacturing, and one of my students characterized a sample using a technique that heats a clamped specimen, and when it came out it was incredibly deformed, and we thought, 'that’s really strange … let’s explore that.'”

Tan Zhang, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering, presented Adaptive Energy Storage Control for Microgrid Stability Enhancement, which adapts the energy storage system in a microgrid in response to varying conditions.

“The problem that I want to solve is stable operation of a small-scale power system, inside the distribution system in order to enhance the grid resiliency reliabilities,” he explained.

“I have always been fascinated by the energy and power industry. I’ve studied this since I was an undergrad. That motivated me to come to the U.S.. During master’s and PhD study, I have been fortunate to work with utilities such as National Grid. Those experiences let me realize the importance of the stable operation of our electric power system in general.

“This motivated me to do my research on the microgrid, which is the future trend of our power energy society. The energy storage system is the holy grail of the future, and that’s going to change the way of transforming energy in our industry. That motivated me to come up with my own research on the microgrid stability enhancement storage system.”

- By Jessica Messier and Martin Luttrell