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Professors Awarded Grants for Technology Innovations

$75,000 in Funding Will Help Accelerate Commercialization

UMass Lowell Image
This stained microscope view, magnified 500 times, shows a kidney tissue sample from a patient diagnosed with invasive candidiasis, a bloodstream infection common among hospitalized patients. Assoc. Prof. Daniel Schmidt of UMass Lowell and Prof. Paul Kaufman of UMass Worcester are working on a molecule that can help prevent hospital-acquired infections.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Each year, the UMass President’s Office awards a small number of grants to researchers at the five UMass campuses whose respective projects have the best chances of turning their cutting-edge inventions into commercial success.

This year, three UMass Lowell researchers — Prof. Erno Sajo of Physics and Applied Physics, Assoc. Prof. Daniel Schmidt of Plastics Engineering and Prof. Pradeep Kurup of Civil and Environmental Engineering — and their collaborators were chosen to receive three of those eight grants from the UMass Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property (CVIP) Technology Development Fund. The rest of the grantees are faculty members from the Amherst, Boston and Worcester campuses. Each team will get $25,000 in funding.

“These are the discoveries that help change the world for the better, create new jobs and businesses and make us very proud of the groundbreaking work being done on the campuses of the University of Massachusetts,” says UMass President Robert Caret. “This year, we are recognizing work that will make our beaches and pools safer, improve medical outcomes, provide better detection of tumors and help us to find dangerous levels of heavy metals in our water and food.”

A Highly Sensitive X-ray Detection Method 

Sajo, along with Asst. Prof. Piotr Zygmanski of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, were recognized for developing a new, highly sensitive X-ray detection method that can reduce the patient’s dose while simultaneously increasing the quality of the X-ray image. 

“Improved image quality allows for better diagnosis of the disease while dose reduction means less exposure of the patient to ionizing radiation,” explains Sajo. “Using current technology, improving image quality results in an increase in patient dose, and reducing patient dose will make the image quality suffer.”

The team plans to use the CVIP grant used for prototyping the enabling technology.

“This method would have the greatest benefit with CT, fluoroscopy and mammography procedures, not old-fashioned X-rays,” notes Sajo.

Preventing Infections at Hospitals

Schmidt, working with Prof. Paul Kaufman of UMass Worcester, are investigating a small molecule that can potentially be used to coat medical plastic devices such as IVs, catheters and breathing tubes. This coating can help prevent common disease-causing fungi from forming colonies on the plastic surfaces.

“These kinds of infections are particularly serious for people with weakened immune systems, such as premature infants, organ-transplant recipients, HIV/AIDS and cancer patients, etc.,” says Schmidt. “Our technology would offer a means to prevent these dangerous infections.”

The team will test the ability of this antimicrobial compound to effectively block infection by bacteria as well.

“So far, Prof. Kaufman has confirmed that the compound works well with several different species of Candida, which are pathogenic organisms responsible for a lot of hospital-acquired infections,” says Schmidt.

The compound has proven to be non-toxic, long-lasting and effective on silicone surfaces. The CVIP funding will allow the team to produce the proof-of-concept data they need to demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach and enable them to find an industrial partner willing to work with the team to turn the idea into reality.

“Technology can’t help people if it never leaves the lab — at some point we have to get things out into the world to truly realize the broader impacts we always talk about,” says Schmidt. “These funds will get us that much closer to that goal.”

A Taste for Danger

Kurup, together with UMass Lowell plastics engineering Assoc. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, postdoctoral researcher Jung Hwan Cho and graduate students Timothy Ponrathnam and Seth Robertson, won the CVIP grant to develop an intelligent “electronic tongue” capable of detecting toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, zinc, cadmium and mercury in the water, soil, food and beverages.

“Standard methods for heavy-metal analysis use expensive and bulky instruments; testing is usually time-consuming, laborious and often requires highly trained lab personnel,” explains Kurup. “Our technology can detect multiple toxins simultaneously, and it is faster, safer, cost-effective and easy to use compared with traditional methods.”

The device can be applied to groundwater and waste-water monitoring, food-quality testing, process industries, biotechnology and even homeland security. 

“We see huge potential in the environmental sensing market, in the food and beverage industry and in academia,” notes Kurup. “Our sensing platform can even be used as an educational tool to teach electrochemistry in schools, universities and research laboratories worldwide.”

Initial funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation. The team plans to use the CVIP funds to develop a low-cost, compact and user-friendly prototype in order to attract potential licensees as well as to secure external funding to create a startup company.

Investing in Innovation

Established in 1995, the CVIP is responsible for the protection and commercialization of intellectual property and discoveries made on the five campuses of the University of Massachusetts. Each campus has its own CVIP office. UMass Lowell’s CVIP is headed by George Kachen and Jill Murthi, the office’s senior director and director, respectively. 

Money for the CVIP Technology Development Fund are generated through commercial licensing ventures in partnership with a contribution from the UMass President’s Office. Over the past 10 years, the program has backed 74 projects, resulting in new commercial licenses and patents, the creation of successful startup companies based on licensed technologies and new research grants to faculty members from all five campuses. 

For more information about the CVIP, visit