Mechanical Computing Game Teaches Coding Fundamentals

Child playing with Turing Tumble game

Years ago, when Paul Boswell, Ph.D., was teaching at the University of Minnesota, he noticed many students from across the sciences ran up against a common barrier: they didn’t know how to program. Without computer programming skills, some types of research is more difficult to do, while other types are off the table entirely, highlighted in recent articles in Nature and Wired.

Boswell knew it was important for students to understand more about computers at an earlier age, but to him, the multitude of programs, devices, and courses already available to teach coding fundamentals often overlooked a very important component.

Two children playing with Turing Tumble game“The problem is that all of these websites, robots, and other educational materials require a computer or a computer chip,” he said, adding that the actual “thinking” the computer does—its logic—remains hidden to the user. “Kids really don’t understand what’s going on underneath the surface.” Continue reading

Cells on the Move Are Fussy About Footing

From embryonic development to wound healing and cancer metastasis, cells move. But like runners on a track, they won’t go very fast on a surface that’s too hard or too soft to get the right amount of grip.

“That was a key realization,” says University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor David Odde.” Cells are very responsive to the mechanical stiffness of their environment. It affects how cells [mature from embryonic to adult form] and migrate within the body, but it was not clear how this happens.”

Odde and his colleagues have built and tested a mathematical model of how cells respond to varying degrees of stiffness in the tissues on and through which they travel. They predicted, and found, that for a given cell there is an optimal stiffness–a sweet spot–for it to move.

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Innovation Fellows Medical Device First to Reach Market

Modern surgery room

In 2012, Dr. Alan Johnson sketched out a number of new and promising concepts for medical devices. At the time, he was only a few days into the Medical Devices Center’s Innovation Fellows Program, based in the University of Minnesota’s Medical Devices Center.

But as Johnson learned more about what it takes to turn a lab invention into a commercial product, he started to see technological, financial, and regulatory hurdles looming. One by one, he crossed ideas off the list. At the end, one promising invention remained: a new, noninvasive method for safely and securely closing the jaw to help it heal after a fracture.

Now, five years later, Johnson’s invention has become the first technology born in the Innovation Fellows Program to finish navigating the complex path from lab to marketplace. Following a licensing deal with St. Paul-based Summit Medical, Inc. and the recent receipt of U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance, the device can now be marketed for use in surgeon’s offices, hospitals, and clinics across the country.

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U Tech Transfer Ranks Sixth Among Public Universities

A blue light bulb on a black background

The University of Minnesota has one of the leading technology commercialization enterprises among US universities, according to a recent research report.

The Milken Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in California, ranked the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization sixth among US public research institutions and second in the Big Ten in its “Best Universities for Technology Transfer” report, released last month. When including private institutions, the U places 14th, outpacing schools such as the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The report focuses on four key indicators of tech transfer success for each institution: how many patents it was granted, how many technology licenses it issued, how much income its licenses brought in, and the number of startup companies it formed. These measurements were averaged over four years, from 2012–2015. Continue reading

U startup CEO recognized among “Titans of Technology”

Terri Soutor holding her Titans of Technology award

Photo courtesy of Jen Kelly, KeliComm

Terri Soutor, CEO of University of Minnesota startup FastBridge Learning, received an award last week recognizing her prowess in building a business around emerging technology.

At the 2017 Titans of Technology award ceremony, hosted by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, Soutor received an award for her leadership of FastBridge Learning, which was based on discoveries and innovations by Theodore Christ, Ph.D., educational psychology professor with the College of Education and Human Development. The company was launched with help from the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization in 2015 to provide assessment tools and training for teachers of preschool through 12th-grade students to track and improve their students’ learning. Continue reading

Two U startups named among Best University Startups 2017

U of M flag on a lamppost, surrounded by flowering trees

Two startup companies based on University of Minnesota research discoveries received national recognition today for their potential to create jobs, advance technology and meet societal challenges in human health and the environment.

Photonic Pharma and ThermChem, both launched by the Office for Technology Commercialization’s Venture Center, were named among the 40 “Best University Startups 2017” by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), an association of university startup officers.

The U of M startups were chosen by representatives of leading technology-oriented businesses from a group of 200 startups launched by universities across the U.S. They are among the more than 110 companies launched by the Venture Center since 2006. The two companies will present as part of NCET2’s University Startups Conference and Demo Day in Washington, DC, on April 18-20. Continue reading

Improving nutrition apps with high-quality research data

A young couple looks at an app on a tablet while preparing food

Suppose a team of software developers wants to make a smartphone app that helps people with high blood pressure track the sodium in their meals. Their expertise in coding and design will guide them in making an app that is reliable and easy-to-use.

But when it comes to understanding how to tap research-grade nutrition data for a wide range of foods and ingredients, the developers may lack crucial knowledge in nutrition sciences.

The University of Minnesota’s Lisa Harnack, DrPH, director of the School of Public Health’s Nutrition Coordinating Center (NCC), has an idea that could knock down that barrier. Harnack aims to give app developers packages of code that will help them draw from the NCC’s Food and Nutrient Database, a treasure trove of comprehensive nutrition data, without needing a researcher’s expertise. This resource would bring developers better information to fuel their software—and, in turn, help patients living with nutrition-related chronic diseases. Continue reading

Recognizing the U’s most entrepreneurial innovators

Photos from four Inventor Recognition Award winners' research

Picture a researcher, and you might think of someone running experiments in a lab, collecting data in the field or piecing together a prototype. But for many researchers, the job doesn’t end when a discovery is made. Increasingly, researchers are helping guide their technologies through development and toward the market.

Last night, the University of Minnesota celebrated the accomplishments of some of these innovative and entrepreneurial researchers. The Inventor Recognition Event, hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office for Technology Commercialization, recognized researchers’ breakthroughs and their efforts to bring these innovations beyond the lab to provide growth opportunities for businesses, benefit the public good and improve quality of life in Minnesota and beyond.

The event, held at the McNamara Alumni Center, recognized 220 University inventors whose technology had been licensed or patented between July 2014 and June 2016. During those two years, researchers submitted more than 750 disclosures of new inventions to OTC and filed for nearly 350 patents to protect the intellectual property behind some of these inventions. Continue reading

What slime molds tell us about ourselves

Some of Margaret Titus’s students are a little taken aback to learn how much they have in common with the slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum. Called “social amoebae” for their habit of joining together to save themselves when food is scarce, they may hold the key to understanding how a host of human cellular processes work—or go awry.

When human white blood cells or metastasizing cancer cells move through our bodies, or when nerve cells are forming connections with each other, they send out slender exploratory extensions called filopodia. And when “Dicty” cells search for food, they do the same thing. If any of these cells’ filopodia pick up signals that point them in a favorable direction, the rest of the cell follows; this is what directs their movement to the food source.

“I call filopodia ‘the cat’s whiskers of a cell,’” says Titus, a professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development. “Proteins called myosins, which act as mo-tors for many cells, are needed to make them, and we found the same basic operating principles in filopodia-forming myosins used by both Dicty and humans.” Continue reading

Matching grad student skills with regional business needs

A group of students works together on a project

Business development, market research, product improvement—these are all top-of-mind for small- and medium-sized businesses looking to grow. And for a few of these businesses, they’re also where teams of University of Minnesota graduate students are lending a hand.

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program, sponsored by the Office of University Economic Development with support from the Graduate School, connects groups of four to five graduate student consultants with Minnesota companies looking to overcome business challenges.

Each group of students is led by an economic development fellow—a grad student who has already participated in the program as a consultant and will now help manage one of the projects, provide mentorship and facilitate communication between the students and their business clients. At the end of each eight- to 12-week project, the fellows report on the project’s economic impact, including how it has helped promote economic development. Continue reading

Bell Museum’s cooked wood highlights niche industry opportunity

Close-up of wooden planks

A few years ago, architecture firm Perkins+Will came to a conclusion while drawing plans for the new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus: it was time to get cooking.

Now, following the architects’ design, workers are covering nearly half of the Bell’s exterior with Minnesota white pine that has been cooked in a giant kiln. The process, called thermal modification, is a chemical-free way to make wood more stable and water-resistant. Workers will finish installing the specialized wood in March, with the Bell Museum itself reopening in summer 2018.

The Bell project highlights an economic opportunity for Minnesota — and one where the Natural Resources Research Institute at the U of M Duluth plays a crucial role. Researchers involved in NRRI’s Wood Products and Bioeconomy initiative, which focuses on helping strengthen Minnesota’s forestry industry in an environmentally sound way, are leading research into the field of thermally modified wood. Continue reading

Bringing new drug therapies to life

A variety of pills

When the prescription drug abacavir, developed in University of Minnesota labs by Robert Vince, Ph.D., gained federal approval in 1998 and appeared on pharmacy shelves under the brand name Ziagen, it gave new hope to those with HIV. Today, the 1.2 million people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates live with HIV nationwide have access to this treatment.

Bringing a breakthrough treatment like abacavir to the people who need it takes more than a groundbreaking scientific discovery — researchers must also work to refine their new treatments, bring them through clinical trials and help them reach the market.

Today, the Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development (ITDD), founded by the  U’s College of Pharmacy in 2007, provides the expertise and instrumentation researchers need to bridge the gap between a compelling pharmaceutical idea and a market-ready drug treatment. The institute is a resource for the over 1000 biomedical researchers at the U of M and Mayo Clinic whose work may lead to the next breakthrough drug therapies. Continue reading