We’re approaching the end of yet another record-setting year for technology and innovation at the University of Michigan. For the past three years, inventive faculty and students have continuously upped the ante in terms of output. In 2014, U-M researchers produced 14 startup companies, 132 patents, and 439 inventions through the Office of Technology Transfer, surpassing even the record-high 421 inventions in 2013 and 368 in 2012.
New inventions, patents, and startups often come out of applied fields such as engineering and medicine, but the College of LSA has its own healthy crop of unique innovations. Here’s a sample of some of the creations that LSA faculty and students have put out into the world.
1. Portable Lead and Explosives Detectors
While visiting a manufacturing company’s facilities, Chemistry Professor Anne McNeil envisioned a better system to detect toxic lead than the company’s leading product. McNeil worked with doctoral student Kelsey Carter (M.S. ’11) to create a chemical cocktail that simply and accurately tests for the presence of lead in old paint chips. McNeil’s system doesn’t require specialized training, complicated equipment, or a power supply. You simply mix a special chemical with a solvent, then drop a chip of paint into the mixture—if an easily visible gel appears with a few minutes, you can be sure that an unsafe level of lead contaminates the paint.
McNeil created a similar gel formation system to test for a chemical known as TATP, “the explosive of choice for terrorist groups,” with the help of another graduate student, Jing Chen (M.S. ’10, Ph.D. ’12). Intended for security staff in subway systems, airports, post offices, and combat zones, the TATP detector can identify improvised explosives quickly and unambiguously.
2. Fossil Skeletons
Even long-buried fossil skeletons can lead to creation and innovation—it’s the mold of a fossil that counts as intellectual property. You take a bone, pour silicone over it to form a highly precise mold, peel the mold off the bone, and use that mold to create a cast of the fossil, which you can then license as an “original work.”
Making fossils available for exhibition and education worldwide can be as easy as licensing the cast to other institutions, just as a sports team licenses its logo for a cut of the profit when someone sells a logo T-shirt. Natural history museums in Washington, Ottawa, Frankfurt, Brussels, Tokyo, Melbourne, Wellington, and elsewhere display ancient whale skeletons for their visitors because LSA Professor Philip Gingerich and U-M’s Office of Technology Transfer worked with a private company, Research Casting International, to produce life-sized casts of the fossils that Gingerich discovered.
And LSA Professor Dan Fisher has licensed casts that he created from a couple mastodon skeletons. Fisher applied innovative techniques such as 3D digitization and rapid prototyping to produce highly accurate, complete, research-quality mastodon casts that are displayed at LSA’s Museum of Natural History and beyond the U-M campus.
The skeleton of this extinct whale species, Dorudon atrox, is one of four different skeletons that LSA Professor Philip Gingerich has licensed with the help of U-M's Office of Technology Transfer. Marketing the casts of skeletons generates revenue, which helps pay the salaries of students who work on research and exhibits in LSA’s Museum of Paleontology.
Top: “Skeleton of Dorudon atrox” by Gingerich et al. 2009 is licensed under CC BY 2.5.
Bottom: photo courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History
3. Healthcare Data in the Cloud
Here’s how Alex VanDerKolk (B.B.A. ’13) remembers dealing with data in a healthcare research lab at U-M: “I was working on a $5 million grant that, when I got on it, was already $1 million over budget and two years behind schedule.” Part of the job, he says, was dealing with “a big Excel spreadsheet that was just a monster.”
So he and five others at U-M, including LSA senior David Middleton and LSA alumnus George Zakhem (’14), teamed up to do something that they describe as “not the sexiest concept,” but incredibly useful: Develop software that helps researchers collect better data, faster. They started right away, winning the 2014 Michigan Business Challenge as “Most Successful Undergraduate Team.” In less than a year, they’ve raised about $350,000 to develop Mountain Labs, the company they co-founded. Their proprietary software, called Symport, stores data securely in the cloud, allowing researchers to efficiently collect, share, and update sensitive healthcare data anywhere in the world—no bulky, unprotected email attachments necessary.
The current group of eight young entrepreneurs is committed to staying in Michigan and building on the local network of Michigan companies. Already, Mountain Labs has launched pilot projects at the U-M Health System and University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. They plan to expand their operations across the United States and as far afield as Haiti and China.
Middleton admits that the group started out by joking that they’d form their own company. But after four years at U-M, he says, “Michigan actually gave us the confidence to do so. It’s been an incredible amount of fun, being able to build skillsets that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue if I worked at a big corporation.”
4. Animal Diversity Web Mobile App
Animal Diversity Web (ADW) grew out of the Museum of Zoology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology when Curator and Professor (now Emeritus) Phil Myers offered a “virtual museum” on what was, in 1995, a very young Internet. In the 20 years since then, ADW has become a sizable online encyclopedia of animals that delivers more than 4 million webpages of animal information to more than 500,000 visitors per month.
Now, the creators of ADW have made that knowledge pocket sized. The ADW team, which includes Tanya Dewey (Ph.D. ’06), George Hammond (M.S. ’92), Tricia Jones (M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’01), and Roger Espinosa (M.S. ’89, M.A. ’94), created the ADW Pocket Guide, the first of a planned series of mobile apps portable enough to bring along on visits to zoos, museums, and parks. The ADW team built the app as a versatile template, so that any organization of any size or location can design their own unique catalog of creatures. “It’s a neat way to use the ADW data to engage visitors with the local fauna,” says Dewey.
Want to know what kind of wildlife you might see on a trail hike? Check the app. The ADW Pocket Guide team partnered with parks, museums, and zoos in the Great Lakes region to generate custom guides for you to explore, and pocket guides for more parks across the United States are in the works.
From left to right: Entrain, ADW Pocket Guide, and Clavis Sinica's Chinese Poetry mobile apps.
Screenshots courtesy of Entrain, Animal Diversity Web, and Clavis Sinica
5. Chinese Poetry Mobile App
Learning a language is much more than the rote memorization of vocabulary. That’s why Clavis Sinica software specializes in putting language into context. David Porter, professor of English and Comparative Literature and faculty associate with the Center for Chinese Studies, runs the small educational software company, which recently released a mobile app that uses Chinese poetry to teach the language.
With the app, which won a prize in the 2014 U-M Mobile Apps Challenge, you can view a poem written in Chinese and hear it read by a native speaker. Selecting a single Chinese character not only brings up its definition in English, but also shows how it fits into other compound words. You can practice calligraphy by watching an animation of the strokes that compose the character, then drawing it yourself using the touchscreen on your phone or tablet. And for a fun pop quiz, you can scramble the characters of a poem and challenge yourself to put the verse in order again.
6. OverTheFly Apparel
OverTheFly belts come in shades such as mint, khaki, tangerine, and glow-in-the-dark. Their designs feature cheetah print, giraffe print, and the Detroit skyline. And they’ve got interchangeable buckles that can form myriad color combinations. (Think maize and blue.)
OverTheFly co-founders and LSA sophomores Andrew Jacob and Andre Najmolhoda run the business while juggling classes at U-M (and, in Jacob’s case, a spot on the club water polo team that claimed second place in the Big Ten). The two have honed in on the resources available on campus, such as TechArb, the Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic, aiming to expand to retailers nationwide. The beauty is that the belts not only keep your pants up and suit your style—they also make money for charities. Jacob and Najmolhoda use part of the profits from the sale of limited-edition belt designs to support organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the American Cancer Society, and Detroit Public Schools.
Along with an online shop, about 25 retailers sell the waterproof, recycled-plastic belts at stores across southeast Michigan and the East Coast. The company's founders, LSA sophomores Andrew Jacob and Andre Najmolhoda, plan to expand their brick-and-mortar sales throughout the country.
Photo courtesy of OverTheFly
7. Jet Lag Mobile App
Traveling overseas is no fun if you’re too exhausted to enjoy it. Fortunately, researchers in LSA’s math department designed a mobile app that helps you trick your body into adjusting quickly to new time zones.
The key to this process is light. Scheduled exposure to light and darkness can restore the body’s rhythm after it’s disrupted by jumping a time zone, working the night shift, or pulling an all-nighter to finish an assignment. Using sleep study data and a couple sophisticated math equations, Math Professor Daniel Forger and alumnus Kirill Serkh (’11, M.S. ’12) computed optimal light regimens that can artificially accelerate the body’s adjustment. Graduate student Olivia Walch designed and programmed a related app, called Entrain, for iOS and Android devices. Using the app, a traveler can avoid exhaustion by selecting a restorative light schedule that’s fine-tuned to work for her itinerary and her access to light.
Entrain includes a 100% opt-in feature that allows app users to report their results to U-M. “We’d love it if you did,” the creators say. “For science.” With more data, the researchers hope to improve both their research and the app.
8. Fictional Characters
A celebration of inventive minds in the liberal arts would be incomplete without fictional characters, and Laura Kasischke creates characters that live beyond the page. The professor of English language and literature (’84, M.F.A. ’87) has published nine novels, three of which have been adapted as feature films starring the likes of Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Shailene Woodley.
Kasischke’s novels often explore creepy mysteries and dip into the darkness of human experience. The Life Before Her Eyes, one of her novels adapted for the cinema, begins with a school shooting that impacts a teenage girl in ways that would be tough to predict. Her book of short stories, If a Stranger Approaches You, contains an assortment of uneasy characters whose perspectives on the world may not quite match the realities they encounter. And in her newest novel, Mind of Winter, Kasischke details the discomfort of a mother who, on Christmas day, suddenly finds reason to fear her adoptive daughter.
A world-renowned poet, as well, Kasischke’s creations have legs. Even if that means they might stomp through your nightmares.