New startups take on societal challenges in health, environment

When it comes to finding solutions to some of the largest challenges facing society today, research and innovation are some of the best tools available.

The University of Minnesota’s 10-year strategic plan, Driving Tomorrow, lays out the role that cutting-edge University research will play in addressing the grand challenges that face Minnesota, the U.S. and the world. The plan highlights how innovative research conducted by interdisciplinary teams can lead to new solutions that help society succeed in finding ways to feed the world sustainably, foster just and equitable communities and more.

The focus on the five Grand Challenges is growing throughout the University’s research endeavors, and its startup enterprise is no exception. Fiscal year 2016 saw another record number of startups launched, and several of these companies are working to implement promising new discoveries that connect to these priorities.

Below, Inquiry highlights two new startups that are further developing U research to create solutions in the Grand Challenges areas of advancing health through tailored solutions and assuring clean water and sustainable ecosystems.

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

Students lead research into emerging aquaponics industry

Aquaponics system

In Minnesota, an emerging industry is starting to capture the attention of crop growers, fish processors, distributors, restaurants and many others. Aquaponics — a year-round way to grow aquatic animals and plants in the same system — lets growers produce food locally and sustainably, and it’s on the rise. There are now more than 40 aquaponics producers in the state, up from only three in 2010.

There’s just one problem with growing aquaponically: Even the growers themselves aren’t sure how best to do it.

In response to the need for more knowledge in aquaponics, a team of University of Minnesota faculty developed a new undergraduate course called “Aquaponics: Integrated fish and plant food systems,” which set students to work discovering industry challenges and researching solutions. The course debuted in spring semester this year as part of a larger collaborative effort, which includes research projects and continuing education opportunities, to position Minnesota as a national leader in the field of aquaponics. Backed by funds from the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), the effort brought together experts from fisheries and wildlife, veterinary medicine and aquaculture, horticulture and plant sciences to form a team of experts to help inform and guide an emerging industry. Continue reading

Serendipity sparks new ideas to meet needs of an aging population

Colloquium event photo - Aging

Minnesota’s population is aging. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the number of adults age 65 or older is anticipated to double between 2010 and 2030. As this portion of the population grows larger, Minnesota will have to prepare for its growing needs, from transportation to nursing homes.

In anticipation of these upcoming challenges, University of Minnesota researchers gathered with experts from industry, community groups and nonprofits Tuesday to explore “Big Ideas and Compelling Issues in Aging,” the second event in the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia series. Over 80 experts from across disciplines and sectors came together to identify some of the most pressing issues related to aging and discover opportunities for new partnerships and programs that can meet those needs.

“Bringing people of different expertise and backgrounds together creates fertile ground for the type of serendipitous thinking that leads to innovation,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By combining university research expertise with the practical knowledge of industry, nonprofits and community groups, we can create partnerships that have the ingenuity and capacity needed to make a difference.” Continue reading

International economics expert to lead global research effort

Holding rice crop

As the world’s population continues to expand, so does the need for a secure, sustainable food supply.

To meet this challenge and adapt to the rapidly changing field of agricultural research, the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Science (CFANS) recently named Philip Pardey, Ph.D., its first director of global research strategy. Pardey earned his Ph.D. at the U of M and has been a professor in the Department of Applied Economics since 2002.

In the newly established CFANS position, Pardey will work internationally to create new opportunities and partnerships between the U and private companies, commodity organizations and non-governmental organizations. He will also bring together researchers from different disciplines and those at partner universities and research agencies to find solutions to complex bio-physical and economic challenges.

Continue reading

The wide reach of university research

Twitter word cloud

From new technology to better medical practices, university research contributes to nearly every aspect of society.

In June, Inquiry set out to explore just how important research is by posing the question, Why university research? The Twitter community responded with hundreds of examples demonstrating how universities’ scientific and technological advances have addressed global challenges and improved the well-being of society.

The word cloud above pulled the most talked-about research subjects from those tweets to show a small sample of the multitude of subjects that benefit from university research.
Continue reading

Showcase to feature research across disciplines

Design Across Disciplines

How do university researchers take on society’s greatest and most complex challenges? To start, they team up with other departments across campus.

An upcoming event will help to connect University of Minnesota researchers from different fields of study as they prepare to solve complex issues that require both breadth and depth of knowledge. Discovery Across Disciplines, hosted by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice President for Research, will showcase interdisciplinary research from more than 50 of the university’s centers and institutes. The groups will gather from 2 to 4 pm. on Oct. 16 on Coffman Memorial Union’s third floor to exhibit their work and meet with graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members interested in connecting with other researchers outside of their department.

The U’s centers and institutes give the university’s brightest minds a way to come together across multiple fields of study to take on the world’s most challenging problems, from creating a sustainable food supply to developing cures for infectious diseases. These collaborative settings provide researchers the foundation to build off of one another’s strengths and find new approaches to a problem, which can ultimately lead to new solutions.

Continue reading

Extending our global reach

Earth relief

Recent events, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, remind us of our global interconnectedness and illustrate how our shared problems must be addressed with shared solutions from multiple perspectives and diverse areas of expertise.

As our world’s challenges become more complex and their impact felt on a broader scale, international research becomes increasingly important for universities across the U.S. A recent New York Times article underscores its importance and highlights what’s at stake for American universities if we don’t invest in the programs and structural changes that support global research.

Global challenges, such as healthcare, food security and the environment, transcend our state’s and nation’s borders. The University of Minnesota, which maintains strong research programs in many areas with global reach, has been working to advance transdisciplinary partnerships to address these grand challenges and to accelerate the expansion of knowledge in these areas. Continue reading

Transdisciplinary awards fund projects targeting grand challenges

Global market

When great minds from different fields come together in one place, they find new and unexpected ways to solve large problems.

This concept, setting the stage for serendipity, sits at the heart of the MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, a set of nearly $6 million in awards recently announced by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research. MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) is an $18 million annual investment  by the state of Minnesota aiming to align research and industry strengths to solve grand challenges in four key areas: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions. The transdisciplinary award supports projects that cover at least three of these four areas and bring together faculty and resources from multiple disciplines.

“This award creates opportunities for our researchers to collaborate in exciting new ways and work beyond the bounds of their departments,” said Dr. Brian Herman, the U’s vice president for research. “Together, they will seek solutions to the greatest societal challenges of our time.” Continue reading

Seeking a culture of serendipity

Searching together

Many of the world’s greatest discoveries appear to be matters of luck. Columbus set out for the Orient, only to find a land and peoples previously unknown to Europeans. Percy Spencer developed the idea for the microwave oven after microwaves from a radar set melted a candy bar he was carrying. Physiologist Robert Richet developed the theory for the study of allergies after observing the effects of sea anemone poison on dogs. Newton developed the theory of gravity as he pondered childhood observations of fruit dropping from trees in his mother’s garden.

Science abounds with such stories. But were these events luck? Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” In reality, Columbus had a plan, funding and organizational talent. Spencer was working in a corporation that nurtured new product ideas. Richet had prepared his mind through countless experiments. Newton was studying forces when he developed the theory of gravity.

Most discoveries are not simple tosses of dice. Curiosity and preparation readied the individuals to convert luck to invention. English Novelist Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity some 160 years ago to describe this type of luck which results from the combination of good fortune and wisdom. Mental preparation, funding, organizational environment, the right colleagues—these are all ingredients of serendipity. Serendipitous discoveries are the outcomes of intellectual curiosity and structured investigation. Continue reading

VP Herman presents research priorities to Board of Regents

Vice President for Research Brian Herman outlined his vision for the University of Minnesota’s research enterprise to the Board of Regents at their July 10 meeting. Herman, who assumed the role of VP in January 2013, expressed the importance of leading — not following — a transformative research agenda and outlined a series of innovative methods to address critical global challenges in an era of stagnating or declining federal funds.

Achieving success amid constraints

The U of M is nationally-known for its research excellence and has a strong track record of R&D performance. Yet, as Herman pointed out, due to sequestration and other troubling trends, the future outlook for support of research is less certain.

“The university has done very well historically, but this is a very challenging economic climate, not only for our own institution but for research nationwide” said Herman.

For example, according to reports from the American Association of the Advancement of Science and the Washington Post, R& D spending is set to stagnate in the coming decade, NIH’s budget is scheduled to drop 7.6 percent in the next five years and NASA’s budget is on pace to drop to its lowest level since 1988. Overall, the success rate for NIH grant awards has dropped by 40 percent since 2003.

Despite these challenges, Herman sees tremendous potential to refine and transform the U’s research enterprise in a way that will help strengthen the research infrastructure, promote public/private/non-profit partnerships and create opportunities for faculty, students, staff and external partners to come together to address issues that have a profound impact on society.

Creating a culture of serendipity

Herman envisions a “culture of serendipity” that transcends the university’s borders. He aims to create an environment where researchers can come together across departments and colleges, and with industry colleagues outside the U, to collaborate with – and to challenge – each other in finding solutions that will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

This confluence of experts from different fields, Herman believes, is the key to tackling the world’s increasingly complex challenges. “Chance and creativity coming together creates a powerful environment for making new discoveries,” said Herman. By leveraging the methodology of researchers from multiple disciplines, new disciplines are created – and with those, new approaches to solving urgent and formidable problems.

During his presentation, Herman outlined several key OVPR initiatives:

  • Guidelines to maximize impact of the state’s $36 million dollar investment in the Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE) program
  • A new working group within the Itasca Higher Education project that will enhance student entrepreneurship programs and address workforce needs
  • Plans to enhance the University’s technology commercialization efforts
  • A possible internal funding mechanism to support successful recruitment and retention of nationally and internationally recognized research faculty
  • OVPR’s recent expansion of its bridge funding program, designed to provide interim support for research projects that experience a temporary lapse in external funding
  • Efforts to position the University as the primary contact for local, state and federal officials in all aspects of economic development

In May, OVPR embarked on a strategic planning process designed specifically to advance the university’s research mission and bring increased focus, alignment and support for OVPR  initiatives. The plan will be aligned with and support the university’s key initiatives and will be done in close cooperation with the President’s office. The timing of the OVPR strategic planning process, to be completed in September, will dovetail perfectly with a similar process that will kick off early this fall at the university level led by President Kaler.

Visit the Board of Regents to read minutes from the meeting or to watch a recording.

Originally published on Research @ the U of M.

Heated sludge helps defeat superbugs

Water treatment facility

You’ve probably heard of “superbugs”—bacteria that are resistant to numerous antibiotics.

They’ve cost many lives and billions of dollars. And part of the solution could be as simple as treating our waste to a nice hot bath.

Timothy LaPara, Ph.D. of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil Engineering and a member of the BioTechnology Institute, has interests in wastewater microbiology and antibiotic resistance. He’s combined these to address a pandemic that threatens to return the world to a pre-penicillin era.

A global problem

Worldwide, about 440,000 new cases of multidrug resistant tuberculosis occur each year, resulting in at least 150,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Resistance to streptococcus pneumonia is also on the rise. And the infamous MRSA—an antibiotic-resistant staph infection—has become a global problem.

“In the U.S.,” explains LaPara, “we spend twenty to forty billion dollars annually coping with antibiotic resistance. Fifteen to twenty thousand people die from MRSA resistant infections.”

The rapid growth of resistant bacteria appears to be an unintended consequence of the ways we use antibiotics. When antibiotics are used routinely, a few naturally resistant bacteria survive, and these go on to produce more resistant bacteria. In the U.S., about 80 percent of the total antibiotic use is on the farm, where animals routinely receive antibiotics to prevent disease and encourage growth. In healthcare, patients often receive antibiotics they don’t need or do not finish their antibiotic courses. We also widely use antibacterials such as triclosan in consumer soaps and other products.

The result is a burgeoning population of antibiotic-resistant germs. Because bacterial DNA readily transfers among bacteria, concentrations of them—as occurs in human sewage and animal waste collection sites–can result in dense communities of resistant bacteria.

Changing the patterns of use of antibiotics on farms, in health care and consumer products is part of the solution, but can be politically fraught.

Killing the bugs where they concentrate

LaPara’s proposed solution complements these existing approaches and kills the bugs where they concentrate: in human and animal waste.

When raw sewage is treated, it leaves behind a sewage sludge called biosolids. LaPara has found that raw sewage has 50,000 times more antibiotic resistant genes than what’s found in a typical river. But even after treatment, the remaining biosolids are thick with antibiotic resistant genes. These resistant bacteria potentially find their way into the human population through a variety of transmission means: they can be contained in fertilizer (one of the primary uses of biosolids), spread via the air, and included in the foods we consume.

Biosolid dewatering

But heating biosolids can kill the bad guys. Here’s where the engineering tricks and microbiology magic come in. Sewage plants use naturally occurring bacteria to digest waste and a byproduct of that process is methane gas. Some of these plants use the methane to heat the biosolids to body temperature, which is perfect for the growth of sewage-munching bacteria, but also ideal for growing resistant bacteria.

“If we raise the temperature to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, different, heat-loving bacteria will digest the biosolids,” explains LaPara. The higher temperatures kill off the resistant bacteria, but still generate the methane needed to keep the plant heated up. It’s a win-win.

That was the theory. LaPara’s lab tests showed that heated biosolids have 1/100th the amount of resistant bacteria as compared to unheated biosolids. To find out if the process has real-life promise, LaPara tested the sludge from a treatment plant in Duluth that already heats its digesters to 130 degrees. Sure enough, its residual sludge had 1/10th to 1/100th the concentration of resistant bacteria in biosolids from plants that operate at lower temperatures.

Says LaPara, “If I could get people to use the best treatment, I would have them do it like Duluth. We spend about fifteen billion dollars a year in the U.S. on wastewater treatment. For an additional cost of less than 10 percent, we could switch to a higher temperature. This could help end the resistant bacteria problem very quickly.”

Making the most of a hot mess

But ridding ourselves of superbugs will take additional effort. “Everything we do with human waste, we could also do with animal waste,” says LaPara. He notes that more farms are beginning to generate methane from their animal waste for use as an energy source. The process could be used to kill off the antibiotic bacteria in animal waste as well, making the waste safer for use as fertilizer.

LaPara says there are a number of steps needed to get this process adopted widely. “Ten years ago, very few people were looking at this. Many of the research techniques we’re using were only developed in the last decade. This is not yet in the public health arena. But over the next ten years, I’d like to see our waste treatment community move toward more aggressive treatment of biosolids. We’ll reduce resistant bacteria and other pathogens as well.”

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Originally published on Research @ the U of M.