Category: Recognition

Horenstein Invited to Speak as a Principal International Electrostatic Expert

February 17th, 2015 in Awards, Faculty, Recognition

By Gabriella McNevin

Electrical Engineering Professor Mark Horenstein

Electrical Engineering Professor Mark Horenstein

Boston University Electrical Engineering Professor Mark Horenstein was invited to deliver the Bill Bright Memorial Lecture Electrostatics 2015, sponsored by the Institute of Physics. Horenstein has accepted the honor, and will join other world-leading experts in electrostatics in England in April 2015.

The Institute of Physics Electrostatics Group (IOP) organizes this conference every four years to provide the opportunity to unite academic and industry electrostatics experts. Horenstein’s research in electrostatics is well known, and he is regarded as one of the leading experts in the field in both academia and industry.

Horenstein will discuss “The Contribution of Surface Potential to Diverse Problems in Electrostatics.” The lecture will focus on the role that the simple concept of surface potential plays across numerous applications of electrostatics. Surface potential is the driving factor, for example, in the propagating brush discharge, a dangerous explosion hazard in industrial environments. Surface potential is also key to such seeming obscure topics as the electrostatics of parachutes and the backflow of charge on moving webs (large, industrial sized sheets of polymer or textile used in roll-to-roll industrial processes).

In 2013, Horenstein was an invited speaker at the Electrostatics 2013 International Conference on Electrostaics held by the Static Electricity in Industry group of the European Federation of Chemical Engineers. At the conference, he was bestowed the honor of being named International Fellow.

Currently, Horenstein serves as the Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Electrostatics and is an honorary life member of the Electrostatics Society of America (ESA). In 2012, he was named Outstanding Professor of the Year by the College of Engineering at Boston University. Horenstein is a named inventor on five patents. He received his Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1978, and his M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975.

In addition to Horenstein’s expertise in electrostatics, he is known for his textbooks on microelectronics and engineering design. He currently works on technology for self-cleaning photovoltaic solar panels and concentrating solar mirrors.

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Giles Testifies at Supercomputing & American Leadership Hearing

February 6th, 2015 in News-CE, Recognition, Research, Uncategorized

By Gabriella McNevin

While Boston University recuperated from the Blizzard of 2015, Computer Engineering Professor Roscoe Giles (ECE, CISE) offered a testimony on Supercomputing that took place in Washington D.C on January 28. Due to flight cancellation, Giles testified from his home in Massachusetts through video link.

Professor Giles testified via video link from his home in Massachusetts. The image above was taken a day before the hearing, in the Rayburn House Office. Mounted on the wall, is a TV monitor displaying Professor Giles’ live feed.

Professor Giles testified via video link from his home in Massachusetts. The image above was taken a day before the hearing, in the Rayburn House Office. Mounted on the wall, is a TV monitor displaying Professor Giles’ live feed.

Professor Giles was invited to the Supercomputing and American Technology Leadership hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy. The new Chairman of the Energy Subcommittee Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), set the meeting agenda in the hearing’s opening remarks, “As we face the reality of ongoing budget constraints in Washington, it is our job in Congress to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, on innovative research that is in the national interest.”

Giles was appearing as the chair of the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (or  ASCAC). Joining a panel of distinguished supercomputing experts, Giles was called to provide insight on the dynamic relationship between supercomputing, and U.S. economy, and country’s status as a global leader in science and technology.

Giles was called to testify based on his experience with high performance computing applications and systems and his understanding of their role in advancing science and engineering. Giles’ testimony highlighted recent applications successes and emphasized the need to aggressively push the technology, mathematics, computing, and applications research required for the next generation (exascale) supercomputers.

Since Giles left the Center for Theoretical Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1985 to join the Boston University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, his research has earned a number of awards.  He has since won the College of Engineering Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Computing Research Association (CRA) A. Nico Habermann Award. During the Supercomputing Conference in Baltimore, Maryland in 2002, Giles was the first ever African American conference chairman. In 2004, the Career Communications Group selected Giles as one of the “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science.”

Scaling Up Synthetic Biology

January 22nd, 2015 in Faculty, Recognition, Research

ECE Researchers Develop Powerful New Software Tools

By Mark Dwortzan

Douglas Densmore, engineering assistant professor, and Swapnil Bhatia, engineering research assistant professor, are collaborating to streamline synthetic biology from concept to design to assembly. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Douglas Densmore, engineering assistant professor, and Swapnil Bhatia, engineering research assistant professor, are collaborating to streamline synthetic biology from concept to design to assembly. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Over the past 15 years, synthetic biology researchers have rewired and reprogrammed genetic “circuits” in living cells and organisms to enable them to perform specified tasks, both to improve our understanding of biology and to solve critical problems in healthcare, energy and the environment, food safety, global security and other domains. While practitioners dream of engineering each new organism as expeditiously as today’s new mobile phone apps are produced, serious obstacles remain. Genetic parts are hard to find and tune, the final behaviors of engineered organisms are difficult to predict, and few tools exist that can handle the scale and complexity of the enterprise.

In recent years, however, two researchers at the College of Engineering, Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics) and Research Assistant Professor Swapnil Bhatia (ECE) have joined forces to streamline synthetic biology from concept to design to assembly, encoding solutions in a rich suite of software tools. In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology, they and collaborating researchers at MIT demonstrated how their tools can be used iteratively to help synthetic biologists to specify, analyze and improve large-scale designs for engineered biological organisms.

“Currently, people write down a sequence of genetic parts, one in each column, for each design,” said Bhatia. “You can do this correctly when you have a few designs, but when you want to do it for a 100 designs, you begin to wonder if there’s a more powerful approach. Our algorithms allow researchers to describe whole spaces of designs, including those they might not have thought of because the possibilities are so vast.”

In the paper, Densmore and Bhatia showed the potential of their software tools by describing a network of 16 genes central to engineering nitrogen fixation—a key pathway which, if engineered into plants, could mitigate the need for fertilizer. Using specifications generated by the software, they and their collaborators “rewired” a network of genes extracted from one bacterial species, Klebsiella oxytoca, and transplanted it into another one, E. coli, that’s easier to work with in the desired application.

The researchers, who were funded by a $3.6 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant, thus demonstrated the first instance in which synthetic biologists ported a large gene cluster from one organism into another. It’s a process Bhatia likens to persistently tinkering with an app that runs on an iPhone to make it work on a Kindle, and believes will pave the way for many synthetic biology applications.

“This paper is an excellent example of parallel development of biological and computational tools,” said Densmore. “Recombinant DNA and cloning techniques have improved at a rapid pace, but the state of computational tools for engineering biology has lagged behind. People still use spreadsheets and notebooks for large projects. This has to change.”

Seeking to accelerate that change, Densmore and Bhatia are already focused on developing the next generation of tools for synthetic biology that will automatically learn biological design rules, propose genetic circuit designs, plan DNA assemblies and automate much of the pipetting labor involved in the assembly of engineered biological systems.

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Brown Named Academy of Inventors Fellow

December 18th, 2014 in Awards, Recognition, Uncategorized

Selected for “creating or facilitating” inventions that have helped society

By Susan Seligson, BU Today

BU President Robert A. Brown, a chemical engineer, has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

BU President Robert A. Brown, a chemical engineer, has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Boston University President Robert A. Brown, who came to BU following a career as a prominent chemical engineer, has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), the academy announced today.

Brown, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is one of 170 new fellows in NAI and one of the total of 414 fellows currently representing more than 150 research universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutions. “Fellow status is a high professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society,” NAI said in its press release.

“It is an honor to be counted among so many amazingly innovative people,” says Brown. “In my role as NAI Fellow, I look forward to supporting the efforts of NAI to promote academic technology and innovation—especially the applied use of inventions to improve quality of life and spur the economy.”

Election as a NAI Fellow is the latest in a long string of honors and distinguished appointments for Brown, who is also a member of National Academy of Engineering, which awarded him the 2013 Simon Ramo Founders Award. Brown is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He chairs the Academic Research Council of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Singapore and is a member of Singapore’s Research Innovation and Enterprise Council. Brown is a director of both the DuPont Company and the American Council on Education, and a trustee of the Universities Research Association. He served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for President George W. Bush.

Brown, a former dean of the MIT School of Engineering and head of MIT’s department of chemical engineering, has published more than 250 papers in areas related to mathematical modeling of transport phenomena in materials. Executive editor of the Journal of Chemical Engineering Science from 1991 to 2004, he was honored as one of the top 100 Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era by theAmerican Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Brown earned a BS and MS in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota.

Included among all of the NAI Fellows are 61 presidents and senior leaders of research universities and nonprofit research institutes, 208 members of the other national academies, 16 recipients of the US National Medal of Technology and Innovation, 10 recipients of the US National Medal of Science, and 21 Nobel Laureates.

The NAI Fellows will be inducted by the Deputy US Commissioner for Patent Operations, from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, during the 4th Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors, on March 20, 2015, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

ENG Grad Students Win Awards at Premier Materials Research Conference

December 11th, 2014 in Awards, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, Recognition, Research

By Mark Dwortzan

Second-place poster author Steven Scherr (ME, PhD'16) (second from left) with 2014 MRS Fall Meeting Chairs

Second-place poster author Steven Scherr (ME, PhD’16) (second from left) with 2014 MRS Fall Meeting Chairs

Vying with nearly 3,000 entries in the Poster Session competition at the 2014 Materials Research Society (MRS) Fall Meeting and Exhibit on December 3, a Boston University College of Engineering entry won second place honors. In addition, another ENG poster received the award for the MRS University Chapters Program’s “Sustainability @ My School” competition highlighting leading-edge sustainability research.

Attended by up to 6,000 materials researchers from around the world, the MRS Fall Meeting is the preeminent annual event for those in the field.

Former LEAP student Steven Scherr’s (ME, PhD’16) second-place-winning poster, “Real-Time Digital Virus Detection for Diagnosis of Ebola Virus Disease,” describes an optical detection system he developed for real-time, highly sensitive, label-free virus detection. The system, which combines an optical interference reflectance imaging biosensor(SP-IRIS) with a microfluidics cartridge, could be used for early detection of the Ebola virus at the point of care.

Working with a sample of bovine blood serum, Scherr recently used the system to digitally detect individual 100 nanometer-diameter vesicular stomatitis viruses—safe-for-human models of Ebola—as they adhered to an antibody microarray. Completed within 10 minutes, this lab test demonstrates the potential of SP-IRIS as the core technology for field-ready, point-of-care viral diagnostic tests that’s fast, sensitive, cheap and easy to implement, and requires minimal sample preparation.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the research was a collaboration between Scherr, who designed the microfluidics components, and ECE postdoc George Daaboul (BME, PhD’13), Professor Bennett Goldberg (Physics, ECE, BME, MSE), Professor John H. Connor (MED) and Professor Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE, Physics), who developed SP-IRIS.

Shizhao Su and Yihong Jiang (both MSE, PhD'15) with their first place award in the "Sustainability @ My School" poster contest

Shizhao Su and Yihong Jiang (both MSE, PhD’15) with their first place award in the “Sustainability @ My School” poster contest

“I think we have the potential to make a big impact in the world of diagnostics and controlling future outbreaks like the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa,” said Scherr, who is continuing to develop the microfluidic cartridge.

Shizhao Su and Yihong Jiang’s (both MSE, PhD’15) winning entry in the MRS university chapter’s “Sustainability @ My School” contest, “Carbon-free Solid Oxide Membrane (SOM) Based Electrolysis for Metals Production and Sustainable Energy Applications,” showcases SOM electrolysis, an environmentally friendly, low-cost metals production technology.  Developed by Professor Uday Pal (ME, MSE) over the past 15 years, it requires far less energy than existing methods to extract pure magnesium, silicon, aluminum and other metals from their oxides. Poster co-author Abhishek Patnaik, who is also an MSE doctoral candidate, is exploring adapting SOM electrolysis for waste-to-energy conversion.

Conducted with guidance from Pal, Professor Soumendra Basu (ME, MSE) and Assistant Professor Jillian Goldfarb (ME, MSE), the research was funded by the National Science Foundation and US Department of Energy.

“I was delighted when Boston University was announced as the first place winner,” said Su. “It was an honor to present our work in front of peers in the MRS community, including some of the world’s leading experts in sustainable research and development. I was glad to see our lab’s many years of hard work recognized and appreciated by the community.”

The Materials Research Society comprises more than 16,000 researchers from academia, industry and government in more than 80 countries, and is a recognized leader in the advancement of interdisciplinary materials research.

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Rocket Propulsion Group on a Mission

December 8th, 2014 in Recognition, Students

Aims to Make BU the First University to Launch a Rocket into Space

By Mark Dwortzan

Armor Harris (ME'15) measuring components during fabrication of the oxidizer tank for Starscraper.

Armor Harris (ME’15) measuring components during fabrication of the oxidizer tank for Starscraper.

Working long hours in the basement of 110 Cummington Mall, the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group’s (BURPG) 35 undergraduates—33 from the College of Engineering, one from the College of Arts & Sciences and one from the College of Communications—are designing, building, testing and publicizing Starscraper, a 30-foot long, 12-inch-diameter rocket designed to propel a 100-pound payload into space and land it safely back on Earth. Assembly and testing is planned for the spring 2015 semester, with a tentative launch date in July in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

As it works through technical challenges, the group is also seeking to raise funds through its new Kickstarter crowdfunding site. If all goes well, Starscraper would be the first university-based rocket that breaches the 100-kilometer altitude Kármán Line, commonly regarded as the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

If all goes well, Starscraper would be the first university-based rocket that breaches the 100-kilometer altitude Kármán Line, commonly regarded as the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

An interdisciplinary team of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering students pose with the Active Stabilization Test Rocket, used to test the control system that will guide Starscraper into space. From left to right Doug Lescarbeau (ME'18), Tom Halstead (ME'16), Joe Beaupre (EE'17) and Jarrod Risley (ME'17).

An interdisciplinary team of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering students pose with the Active Stabilization Test Rocket, used to test the control system that will guide Starscraper into space. From left to right Doug Lescarbeau (ME’18), Tom Halstead (ME’16), Joe Beaupre (EE’17) and Jarrod Risley (ME’17).

BURPG would also become the first non-governmental and non-corporate entity to do so using a hybrid propulsion system, in which solid fuel reacts with a liquid oxidizer—a combustive mix that provides sufficient thrust to get the rocket off the ground. The current BU system consists of a six-segment structure made of tire rubber (the solid fuel) and a tank of nitrous oxide (the liquid oxidizer), commonly used to sedate dental patients. Its payload will include a GPS tracking system, but future versions could carry everything from telescopes to drug manufacturing experiments into space.

Founded in 2003, BURPG initially built small solid-fuel rockets, the kind used in missiles and fighter jets, before moving on to lab-bench-scale hybrid rockets, which are safer and simpler to build than liquid propellant rockets. By the spring of 2012, the group had whittled down to five aerospace engineering seniors, who saw in an enterprising freshman named Armor Harris (ME’15) their last best hope of keeping the flame alive. He became the group’s president before the semester was out.

The Quasar subscale hybrid space booster rocket undergoing hot fire testing in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Quasar was the eight-inch-diameter precursor to the current 12-inch-diameter Starscraper.

The Quasar subscale hybrid space booster rocket undergoing hot fire testing in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Quasar was the eight-inch-diameter precursor to the current 12-inch-diameter Starscraper.

“I saw the work they’d done on hybrid rockets, and wanted to do something that no university-based group had done before—to launch a rocket into space,” said Harris, who made a presentation proposing such a project before 50 fellow students that fall. “All the juniors and seniors thought it was crazy and never came back; all the freshmen and sophomores stuck around, and now they’re the nucleus of the group.”

Even the group’s faculty advisor, Lecturer Caleb Farny (ME), was initially skeptical about the project.

“When Armor presented his vision in 2012 to dramatically scale the team’s goal to the much-larger task of delivering such a rocket to space, I rolled my eyes and told him this goal was likely unattainable, for multiple reasons,” Farny recalls. “Under

Mehmet Akbulut (ME'16) inspecting the Mk IIB subscale rocket engine, used to test Starscraper rocket technology, before a test fire.

Mehmet Akbulut (ME’16) inspecting the Mk IIB subscale rocket engine, used to test Starscraper rocket technology, before a test fire.

Armor’s leadership, the team has worked tirelessly ever since to achieve numerous successive goals and solve technical challenges.”

An amateur rocket enthusiast who had launched several small-scale rockets before he arrived at Boston University, Harris wowed judges at the College of Engineering’s first Imagineering Contest with a sounding rocket designed to reach a 100,000 feet altitude that he had partially built in the Imagineering Lab (he launched it a few months later from a field in his home state of Oregon). Starscraper is in many ways a follow-on to this achievement, and the capstone of three years at the helm of the BURPG.

During Harris’s first two years with the group, he guided the development of a six-inch-diameter hybrid rocket, followed by an 8-inch one. The larger rocket was successfully test-fired at a rocket range in Sudbury, Massachusetts, achieving 99 percent of the level of performance it was designed for on its second firing.

“At 80 per cent, you’re really doing well; 99 percent on the second firing is really outstanding,” said Harris, noting that hybrid rockets have historically not performed nearly as well as specified. “That proved to all of us that we could actually do this mission.”

And to its corporate sponsors—GE, Raytheon, FloDesign and SpaceX—which, along with donations through the ENG Annual Fund, are footing part of the bill. The BURPG rocket is about 10 times cheaper to develop than a comparable NASA hybrid rocket, but still costly enough to require substantial funding.

Several BURPG members have netted internships or job offers from the three corporate sponsors and other companies in the spaceflight industry, including Harris, who is on his second internship as a propulsion development engineer with SpaceX, where he plans to work upon graduation.  More importantly, participants are gaining invaluable experience in hands-on engineering, building a solid foundation for their entire careers.

“In the classroom, students can learn how to derive Bernoulli’s equation (which governs fluid flow in pipes), but down here they can build a high-pressure fluid system,” said Harris. “The real value of this mission is that it can serve as a model for engineering education in which students apply theoretical concepts as they learn how to design, build, test, and integrate components of a working system.”

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MEng Student Develops Wheelchair Health Monitoring Device

December 3rd, 2014 in Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, News-CE, Recognition, Research-CE, Students, Video

By Gabriella McNevin and Donald Rock (COM ’17)

Anish Shah was hired to be 2014 Intel intern. Shah is working towards a Master of Engineering Degree and specializing  in computer  engineering.

CE MEng student Anish Shah working at an Intel Lab

A man in a wheelchair is home alone when he accidentally maneuvers too close to a staircase. One wheel passes over the edge of the top stair, and the wheelchair teeter-totters on the brink. Instinctively, the man jerks his arms upwards to regain balance, but he can’t. He and the heavy wheelchair tumble down the steps.   

The wheelchair and the man are suited for this situation. The man and his chair are connected to devices that transmit information through the Internet to the man’s health care provider. The caretaker is alarmed to see the chair’s abnormal degree of orientation, the acceleration, and the man’s rapid heartbeat. The health care provider jumps into action and rushes to the man’s aid.

Although the story above is fictitious, the technology is not. Anish Shah, a Boston University electrical and computer engineering graduate student, developed the novel technology with a team of Intel interns. For twelve weeks Shah was focused on creating a practical gateway device to improve the wheelchair experience and benefit health care monitoring.

The team linked the wheelchair to the “Internet of Things” by developing technology that attaches to the chair and to the user to collect and send information. The technology monitors fluctuating data and transmits it to a second party by route of an Internet application. The story above illustrates how the technology can be used to help caretakers respond in emergency situations.

Shah and his team started the design thinking process with a 3-4 week research period. The team discovered a huge variation in the needs of wheelchair users due to varying mobility and health restraints of each individual. To answer the range in needs, the team created technology that measured and sent information to Internet applications. The applications were designed for different health and wellbeing needs.

The technology integrated a bio-harness able to track bio data of the wheelchair user. It was programmed to track a range of body measurements like heart rate, skin temperature, and the orientation of whoever sits in the wheelchair. The harness was a tool with a number of applications when it was connected to the Internet. The technology can connect to Internet applications specifically designed to allow health care providers to respond to emergency situations. The technology can also be connected to applications designed to improve how long-term internal vitals were monitored.

Another feature of the gateway device was mechanical data monitoring. Here, the orientation of the chair, rather than the orientation of the user was observed. This capability can be applied to identify mechanical usage patterns and anomalies.

The wheelchair’s battery was also connected to the internet-of-things to answer questions like, “Will the chair battery die tomorrow?” and “is the chair consuming an irregular amount of energy?

Lastly, a geo-location monitor was enabled to benefit user navigation of urban areas. With this technology, wheelchair users could find wheelchair accessible venues and thus improve their future transportation preparations.

Shah and his team tested the technology during a two-week trial period. They collected data and feedback and found highly positive results.

Stephen Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist and user of wheelchairs, publicly lauded the technological advancement. In a video response, Hawking applauded the design for it’s potential to change lives. “Medicine can’t cure me so I rely on technology,” noted Hawking. “It lets me interface with the world. It propels me. It is how I’m speaking to you now. It is necessary for me to live.”

Shah started the Intel internship one year into the Master of Engineering program at Boston University. He arrived at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering with an interest in embedded systems in 2013, and successfully applied the knowledge to create a device that received press coverage around the world. Now, he is working under Professor Thomas Little in the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Boston University.

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Downtyme Wins Beantown Throwdown Business Competition

November 24th, 2014 in Awards, Recognition, Students

Startup Founded by CE Juniors Wows Innovation District Audience 

By Mark Dwortzan


Downtyme team members Barron Roth (ENG’16), Luke Sorenson (ENG’16), John Moore (ENG’15), Nick Sorensen (SMG’14), Darryl Johnson (ENG’17), Ben Pusey (CAS’16) and Tufts University senior Nikki Dahan placed first in the Beantown Throwdown. The team’s trophy will be etched with their names and passed on to winners of future competitions. (Photo by Sonia Su COM’15)

Downtyme, a startup co-founded by Barron Roth and Luke Sorenson (both CE ’16) based on their final project in ENG EC 327, Introduction to Software Engineering, won the second annual Beantown Throwdown entrepreneurial business pitch competition. Held on November 18 at Boston’s District Hall before a sellout audience of more than 200 and organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum, the competition featured three-minute pitches from local college student entrepreneurs. Edging out teams from Harvard, MIT, Northeastern and five other Boston-area colleges and universities vying for votes from a sellout audience of more than 400 students, sponsors and investors, Downtyme received more than $20,000 in in-kind legal and marketing services, mentoring and office space.

Roth gave the pitch for Downtyme, representing a cross-functional team that includes Sorenson, John Moore (CE ’15), Nick Sorensen (SMG ’14), Darryl Johnson (CE ’17), Ben Pusey (CAS ’16) and Tufts University senior Nikki Dahan. The Downtyme app enables users to meet up with other users who are available and nearby. Users identify their friends by linking the app to their Facebook account and indicate their availability by entering or importing their calendars. To bring up a list of nearby Facebook friends, they may either press “Now” or “Later,” depending on when they want to get together. Launched in beta mode last March, a full version of the app will be released in January.

After a panel discussion on entrepreneurship moderated by Boston Globe Innovation Economy columnist Scott Kirsner, representatives from each team were given three minutes to pitch their startups and one minute to field questions from the panelists. Afterwards, audience members received $3 million in fake cash to “invest” in one or more of the startups. After all pitches were completed, attendees were invited to “invest” in their top three picks with the $3 million in play money they received upon arrival. Downtyme emerged with $68 million, $2.5 million more than the closest competitor.

“My competitors encompassed such a wide variety of industries, from biotech to advertising startups. It was really a tossup as to who would walk away with the trophy,” said Roth, who was subsequently featured in Foley Hoag’s 2014 MVPs of Boston Tech event, a panel discussion among finalists from Boston-area business competitions. “We’re confident this win is more validation that our product is something people want, even beyond the student spectrum. Many attendees came up to me after the pitch requesting an enterprise version, and it’s certainly something my team is considering.”

The second place winner, Nonspec, is a University of Massachusetts-Lowell startup seeking to produce low-cost, long-lasting prosthetic devices for resource-limited countries. Placing third was Gentoo Inc., a Wentworth Institute of Technology startup that’s developed a vest to simplify outpatient treatment involving intravenous medicines.

“Downtyme’s presentation was engaging and compelling, addressing a problem that many of the students and young professionals in the audience recognized,” said Ian Mashiter, Boston University director of Entrepreneurship Activities and lecturer in the School of Management. “Downtyme is the first app that uses mobile devices as a way of facilitating face to face interaction rather than substituting for it.”

Downtyme earned its opportunity to enter the competition by placing first in an earlier competition for Boston University startups hosted by the BUzz Lab, BU’s new student center for entrepreneurship that Mashiter runs.

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Vision Quest

November 24th, 2014 in Alumni, Graduate Programs, Recognition

Two BU grads seek to revolutionize the eye exam

By Barbara Moran, BU Research

The SVOne shines light into the eye and instantly calculates an eyeglass prescription. “All you have to do is look straight,” says co-creator Marc Albanese. Photos by Conor Doherty.

The SVOne shines light into the eye and instantly calculates an eyeglass prescription. “All you have to do is look straight,” says co-creator Marc Albanese. Photos by Conor Doherty.

Imagine that you’re nearsighted. For many Americans, that’s not hard to do. Around 30 percent of people in the United States are nearsighted, and for most of them, the solution is simple: go to the eye doctor and get some glasses or contact lenses. That way, they can drive, read street signs, and recognize friends walking down the street.

For most of the world, it’s not so easy. About 90 percent of the world’s visually impaired people live in low-income settings, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And often, there are no eye doctors or eyeglasses available. In Rwanda, for example, there are about 10.5 million people—and 14 vision specialists. Without access to an eye exam or glasses, simple nearsightedness becomes debilitating.

BU graduates Marc Albanese (left) and Yaopeng Zhou, founders of Smart Vision Labs.

BU graduates Marc Albanese (left) and Yaopeng Zhou, founders of Smart Vision Labs.

Now two Boston University College of Engineering graduates, Yaopeng Zhou and Marc Albanese, are trying to change those statistics. They’ve invented a handheld device called Smart Vision One (SVOne) that scans a person’s eyes, instantly determines whether he or she needs glasses, and decides what their prescription should be. Bolstered by a $1 million 2013 Powerful Answers award from Verizon, their company, Smart Vision Labs, is poised to start manufacturing and delivering SVOne devices in early 2015.

“This could be big,” says Thomas Bifano, director of BU’s Photonics Center, who advised both Zhou and Albanese on their theses at BU and now serves on their board of directors. “If this caught on, it could be so cheap that everyone has one, like a thermometer. It has the potential to be hugely disruptive.”

The device is a small block of plastic, a little larger than a deck of playing cards, which slips over an iPhone. To perform an exam, one person holds the device (technically known as a “wavefront aberrometer”) up to a patient’s eye, and presses a button. Light shines into the patient’s eye, bouncing off the retina and back out the front of the eye. Curves and imperfections in a patient’s eye will cause beams of light to bend, bouncing out of the front at slightly different angles. A sensor collects this information, the computer in the iPhone interprets it, and the result is a prescription specific to that eye. (Unless, of course, the person has perfect vision.)

Traditionally, optometrists have determined eyeglass prescriptions by asking patients to look through a phoropter, a bulky device on a swivel arm containing multiple lenses. A patient looks through lenses of different strengths and reports which ones make his or her vision the sharpest. “It’s a big, clunky, subjective measure,” says Albanese. “What we have is a small, portable device that offers you an objective number. It just gives you the answer! All you have to do is look straight.”

Albanese also says that the device could work well for young children, who are generally not known for their cooperation during eye exams.

The genesis for the device came over a decade ago, when both Zhou and Albanese were working on their graduate degrees in electrical engineering at BU’s College of Engineering. Bifano, a mechanical engineering professor, had worked for years developing “adaptive optics”—tiny, adjustable telescope mirrors that could help astronomers correct for atmospheric haze and see distant objects more distinctly. Then the technology took a twist. Bifano was invited to join a team from Schepens Eye Research Institute that was working with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use adaptive optics for a different application: taking better resolution photos of the mouse retina.

“All the major eye diseases affect the cells in the retina,” says Bifano. “If you have a disease like, say, diabetic retinopathy, your capillaries get clogged up, and you get little microaneurysms and new, leaky vessels forming in the retina. Seeing these in the early stage of disease would help diagnosis and treatment. But because your eye is misshapen, the physician can’t see the cellular structures in your eye. They just see a gray mishmash.”

In the summer of 2002, Bifano chose Zhou and Albanese to join the team at Schepens and help develop the technology in mice. “The eye is a window into all these health issues,” says Albanese. “Our goal was to see the blood flow in the retina, but it’s not a clear optical path.”

Eventually Zhou and Albanese wrapped up their work on the project and went their separate ways. They got jobs and then each landed separately at New York University (NYU), at different times, to work on their MBAs. In early 2012, Zhou started thinking again of his work at Schepens. He had read an article about billions of people worldwide suffering with poor vision, with no access to an optometrist. He met up with his old friend Marc Albanese at a bar in Union Square, and they discussed the problem over beers. “And Yaopeng said, ‘Why not use the same optical measurements that we used at Schepens to give people prescriptions?’” says Albanese.

In the intervening years, technology had changed to their advantage. During their work under Bifano, they had used a Dell computer costing $5,000 and a camera costing the same. “Now a $500 iPhone has basically the same camera and processing ability,” says Albanese. “You have a computer and a camera in your pocket that can do most of the work for you. It just all came together.”

The two decided to work on the project together, and formed a company. While they worked on optical problems (like finding the perfect light source and screening out unwanted reflections from the front of the eye), they also started raising money. In 2013, they won $75,000 in the NYU business plan competition. That was followed by a $100,000 grant from, and then, in January 2014, the $1 million award from Verizon.

“That helped a lot,” says Albanese. “Yaopeng had been working on a prototype, but nothing helps a prototype like a million dollars.” The money allowed them to buy a 3D printer, hire a full-time mechanical engineer and a software engineer, and also a “director of social venture” (and director of sales) to help them bring the device to the developing world.

They now have 11 working devices—all handmade—and they will soon start production in Boston for 100 more. They are now accepting preorders for the SVOne and expect the first orders to ship out in early 2015. The device costs $3,950 with an iPhone, compared to other similar devices on the market, which cost between $15,000 and $40,000.

While their primary market is American optometrists (they made their first sale to one running a Pearle Vision center in Philadelphia), their ultimate goal is to make the device widely available in less-affluent countries. Albanese and Greg Van Kirk, the company’s director of social venture, envision a fleet of “optometrist entrepreneurs” who use the device to prescribe and sell glasses in the developing world, creating jobs and saving sight.

“I’m really excited to see this thing go,” says Bifano. “These two guys took what we taught them at BU and just ran with it. It’s been a thrill for me to see them build something from scratch. They just buckled down and made it happen.”

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Electrical Engineering Student Marissa Petersile Wins IEEE Power & Energy Society Scholarship

November 18th, 2014 in Awards, Recognition, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students

By Donald Rock (COM 17)

Marissa Petersile (EE '15)

Marissa Petersile (EE ’15)

Marissa Petersile (EE ’15) is among a small percentage of students to be recognized by the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) Scholarship Plus Initiative™. PES is the world’s largest forum for technological developments in the electric power industry.

The scholarship program recognizes undergraduate electrical engineering students. To receive the award, applicants must demonstrate high academic achievement, strong GPAs, distinctive accomplishments in extracurricular activities, and commitment to exploring the power and energy field. The scholarship is listed at $2,000 and recipients are able to receive funding for up to 3 years.

“I was motivated to apply when I recognized that many of the goals described for IEEE PES scholars aligned with my own,” Petersile elaborated. “I am interested in a career in the power and energy field, and I am hoping to make a positive impact on the role of clean energy sources on the grid.”

Petersile spent the past year conducting research in the Applied Electromagnetics Lab at BU. She worked on a team that addressed the buildup of dust and sand on large-scale solar panel arrays in arid, desert regions. Although there is ample sunlight in those regions, the collection of dust on the solar panels can trigger major efficiency losses. Petersile worked on a custom power system for self-cleaning electrodynamic screens that induce electrical waves across the surface of solar panels, cleaning them off in a fast, lower-power way. This research received international press coverage and was featured in esteemed publications like The New York Times.

Currently, Petersile is working on her team Senior Design Project entitled, “Smart Grid Test Facility.” She is designing an educational tool for undergraduate students that research power electronics and grid networks. The grid test she is developing would allow students to connect designed loads and generators to a small-scale grid to examine how the grid reacts to their designs.

Petersile’s resume boasts well-rounded experiences from around the university. She serves as a Dean’s Host for BU’s College of Arts and Sciences where she welcomes high school students to Boston University at Open House events, meets with distinguished alumni of the university, and conducts information sessions for prospective students at the undergraduate admissions office. Additionally, she serves as a tutor at the engineering tutoring center. She also runs half marathons and triathlons in her free time.

“I truly appreciate this scholarship award, not just because it will financially assist my college tuition, but because it makes me feel supported by IEEE PES—a group of motivated, distinguished, and hardworking engineers and scientists,” Marissa explained. “This support encourages me to continue my efforts in clean energy technologies and power grid improvements. I am so thrilled to be a member of this inspiring group, and I’m proud to say that this scholarship will not only help me financially, but also academically, career-wise, and beyond.”

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