A better future through “smart cities” research

Traffic light in the city

Across the world, cities are working to accommodate their residents’ growing needs in transportation, energy, housing and more. Their efforts will become even more crucial in the years to come; estimates predict 2.5 billion more people will live in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

At the University of Minnesota researchers are teaming up with city planners, nonprofit leaders and industry professionals to form solutions that tackle these emerging challenges and prepare communities for the future. These partnerships take advantage of the prevalence of data and technology in society to open new doors for smarter decision making that can lead to more livable, sustainable and resilient cities. The U’s efforts to implement advanced smart cities concepts are part of a growing trend among research universities and technology companies across the U.S. that’s already taken root among global cities, especially in Europe and Asia.

This “smart cities” focus channels the U’s capacity for innovative research. Many faculty at the U have expertise in key smart cities topics, such as urban planning, alternative energy sources, improved water quality, food security, transportation infrastructure and the inclusion of nature and green spaces. There are also many centers and institutes within the U that conduct research in and contribute new knowledge to this emerging field. Examples include the Center for Transportation Studies, Institute on the Environment, Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative, U-Spatial, Accessibility Observatory, Informatics Institute, Sustainable Infrastructure and Cities Initiative, and Wearable Technology Lab. These efforts also engage a wide range of partners outside the University, from community development groups to policymakers to transit authorities. Continue reading

Colloquia embrace serendipity, spur new partnerships

Group of Multiethnic Business People in Meeting

When experts come together from across disciplines, organizations and sectors, it sets the stage for serendipity — where creative thought leads to new and often unexpected solutions to large challenges.

The University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia is a series of multidisciplinary gatherings that encourage serendipitous approaches to improving our world. These think tanks, hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research, bring U researchers together with private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to identify opportunities to focus on critical societal issues. The colloquia advance cutting-edge research to develop innovative solutions and build long-term partnerships.

“Colloquia events support an environment where a wide range of experts can engage in rich, thoughtful discussions about pressing issues in our communities,” said Carissa Slotterback, the U’s director of Research Engagement. “The resulting collaborations between researchers at the U and professionals in the community are an important first step toward addressing some of the greatest challenges facing our society.” Continue reading

For HIV treatment, the earlier the better

Ghana Market

New Doctors treating people with HIV have faced a tough decision. Should patients begin drug therapy before AIDS symptoms appear, and put up with the inconvenience and potential side effects? Or is it better to wait until their CD4+ T cell count – a key barometer of the immune system’s health –drops below a certain level, even though that means a greater risk of transmitting the virus to a partner?

This summer an answer finally emerged. The international START (Strategic Timing of AntiRetroviral Treatment) study, the first large, randomized and controlled clinical trial of the issue, showed the benefits of early treatment so clearly that the trial was halted prematurely so the volunteers receiving deferred treatment could begin therapy.

“Early treatment was effective everywhere in the world,” says James Neaton, a University of Minnesota biostatistics professor and principal investigator for INSIGHT (International Network for Strategic Initiatives in Global HIV Trials), which designed and conducted the trial. “We had more than a thousand people enrolled from sub-Saharan Africa, and a total of 4,685 people from 35 countries.”

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Startup takes aim at invasive carp threat in Minnesota lakes

Carp Feeding

The common carp, an invasive species now prevalent in Minnesota, has been a destructive force in the state’s many lakes since it was first introduced about a hundred years ago.

Now, a University of Minnesota startup is bringing a new approach to bear in the fight against common carp. Carp Solutions, which launched in February, uses the results from U research conducted over the past decade to provide a comprehensive assessment of carp populations and recommend methods for how best to limit their populations in bodies of water across the state. The company is led by Przemyslaw Bajer, Ph.D., assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology with the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, who has been conducting carp research in Minnesota since 2006.

“After years of research into carp population dynamics, we now have new knowledge that can serve as a powerful tool for fighting this invasive species,” said Bajer, CEO of Carp Solutions. “Carp Solutions puts that knowledge to use to aid statewide efforts toward reducing the destructive effects of carp and restoring our lakes to their natural state.” Continue reading

Startup tests children’s early learning skills

Child with tablet

A University of Minnesota spinout company that develops software to assess early learning skills is starting to take off.

Reflection Sciences, which launched in July 2014 and is based in St. Paul, provides training and tools for assessing children’s executive function — the skills that control attention, thoughts, actions and emotions. The company now has about 30 local, national and international customers who use its digital assessment platform, including public schools, private schools, after school programs and other universities, which use the assessment for their own research on executive function.

The company is based on technology developed by Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., and Philip Zelazo, Ph.D., two scientists with the U’s Institute of Child Development. Their Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS) forms the basis of a five-minute iPad game that tests the skills of children ages 2 to 7. The easy-to-use program serves as an inexpensive way for teachers, paraprofessionals and researchers to not only measure executive function, but to identify where and when to positively intervene to help students.

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Researchers team up with Fate Therapeutics to fight cancer

Stem Cell

A new partnership aims to develop novel treatments in the fight against cancer.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have teamed up with biopharmaceutical company Fate Therapeutics Inc. to develop new cancer therapies. These therapies aim to help the body launch a stronger immune response against cancer through natural killer (NK) cells — a type of white blood cell in the body’s immune system that attacks diseases. Doctors have long explored the use of NK cells in treating people with cancer, aiming to boost the number of cells the body’s immune system can use to better fight disease. Through their partnership with Fate, a San Diego-based company that uses stem cells to produce treatments for rare and life-threatening disorders, U researchers are pursuing a two-pronged research approach to developing new, more effective NK cell-based treatments.

“We’re working to together to apply what we know and come up with the best scientifically valid treatment,” said Jeff Miller, M.D., deputy director of the U’s Masonic Cancer Center. “There’s a lot of excitement over the potential these treatments could have to help people suffering from cancer.”

As part of the partnership, Fate will sponsor two separate lines of research at the U for two years, and in return, the company, working with the Office for Technology Commercialization, will receive an exclusive option to exclusively license both the background intellectual property as well as any new intellectual property developed during the course of the sponsored research. Right now, the researchers are working to gather as much data as possible to determine whether their NK cell treatments will be more effective than existing cancer therapies. Continue reading

New lab to support bee studies, collaboration

Pollen Covered Bee and Coneflower

Researchers are buzzing with excitement over an upcoming University of Minnesota lab.

Construction crews will begin work this fall on the Bee and Pollinator Research Lab, which will provide the collaborative and centralized spaces needed to advance the U’s internationally recognized research and allow for stronger interdisciplinary and international collaborations on bees and other pollinators. The $6 million, 10,500 square foot lab, part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, is expected to open summer 2016 on the St. Paul campus.

The new facility will bring the Bee Lab’s research and outreach programs together, combining lab space, honey extraction, apiaries for research and teaching, offices, equipment space, and bee-friendly landscaping into one central facility that allows for the training of new scientists and conducting ongoing research. The building will replace the previous facilities, which spanned a number of outdated buildings and sheds across campus and included a honey house that was in poor condition. Continue reading

Working against the margins

Where is the Work

By George Hoagland

Today’s humanities professor isn’t the tweed-patched, undersocialized, clumsy technophobe we imagined scurrying around campus. Nor is she the zany free-spirited instructor who came later; you know, the teacher who just wants her class to feel the subject matter, to experience it on some kind of spiritual level.

Instead, today’s humanities professor networks in several disciplines (many of which fall outside traditional disciplinary boundaries), uses social media platforms as teaching and research tools, writes successful grants for a variety of projects, collaborates with colleagues and industry professionals, and runs apps like nobody’s business. On top of all that, today’s humanities professor doesn’t look like the stereotype either (check out the Twitter hashtag #ILookLikeAProfessor started by historian Sara Pritchard and literary scholar Adeline Koh).

The ivory tower—that image of an isolated, bucolic garden of privilege—no longer represents contemporary university life. Faculty in all disciplines shoulder increasing burdens of dollar-driven scholarship, often measured in the creation of career-ready graduates.

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Research leads to record 16 startups in FY15

Bright Ideas

Technology commercialization transforms the latest breakthroughs into everyday solutions that improve our health, environment and quality of life.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are developing inventions that aim to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges. In fiscal 2015, the Venture Center at the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization formed a record 16 startup companies around these inventions, topping the previous record of 15 companies in 2014 and bringing the total number of startups launched to 84 since the Venture Center formed in 2006.

“It is exciting to see university research leave the lab and be applied on a larger scale to solve societal problems,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By bringing these ideas to market, the U is helping to spur entrepreneurial activity and advance Minnesota’s economy, strengthening its competitiveness in key industries and creating the basis for new ones.” Continue reading

Watson kicks off cognitive computing research

Power of Thought

The recent avian flu outbreak proved devastating to Minnesota. The virus killed more than 9 million of the state’s turkeys and chickens and wiped out the flocks of 108 poultry farms, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report.

This fall, University of Minnesota students with expertise in computer science and food security will explore new ways to curb the effects of avian flu outbreaks using a cutting-edge cognitive computing system. IBM’s Watson, a system that mimics how the human brain works by understanding naturally written language and learning from what it reads to discover new patterns and connections, serves as the basis for a special topics course. The course, “Explore Watson,” is the result of a partnership between the U of M and IBM to discover research and business applications for cognitive computing.

“Cognitive computing can piece together data in ways researchers may not expect, finding connections they may not otherwise identify,” said Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., lead instructor of the course and director of the U’s Informatics Institute. “Using a tool like Watson can help us not just in answering our research questions, but in figuring out which questions we should be asking.” Continue reading

MN-REACH readies new med-tech, pharma for market

Molecular Structure

A new University of Minnesota program is helping ensure the most promising new medical technologies and pharmaceuticals are ready to be brought to market.

The U’s MN-REACH program provides university-wide commercial expertise and resources to help develop and commercialize diagnostics, therapeutics, preventive medicine and medical devices. The program, formed after the National Institutes of Health named the U one of three Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH) sites in March, funds 10-20 research projects a year. It is supported by a $3 million NIH grant and $3 million in matching U of M funds.

MN-REACH establishes new industry partnerships, strengthens existing partnerships and provides entrepreneurial education to accelerate the pace at which innovations reach the market. Through workshops and industry mentors, the program aims to coach faculty in subjects like competition, venture capital and market assessment. The program also identifies and addresses barriers in the academic environment that may hinder commercialization. Continue reading

Collaborations cross disciplines to tackle big challenges

MnDRIVE collage

What do cleaning the state’s waterways, curbing livestock disease and treating diabetes have in common?

These are a few of the dozen projects that have brought University of Minnesota researchers together to work beyond the limits of their academic fields to address complex societal challenges. The U’s MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program provided nearly $6 million for the 12 research projects, which ranged from an effort to use smart systems to reduce sulfate concentrations in water to designing wearable technology that treats neurological disorders. Each project integrated at least three of the four key MnDRIVE research areas: discoveries and treatments for brain conditions; robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and global food ventures.

“Transdisciplinary projects inspire researchers to think creatively about complex problems,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “These projects bring together some of the university’s greatest minds, allowing experts from vastly different fields to collaborate together and with community and industry partners to find new and often unexpected approaches to challenges in our society.” Continue reading