Micro Technologies, Macro Impact: Wen Li’s Sensor Revolution 

East Lansing, MI – As a Professor with Michigan State University’s (MSU) Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Wen Li’s research interests range from microelectromechanical systems, nanoelectromechanical systems, microsensors, and actuators to biomimetic devices and systems; from microfluidic and lab-on-chip systems to microsystem integration and packaging technologies.   

“My team specializes in micro technologies, that is, building devices with electronic or mechanical components at the micron scale,” explains Li. “Right now, we have four active projects, in particular in the development of sensing technologies for applications in healthcare such as medical devices.”  

Li’s team is working on an application to record and manipulate neural activities in the brain, as well as wearable electronic devices, such as a contact lens-based sensor, which can monitor intraocular pressure (IOP) for early detection of glaucoma.   

In another area of research, Li is focusing on material innovation, developing an electrochemical sensing technology using a unique polycrystalline diamond to detect chemicals such as heavy metal ions in the environment or in water. “We have a joint National Science Foundation grant with Fraunhofer Center Midwest to look at heavy metal concentration in the soil environment, which can be used to identify potential agricultural pollutants. This is in collaboration with faculty members in the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and Natural Resources.  

“As we advance the device technology, we are pushing the sensitivity and performance of the sensor to the next level,” Li says. For example, these advanced sensors might be used to detect levels of neurotransmitter biomarkers for brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or depression.  

“During her time at MSU, Wen has been a consistent innovator in a range of fields,” says Raymond DeVito, Ph.D., technology manager at MSU Technologies (MSUT), the technology transfer unit of the MSU Innovation Center. “She has shared her expertise with many collaborators across multiple departments within MSU as well as with our on-campus collaborators at Fraunhofer USA.”   

According to DeVito, this broad range of innovative technologies has placed Li at a high level of achievement in advancing University technology, making her the ideal candidate to receive this year’s top innovator award.  

“In addition to all the normal interactions with faculty on their inventions, MSUT has been part of the team to bring her IOP technology forward,” says DeVito. “We have worked with Wen to get funding through the Targeted Support Grant for Technology Development (TSGTD) program as well as a Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) grant, which the Michigan Strategic Fund funds through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). We have also helped her manage ongoing projects to make the most of those funding sources.” 

MSUT helped develop a pending option agreement to provide the path for commercializing one of Li’s technologies. They also worked to put in place the confidentiality and material transfer agreements that allow Li’s team to interact with the commercial contact lens manufacturer optionee. MSUT remains involved with Li’s team, being responsive to their needs in any way possible.  

Li has been a consistent innovator during her career at MSU, and her research has resulted in many inventions and patents, including three issued patents and another three currently pending. She also has three additional patents from her prior work at the California Institute of Technology, where she earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. 

“I’m pleased to be selected for this honor,” says Li. “This is a very prestigious award that recognizes faculty’s efforts in technology innovation and also in commercialization. We’re bridging the gap between the technology and the market.”   

She continues, “I have had the opportunity to see how technologies can change people’s lives. That’s my passion.” Sometimes, that endeavor can take years, especially in the development of medical devices, but it is worth pursuing, in Li’s estimation. “It’s a long journey,” she says. But you know, we keep on.” 

Read more about the 2024 Innovation Celebration Award winners HERE.


About the MSU Innovation Center: 

The MSU Innovation Center is dedicated to fostering innovation, research commercialization, and entrepreneurial activities from the research and discovery happening across our campus every day. We act as the primary interface for researchers aiming to see their research applied to solving real-world problems and making the world a better place to live. We aim to empower faculty, researchers, and students within our community of scholars by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to bring their discoveries to the forefront. Through strategic collaborations with the private sector, we aim to amplify the impact of faculty research and drive economic growth while positively impacting society. We foster mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with the private sector through corporate-sponsored research collaborations, technology licensing discussions, and support for faculty entrepreneurs to support the establishment of startup companies.   


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