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2019 Innovation Celebration

Read about our 2019 event in MSUToday: Ninth Annual Innovation Celebration Honors Entrepreneurial Success

MSU professor recognized for the fruits of her labor

It isn’t a reach to say that Amy Iezzoni is working to increase the profitability of cherry the production. And with her research in cherry rootstock development, trees that are easier to harvest and produce fruits years earlier than traditional rootstock trees is well within grasp.Iezzoni, a professor in the Department of Horticulture and 2019 Innovator of the year winner, has worked to develop cherry rootstocks that reduce the size of sweet cherry trees by 65-75 percent.

“I have always been interested in genetics and diversity of crop plants,” she said. “I began my career as a plant collector and literally got to travel to collect cherries in their natural habitats in Eastern Europe. My passion is using that natural diversity to breed new cherry varieties and rootstocks that have a positive impact on grower profitability and consumer enjoyment.”

Iezzoni’s research has transformed the smaller, precocious trees that traditionally take four to six years to flower and produce fruit to trees that now have a two- to three-year timeframe to production. MSU rootstocks are being tested in all major cherry production regions of the U.S. to determine scenarios that contribute to grower profitability.

The benefits also extend to workers during harvesting as dwarf sweet cherry trees can be picked without ladders. This translates to reduced labor costs for producers.

For lovers of tart cherries, Iezzoni said there is interest in extending the adoption of her cherry rootstock to those trees. The result would be high-density systems that could be harvested in three years.

Iezzoni’s research also includes screening for Armillaria root rot, a fungus that leads to gradual tree loss and persists in soil even after a tree’s death. Armillaria root rot occurs naturally in the majority of the Great Lakes region and the U.S., affecting Great Lakes crops such as maple, oak, white pine, red pine, aspen, peach, cherry and potato.

MSU’s Innovation Center helped Iezzoni protect the rootstock releases and license the rootstocks nationally and internationally. Because rootstocks are below the surface and their benefits are seen in the upper part of a plant, they are harder to handle as intellectual property. Through the Innovation Center, a volume restriction strategy was formed that allowed the rootstocks to be commercialized but limited their use until testing is complete.

MSU professor brings blood pressure readings to the palm of your hand

Taking measures to improve your quality of life might become as routine as pulling up an updated weather report on your smartphone thanks to Ramakrishna Mukkamala, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

For his idea to measure blood pressure with a smartphone, Mukkamala is a recipient of the 2019 Innovation of the Year award.

Here’s how it works: The smartphone measures blood pressure as the user presses their fingertip to a sensor unit, and is comparable in accuracy to existing finger cuff devices. Mukkamala and his research team developed both a smartphone encasing with a custom sensor unit and an iPhone app that leverage sensors including the front-facing camera.

Instead of scheduling an appointment with a doctor, Mukkamala’s smartphone blood pressure measurement devices could significantly reduce the 45 percent of people in developed countries who have hypertension, but aren’t aware of it. The same goes for the 55 percent of hypertensives not aware of it in developing countries, in which smartphone use is growing.

The devices are user-friendly, with 90 percent of participants in a study able to correctly perform the finger pressing after just one or two practice trials.

More frequent blood pressure readings can lead to hypertension prevention. High blood pressure can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes, making a life-saving decision mere seconds and a fingertip away.

Mukkamala’s ambitious start to smartphone blood pressure measurement is just the beginning. Along with improved accuracy that could rival the standard blood pressure arm cuff, the goal is to develop a complete hypertension management system by including an alert to warn users of high blood pressure. The system would securely relay the measurements to medical professionals and send text message reminders to patients with high blood pressure measurements to take medication.

MSU’s Innovation Center was instrumental in providing Mukkamala and his team with research funding, patents, licensing and finally commercialization. But he said the personal investment the IC had in his work was its most significant contribution, praising Richard Chylla, executive director of MSU Technologies; Brian Copple, technology manager; and Anne DiSante, associate director at MSU Technologies.

“We were able to work productively together,” he said. “While doing so, we also got to know each other…The MSU Innovation Center truly cares about me. Taken together, it has been a joy to work with them.”

Laser-focused MSU professor has wide innovative reach

Compressing Marcos Dantus’ career as an MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Chemistry is a daunting task, and it’s a fundamental idea he is all too familiar with.

But Dantus’ impact can be summed up simply as a problem solver. His research in ultrafast lasers, taking a low-intensity, long pulse and compressing it to increase its energy, has earned him the 2019 MSU Technology Transfer Achievement Award.

His life-saving work with ultra-short pulse lasers has contributed to Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics. He has 47 inventions disclosed, over 200 peer-reviewed papers, 30 patents and 16 technologies licensed to industry.

Dantus’ work has helped doctors detect cancer earlier with enhanced optical biopsies. For example, in skin cancer cases, rather than looking at the outermost layer of skin, doctors can see into deeper layers to better determine if a patient has cancer, what kind it is, and its progression using a laser microscope.

Away from MSU, Dantus founded/co-founded two successful spin-out ventures: Biophotonic Solutions Inc. and KTM Industries Inc. BSI seeks to make ultrafast laser technology more practical for scientific, medical, industrial and defense applications, while KTM manufactures biodegradable packing materials.

Both companies continue to build on the innovative platform Dantus established. BSI, which was acquired by IPG Photonics in 2016, is releasing a highly efficient ultrafast fiber laser for industrial applications. KTM, which produces a natural, biodegradable packaging material called Green Cell Foam, is replacing the use of styrofoam for packaging in wine shipping boxes and coolers.

Dantus also has shown an ability to pivot, taking a method originally intended for microscopes and applying it to use lasers to detect a bomb from 40 feet away.

The minutia of securing funding and working with patent attorneys arises for a researcher such as Dantus. Working with the MSU Innovation Center has helped him determine what level of IP protection he needed for each of his inventions and the proper funding channels to go through.

“As a serial inventor, it is great that I have gotten to work closely with the MSU IC,” Dantus said.

Hot potato: MSU professor develops new varieties for countries far and wide

As eating habits evolve, the potato’s place at the dinner table continues to change.

David Douches, a professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and director of the MSU Potato Breeding and Genetics Program, has been at the forefront of the potato’s transition as people get more adventurous with their eating habits. Known as “Mr. Potato Prof,” he is MSU’s Corporate Connector of the Year.

Douches helps develop new varieties for Michigan, one of the country’s top potato producers, and the nation with names ranging from Beacon Chipper and Purple Haze to Raspberry and Spartan Splash. Blackberry, a fresh market purple potato, is bringing a splash of color to the snack world.

“Great Lakes Potato Chips is working out the commercialization of purple potato chips from this potato,” Douches said. “It should be a fun product.”

The wide range of varieties he has developed are becoming more and more relevant. About 15 years ago he noticed a change coming in potato consumption, citing a variety named Jacqueline Lee (named after his daughter), a medium size potato with yellow flesh that didn’t fit the market at the time, he said in a 2014 interview Michigan Radio. Now, it is being marketed nationally and internationally.

“Our Manistee variety is helping the growers and processors by having a quality product throughout the storage season, as well as extending the storage season,” Douches said.

While Douches researches and breeds each new potato, keeping track of the intellectual property associated with it is a whole other facet. That’s where MSU’s Innovation Center comes in.

“The expertise at the Innovation Center allows me to stay on task and continue to advance my activities by managing the IP,” Douches said. “This is very valuable.”

Douches’ efforts provide farmers a longer supply period and processors with more product. He also helped potatoes become more self-sufficient by integrating resistance traits for diseases.

“In my opinion, plant breeding is a public service,” Douches said. “Plant breeding contributes to a diverse and abundant food supply that we all benefit from.”

Students who have learned under Douches have come to MSU from countries including Bangladesh, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Argentina to breed strains that can survive back home. They have produced potatoes engineered to thrive in different environments, including drought tolerance and resistance to late blight, which caused the Irish Potato Famine.

The big breakthrough for Douches came in 2011, when the potato genome was sequenced through an international team, which led to his team developing genome-wide genetic markers. This enabled more precise breeding and the ability to genetically mark desired traits, giving the already-versatile potato even more possibilities.

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