Faculty, students recognized for innovation, creative entrepreneurial spirit
Innovation is the engine that drives all of humanity’s greatest achievements – from the creation of the first wheel to electricity to heart transplants. And it is the entrepreneurial spirit that puts these advances into the hands of the people who can use it the most.
Haleh Ardebili, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship initiative at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, wants to cultivate both those tendencies.
“Our mission is to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Cullen College,” she said, adding that commercialization is the essential next step to consider in taking research from the abstract to real-world application and benefits.
“Instead of innovative and valuable research findings being left on journal pages and in books, why not turn it into a product and get it into the hands of the people who need it?” asked Ardebili, who is also a Bill D. Cook associate professor of mechanical engineering.
“The more people who have access to the end results, the greater the longevity of the research and the more advances are made in all sectors, whether it be in medicine, space exploration, renewable energy or another area,” she added.
To encourage the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship among the faculty and students, Ardebili, using input from a faculty committee, created a series of Cullen College of Engineering Innovation Awards to recognize different levels of accomplishments.
“Even if engineering faculty and students choose not to pursue entrepreneurship, if they’re entrepreneurial in thinking – aware of how businesses work, understand all the factors going into commercialization – they have an edge in the market,” Ardebili said. “Their individual success reflects and adds to the University’s success and it benefits society as a whole.”
Meet the recipients of the inaugural 2019 Innovator Awards:
Venkat Selvamanickam – Career Innovator Award
This award, which carries an honorarium of $4000, recognizes full professors with a track record in innovation, entrepreneurship and mentorship during their career at UH.
Venkat Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of mechanical engineering at the Cullen College, is one of the world’s leading experts and pioneers of innovative manufacturing technologies related to superconductors.
With a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and a Ph.D. in materials engineering from the Cullen College, Selvamanickam has compiled 32 years of research contributions in applied superconductivity, specifically the development and manufacturing of superconductor wires.
He is the co-founder and the former officer of SuperPower Inc., which produces superconducting electrical wire, and has continued his research since joining the UH faculty in 2008.
In 2010, UH won a $3.5 million Emerging Technology Fund (ETF) grant from the state of Texas centered on Sevamanickam’s presence.He is also the director of the Advanced Manufacturing Institute at UH and the director of the Applied Research Hub at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TCSUH).
Selvamanickam's groundbreaking research demonstrated a unique technology to fabricate thin film high temperature superconductor (HTS) wire over length scales of more than a kilometer. Using this novel manufacturing process, his team completed the world's first significant delivery of thin film HTS wire for the Department of Energy’s flagship program of Albany Cable Project to power 25,000 households in Albany, N.Y.
The wire is now used by more than 200 institutions around the world for developing applications in various fields, including wind generators, energy storage, power transmission cables, magnetically levitated trains, medical imaging and defense.
He also led a highly successful program funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-e) to achieve four-fold improvement in in-field performance of superconductor wires. Currently, Selvamanickam is leading a program funded by the Advanced Manufacturing Office of the DOE to develop advanced manufacturing technologies for superconductor wires for next-generation electric machines.
Selvamanickam's research at the University spans a wide range of advanced processing techniques for high-performance materials for energy and electronics applications such as high temperature superconducting thin film wires, photovoltaics and flexible electronics. His students receive exceptional mentorship and exposure not only in conducting very intensive, innovative research but also in broad engineering skill sets at his unique facilities and through his highly experienced engineering and scientific support staff.
Wei-Chuan Shih – Rising Innovator Award
This award recognizes efforts by a tenured associate professor in innovation and entrepreneurship at UH. The award comes with an honorarium of $3000.
Wei-Chuan Shih, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, has a strong track record of externally funded research exceeding $3.5 million in the University’s priority areas of Energy and Healthcare.
His cutting-edge research has led to seminal contributions in various fields. He has developed funded projects related to nanotechnology, label-free optical imaging, biochip for in vitro diagnostics, pathogen detection in space capsules, undersea oil spill detection, surface monitoring of oil spills, and low-cost optical lenses for smartphone microscopy. His research has significant translational potential as evidenced by 14 patents, with 11 issued already. Shih has also helped advance the science of chemical and biomolecular sensing for glucose and cancer detection.
His work in inkjet-printed optical lenses has attracted worldwide attention. DotLens Smartphone Microscope has garnered unprecedented publicity in academia, popular science, and commercial communities. The original research article published in Journal of Biomedical Optics has been the Number 1 downloaded paper of 2015 with more than 11,000 times. The invention has been reported on CNBC, CBS, Houston PBS’s UH Moment Series, Science Daily, and numerous other news outlets in various languages. To further the commercialization of DotLens, he earned a NSF-icorps grant. In 2016, an idea based on this technology won a NSF grant in Citizen Science, where he proposed to customize this technology for environmental monitoring in neighborhood ponds by individual citizen scientists.
“Overall, his research demonstrates the convergence of artificial intelligence, optical fingerprinting, plasmonic nanotechnology, and citizen science for the betterment of healthcare and environmental protection,” said Badri Roysam, professor and department chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department.
Hadi Ghasemi – Early Innovator Award
This award, with an honorarium of $2,000, recognizes efforts by the tenure-track assistant professor in innovation at UH.
Hadi Ghasemi, Bill D. Cook assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Cullen College, and his NanoTherm Research Group are world-renowned for their cutting-edge research involving surface physics, nanotechnology, biomimetic engineering and small-scale energy systems.
At University of Houston, Ghasemi has launched a research program focused on icing and developing durable anti- icing coatings. His group was able to innovate a new bio-inspired durable anti-icing coating based on North American Wood Frogs that can tolerate freezing up to 65 percent of their total body water and still survive in the winter.
NASA chose Ghasemi’s project from entries submitted by over 130 organizations across the U.S. for its potential to broadly impact human life on earth and the future of space travel.
Once Ghasemi had plenty proof of concept for his novel material, he partnered with students in his NanoTherm lab to launch the startup SurfEllent and begin marketing innovative durable anti-icing coating technologies to consumers.
Earlier this year, SurfEllent won the second place award and its accompanying $35,000 check at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition (TNVC). It also won the Texas A&M Engineering Extension (TEEX) Product Development Center Prize of $10,000.
Ghasemi is actively involved in training the next generation of innovators. One of his doctoral students, Peyman Irajizad, received the best dissertation award among all the Ph.D. graduates in mechanical engineering and is currently running SurfEllent. Furthermore, the students in NanoTherm research group under his supervision have filed a range of patents and received numerous awards.
Jay Adolacion – Young Innovator Award
This award, with a prize of $1,000, recognizes efforts by Cullen College students or postdocs in innovation and entrepreneurship at UH.
Jay Adolacion, a newly minted Ph.D. graduate in chemical and biomolecular engineering, worked as a research assistant in the UH research lab of Navin Varadarajan, an associate professor in the department.
In his nomination letter, Varadarajan highlighted Adolacion’s work involved in the development and filing of the patent “Broad spectrum serological diagnostics and uses thereof.”
The project harnesses displays of peptides on the surface of bacterioviruses and uses libraries of these peptide-displaying bacteriophage to mine the abundance of antibodies – Y-shaped molecules that enable humans to fight infections and tumors – in human circulation.
Adolacion recognized that these antibody responses serve as a memory signature of the underlying infection or tumor of the patient. He concluded that mining antibodies from the protein component of blood using large peptide libraries could help identify the underlying disease in record time with no further information required.
He applied his innovative platform to two groups of patients – those with the influenza and those diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) – at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Adolacion created algorithms to make sense of the data collected in his experiments.
“He is an outstanding young innovator with a bright future,” Varadarajan wrote. “He has clearly demonstrated excellence in conception and the maturation of an important technology.”
Ardebili is pleased with inaugural group of award winners. “This is the first year and we had good participation. All the winners are well-deserving of the honor and they are exemplary representatives of our college,” she said. “Hopefully as we move forward we’ll have even more people participating in this competition and exciting new program.”
The awards are a key part of building up the Innovation and Entrepreneurship initiative at the Cullen College.
“This program can bring many opportunities in the future and put the UH Cullen College of Engineering on the map,” Ardebili said.