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Innovation Hub provides funding to seven entrepreneurial teams

A robot with a firm, yet gentle grip.

By TRACY SCHIEDEL

Published December 11, 2019

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“Innovation Hub is closing the gap between innovators and the marketplace by connecting researchers, students and clinicians to the funding, facilities and expertise they need to commercialize their ideas more rapidly and effectively. ”
Christina Orsi, associate vice president for economic development

It has been just six months since UB and partners launched the Innovation Hub, a new initiative that will support the region’s growing startup economy.

Now, there are seven entrepreneurial teams that have received a combined $500,000 from the initiative to advance promising new technologies that aim to solve pressing societal challenges.

“Innovation Hub is closing the gap between innovators and the marketplace by connecting researchers, students and clinicians to the funding, facilities and expertise they need to commercialize their ideas more rapidly and effectively,” says Christina Orsi, associate vice president for economic development at UB.

The $32 million Innovation Hub, also known as I-Hub, supports entrepreneurship with a soon-to-be built incubator center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a $13.5 million accelerator investment fund, as well as startup outreach and support services.

The teams — six from UB, one from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center — are developing new therapeutics for respiratory failure, more efficient and sustainable batteries, opioid alternatives for chronic pain and other innovations.

“Each of these accelerator awardees is a testament to the true talent and ingenuity at UB and our research partners. We’re very excited about this inaugural cohort and look forward to their continued progress in advancing toward market readiness,” Orsi says.

Here’s a look at the seven projects.

Collaborative robot

Ehsan Esfahani.

Ehsan Esfahani

Many believe that the future of factories and manufacturing includes the deployment of collaborative robots (or “cobots”) that are able to physically interact with humans to gain unique and synergistic benefits. Before becoming commonplace, cobots must be designed and tested to assure the safety of people working within close proximity.

As recipients of a $55,720 award, Ehsan Esfahani associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and his team are focused on making cobots a reality with a robot hand that is safe to interact with humans. They have developed a variable stiffness robotic gripper that is able to detect unwanted collisions by adjusting itself to protect those around it. The team is launching a startup to commercialize the gripper, while licensing technology from UB.

Better batteries

Mark Swihart.

Mark Swihart

While lithium-ion batteries are the common choice in consumer electronics and electric vehicles, their storage capacity is limited. To overcome this issue, Mark Swihart, UB Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Adam Raszewski, a PhD student in his lab, have turned to silicon, which can hold 10 times as many lithium ions as current materials, thereby boosting energy-storage capacity.

They are using their $62,320 award to investigate the production, characterization and testing of silicon-carbon nanostructures for lithium-ion battery anodes. The funds will also support development of a unique process and material, with the goal of low-cost manufacturing and higher-capacity batteries.

Arin Bhattacharjee.

Arin Bhattacharjee

Non-opioid pain meds

Given the national opioid crisis, many in the medical community have greatly reduced their prescriptions. With that change comes the need for good alternatives to treat postsurgical and chronic pain.

This team consists of Arin Bhattacharjee, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology; Elsa Daurignac, research assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry; and Rasheen Powell, a PhD candidate in Bhattacharjee’s lab, all researchers from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

Elsa Daurignac.

Elsa Daurignac

They are developing non-opioid analgesics, which promise long-lasting postsurgical pain control. They received a $98,777 award that will enable them to demonstrate efficacy at 24 hours in a postsurgical pain model, provide evidence of reduction in pain behavior and characterize the extended analgesia duration.

Respiratory failure

Bora Baysal.

Bora Baysal

Improving survival rates during respiratory failure is of paramount importance. With an $87,000 award, Bora Baysal, associate professor of oncology in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Roswell Park, is focusing on development of an anti-mortality drug for hypoxic lung disease.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can cause hypoxia, is among the leading causes of death in the United States, as it hinders a patient’s ability to adequately capture oxygen from the air. Once fully developed, this drug could increase survival and reduce patient’s dependency on supplemental oxygen.

Alternative to insulin shots

Qing Lin.

Qing Lin

As more people are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, identifying a simple, effective and realistic alternative to daily insulin shots is both critical and timely. Qing Lin, professor in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences, and Hsuan-Yi Wu, a former member of Lin’s lab who recently received a PhD, were awarded $81,250 for their work in seeking a solution to this dilemma.

They’re developing a new drug and application that promises to treat diabetes, while also reducing blood sugar weight. In addition to treating the condition, another promising element of their approach is that the proposed drug would be taken orally, thereby eliminating the need for insulin injections and reducing medical waste from injection pens.

UB researchers are developing technology to make implantable pacemakers battery-free.

Leadless pacemakers

Amin Karami.

M. Amin Karami

Current cardiac pacemakers require special wires (leads) to deliver energy to the heart. One issue with leads is that they are dependent on battery power, and batteries eventually need to be replaced. Additionally, leadless pacemakers that are much smaller and placed directly into the heart chamber are almost impossible to replace.

M. Amin Karami, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Mostafa Tavakkoli Anbarani, a PhD student in his lab, are using their $50,000 award to develop a solution for this. They are working to create an energy-harvesting device that will capture energy from a beating heart to power a leadless pacemaker, which will result in more efficient implants and reduce the need for follow-up procedures for patients.

Regenerative bone therapy

Rosemary Dziak.

Rosemary Dziak

Rosemary Dziak, professor in the Department of Oral Biology, School of Dental Medicine, and Mark Swihart (pictured above), UB Distinguished Professor and chair in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, have been awarded $64,000 for their work to find a solution to the ethical and patient concerns around regenerative bone therapy.

Current bone-grafting materials are often either extracted from cadavers or from patients themselves. While synthetic materials are available, they are infrequently used. To further the field of synthetic grafting and address the aforementioned concerns, this team is exploring the optimization of a nanocalcium sulfate product for the development of synthetic nanobone grafting materials that will provide both superior strength and usability characteristics.

Future funding opportunities

Innovation Hub applications are accepted on a biannual basis, with the second round of applicants currently under review, and the search for the third round beginning in early 2020.

Innovation Hub supports moving innovative, technology-driven solutions to current and future problems to have a wide-ranging positive local, national and global impact. Applicants must be from UB or partner organizations Roswell Park, The Jacobs Institute, Hauptmann-Woodward Medical Research Institute and Kaleida Health.

The Innovation Hub is funded through a $32 million Buffalo Billion II grant commitment from New York State.

To learn more about the Innovation Hub or sign up for email notifications regarding project updates and upcoming opportunities, visit the Innovation Hub website.