In May, Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties (VTIP) with LINK + LICENSE + LAUNCH sought an inaugural round of proposals from Virginia Tech researchers for Proof-of-Concept grants designed to help provide paths to market for research and technologies with the potential for significant societal and economic impact.

“New technologies emerge from university research at a very early stage and are often perceived as too uncertain or too risky to attract funding to develop them into marketable  products or services,” said Mark Mondry, associate director for LAUNCH who also leads the new program. “These funds help bridge the early funding gap between research and commercialization efforts with the purpose of validating market opportunities and reducing the perception of risk.”

Selected projects showcase the breadth of innovation taking place on Virginia Tech's campus, involve technologies captured in the VTIP invention disclosure process, and are identified as possible licensing candidates for established companies or to new technology startups. 

“These grants are complementary to the other commercialization and partnership activities underway at Virginia Tech and will give us more shots on goal for start-up creation so that we can advance our objective of driving economic prosperity and adding to the innovation ecosystem," said Brandy Salmon, associate vice president for innovation and partnerships.

Together, the LICENSE and LAUNCH resources, housed within the Office of the Vice President of Research and Innovation, and VTIP combine to help increase the value of these new technologies and propel them out into the innovation economy where they can have a positive impact on society.

Researchers selected in this first proposal round of the grant program will receive funding and related LAUNCH support services to validate technology and market applications and attract future funding from federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants, National Science Foundation I-Corps grants, seed funds, early stage private investors, and more.

The following researchers and projects will receive support:

Deposition and Testimony Summarization

Edward A. Fox, professor of computer science, College of Engineering

Very few methods can produce good, relatively short summaries of long documents. Particularly challenging are legal documents that are made up of a collection of question-answer pairs. Fox and Virginia Tech researchers have developed tailored methods to devise such summaries for depositions, involving natural language processing, text analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, information retrieval, and digital library technologies. Their approach — to extract document metadata, along with content, over a multitude of file formats, including page images. A pipeline of components uses parsing, segmentation, classification, and various methods to identify the important portions that lead to helpful summaries for legal professionals. This project will help the team to demonstrate the solution and pilot deployments to prove utility to insurance and legal firms, in connection with the commercialization partner, Mayfair Group LLC.

Fog Harps for Ultra-Efficient Water Harvesting

Jonathan Boryeko, professor of mechanical engineering, College of Engineering

Brook Kennedy, associate professor, School of Architecture + Design, College of Architecture and Urban Studies

By 2025, about two-thirds of the world's population will lack sufficient access to fresh water. Fog harvesting is a passive technique for obtaining fresh water in foggy but arid regions that does not require energy or treatment facilities. Commercial fog harvesters are comprised of mesh netting and not very efficient as the horizontal cross-wires make it difficult to drain the water. Boryeko and Kennedy invented an ultra-efficient Fog Harp created with an array of vertical wires held in tension by a frame. By avoiding the use of cross-wires, tiny droplets can effectively slide down the vertical wires, such that the Fog Harp is completely anticlogging under even the heaviest fog. As a result, the early prototype harvested anywhere from two - 78 times more water compared to mesh nets, depending on the exact weather conditions. With the support of Virginia Tech’s Proof-of-Concept Program, the team plans to optimize the Fog Harp design and take concrete steps toward mass-production and commercialization.  

Rametrix AutoScanner Automated Molecular Urinalysis System

John Robertson, research professor of biomedical engineering, College of Engineering

Ryan Senger, associate professor of biological systems engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Amr Sayed Issa, research assistant, biomedical engineering, College of Engineering

The analysis of biological samples, urine, blood, and discharge is an important part of medical diagnostics and patient care. Robertson and the Virginia Tech research team have developed and validated a Raman spectroscopy-based technology called Rametrix for identification of spectral biomarker patterns in urine specimens. This rapid, cost-effective, and noninvasive technology provides information on the presence and severity of diseases like cancer, infections, and organ failure, and may help guide treatment decisions. In order to be effective as a clinical tool, the Rametrix technology needs to be automated and scaled for high-volume throughput. To make this possible, the team  invented a prototype of an automated urinalysis system incorporating the Rametrix technology. With the program funds, the team will work to evolve the prototype to a more robust device that can be manufactured under stringent conditions needed for deployment in hospital and clinical laboratory settings.

S1P Modulation and Multiple Sclerosis

Webster L. Santos, professor of chemistry, College of Science and the Cliff and Agnes Lilly Faculty Fellow of Drug Discovery

Kevin R. Lynch, professor and vice chair of pharmacology at the University of Virginia

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating neurodegenerative, autoimmune disease that affects more than 900,000 people in the United States with an estimated health care cost of $28 billion per year. To date, there is no cure for MS. With the disease, the immune cells destroy the protective layer, known as the myelin sheath, of the conduit between neurons. Destruction of the myelin sheath is facilitated by the signaling molecule sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P). Together, Santos’ and Lynch’s laboratories have discovered and patented drugs that block the enzyme (spns2) that transports S1P. By blocking spns2, the signal for immune cells to destroy the myelin sheath is ablated. In proof-of-principle studies, anti-MS effects were demonstrated in mice where spns2 is genetically removed. In collaboration with Flux Therapeutics Inc., the researchers will use program funds to validate the efficacy of spns2 inhibitors in mouse models of MS and work toward developing a new drug for MS.

Tool Support Exoskeleton for Industrial Applications

Alan Asbeck, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, College of Engineering

Joshua Hull, graduate student, mechanical engineering

Ranger Turner, graduate student, mechanical engineering

Joe Hitt, CEO and co-founder, GoX Labs

Millions of workers in the United States use heavy, hand-held tools for extended periods of time, which can lead to injuries, fatigue, or lower quality work over time. The Virginia Tech team has invented a method for making a tool feel weightless that can be worn as a light-weight, low-profile exoskeleton. The tool's weight is supported by the exoskeleton, relieving the arms and back. Most current exoskeletons that support tools work only if the tool is held directly overhead. However, the team’s device can hold the tool in any position, such as in front of the user, enabling it to be used in a much wider range of tasks. In this project, they will create an optimized design for the exoskeleton, engage in customer discovery, and conduct on-site testing of prototypes at various companies.