More stories

  • in

    Technologies for water conservation and treatment move closer to commercialization

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) provides Solutions Grants to help MIT researchers launch startup companies or products to commercialize breakthrough technologies in water and food systems. The Solutions Grant Program began in 2015 and is supported by Community Jameel. In addition to one-year, renewable grants of up to $150,000, the program also matches grantees with industry mentors and facilitates introductions to potential investors. Since its inception, the J-WAFS Solutions Program has awarded over $3 million in funding to the MIT community. Numerous startups and products, including a portable desalination device and a company commercializing a novel food safety sensor, have spun out of this support.

    The 2023 J-WAFS Solutions Grantees are Professor C. Cem Tasan of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor Andrew Whittle of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Tasan’s project involves reducing water use in steel manufacturing and Whittle’s project tackles harmful algal blooms in water. Project work commences this September.

    “This year’s Solutions Grants are being award to professors Tasan and Whittle to help commercialize technologies they have been developing at MIT,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “With J-WAFS’ support, we hope to see the teams move their technologies from the lab to the market, so they can have a beneficial impact on water use and water quality challenges,” Robins adds.

    Reducing water consumption by solid-state steelmaking

    Water is a major requirement for steel production. The steel industry ranks fourth in industrial freshwater consumption worldwide, since large amounts of water are needed mainly for cooling purposes in the process. Unfortunately, a strong correlation has also been shown to exist between freshwater use in steelmaking and water contamination. As the global demand for steel increases and freshwater availability decreases due to climate change, improved methods for more sustainable steel production are needed.

    A strategy to reduce the water footprint of steelmaking is to explore steel recycling processes that avoid liquid metal processing. With this motivation, Cem Tasan, the Thomas B. King Associate Professor of Metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and postdoc Onur Guvenc PhD created a new process called Scrap Metal Consolidation (SMC). SMC is based on a well-established metal forming process known as roll bonding. Conventionally, roll bonding requires intensive prior surface treatment of the raw material, specific atmospheric conditions, and high deformation levels. Tasan and Guvenc’s research revealed that SMC can overcome these restrictions by enabling the solid-state bonding of scrap into a sheet metal form, even when the surface quality, atmospheric conditions, and deformation levels are suboptimal. Through lab-scale proof-of-principle investigations, they have already identified SMC process conditions and validated the mechanical formability of resulting steel sheets, focusing on mild steel, the most common sheet metal scrap.

    The J-WAFS Solutions Grant will help the team to build customer product prototypes, design the processing unit, and develop a scale-up strategy and business model. By simultaneously decreasing water usage, energy demand, contamination risk, and carbon dioxide burden, SMC has the potential to decrease the energy need for steel recycling by up to 86 percent, as well as reduce the linked carbon dioxide emissions and safeguard the freshwater resources that would otherwise be directed to industrial consumption. 

    Detecting harmful algal blooms in water before it’s too late

    Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a growing problem in both freshwater and saltwater environments worldwide, causing an estimated $13 billion in annual damage to drinking water, water for recreational use, commercial fishing areas, and desalination activities. HABs pose a threat to both human health and aquaculture, thereby threatening the food supply. Toxins in HABs are produced by some cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, whose communities change in composition in response to eutrophication from agricultural runoff, sewer overflows, or other events. Mitigation of risks from HABs are most effective when there is advance warning of these changes in algal communities. 

    Most in situ measurements of algae are based on fluorescence spectroscopy that is conducted with LED-induced fluorescence (LEDIF) devices, or probes that induce fluorescence of specific algal pigments using LED light sources. While LEDIFs provide reasonable estimates of concentrations of individual pigments, they lack resolution to discriminate algal classes within complex mixtures found in natural water bodies. In prior research, Andrew Whittle, the Edmund K. Turner Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, worked with colleagues to design REMORA, a low-cost, field-deployable prototype spectrofluorometer for measuring induced fluorescence. This research was part of a collaboration between MIT and the AMS Institute. Whittle and the team successfully trained a machine learning model to discriminate and quantify cell concentrations for mixtures of different algal groups in water samples through an extensive laboratory calibration program using various algae cultures. The group demonstrated these capabilities in a series of field measurements at locations in Boston and Amsterdam. 

    Whittle will work with Fábio Duarte of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Senseable City Lab, and MIT’s Center for Real Estate to refine the design of REMORA. They will develop software for autonomous operation of the sensor that can be deployed remotely on mobile vessels or platforms to enable high-resolution spatiotemporal monitoring for harmful algae. Sensor commercialization will hopefully be able to exploit the unique capabilities of REMORA for long-term monitoring applications by water utilities, environmental regulatory agencies, and water-intensive industries.  More

  • in

    Supporting sustainability, digital health, and the future of work

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology has selected three new research projects that will receive support from the initiative. The research projects aim to accelerate progress in meeting complex societal needs through new business convergence insights in technology and innovation.

    Established in MIT’s School of Engineering and now in its third year, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative is furthering its mission to bring together technological experts from across business and academia to share insights and learn from one another. Recently, Thomas W. Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, joined the initiative as its first-ever faculty lead. The research projects relate to three of the initiative’s key focus areas: sustainability, digital health, and the future of work.

    “The solutions these research teams are developing have the potential to have tremendous impact,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They embody the initiative’s focus on advancing data-driven research that addresses technology and industry convergence.”

    “The convergence of science and technology driven by advancements in generative AI, digital twins, quantum computing, and other technologies makes this an especially exciting time for Accenture and MIT to be undertaking this joint research,” says Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences. “Our three new research projects focusing on sustainability, digital health, and the future of work have the potential to help guide and shape future innovations that will benefit the way we work and live.”

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative charter project researchers are described below.

    Accelerating the journey to net zero with industrial clusters

    Jessika Trancik is a professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Trancik’s research examines the dynamic costs, performance, and environmental impacts of energy systems to inform climate policy and accelerate beneficial and equitable technology innovation. Trancik’s project aims to identify how industrial clusters can enable companies to derive greater value from decarbonization, potentially making companies more willing to invest in the clean energy transition.

    To meet the ambitious climate goals that have been set by countries around the world, rising greenhouse gas emissions trends must be rapidly reversed. Industrial clusters — geographically co-located or otherwise-aligned groups of companies representing one or more industries — account for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions globally. With major energy consumers “clustered” in proximity, industrial clusters provide a potential platform to scale low-carbon solutions by enabling the aggregation of demand and the coordinated investment in physical energy supply infrastructure.

    In addition to Trancik, the research team working on this project will include Aliza Khurram, a postdoc in IDSS; Micah Ziegler, an IDSS research scientist; Melissa Stark, global energy transition services lead at Accenture; Laura Sanderfer, strategy consulting manager at Accenture; and Maria De Miguel, strategy senior analyst at Accenture.

    Eliminating childhood obesity

    Anette “Peko” Hosoi is the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. A common theme in her work is the fundamental study of shape, kinematic, and rheological optimization of biological systems with applications to the emergent field of soft robotics. Her project will use both data from existing studies and synthetic data to create a return-on-investment (ROI) calculator for childhood obesity interventions so that companies can identify earlier returns on their investment beyond reduced health-care costs.

    Childhood obesity is too prevalent to be solved by a single company, industry, drug, application, or program. In addition to the physical and emotional impact on children, society bears a cost through excess health care spending, lost workforce productivity, poor school performance, and increased family trauma. Meaningful solutions require multiple organizations, representing different parts of society, working together with a common understanding of the problem, the economic benefits, and the return on investment. ROI is particularly difficult to defend for any single organization because investment and return can be separated by many years and involve asymmetric investments, returns, and allocation of risk. Hosoi’s project will consider the incentives for a particular entity to invest in programs in order to reduce childhood obesity.

    Hosoi will be joined by graduate students Pragya Neupane and Rachael Kha, both of IDSS, as well a team from Accenture that includes Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences; Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director in Accenture Health Industry; and Elizabeth Naik, global health and public service research lead.

    Generating innovative organizational configurations and algorithms for dealing with the problem of post-pandemic employment

    Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. His research focuses on how new organizations can be designed to take advantage of the possibilities provided by information technology. Malone will be joined in this project by John Horton, the Richard S. Leghorn (1939) Career Development Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, whose research focuses on the intersection of labor economics, market design, and information systems. Malone and Horton’s project will look to reshape the future of work with the help of lessons learned in the wake of the pandemic.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disrupter of work and employment, and it is not at all obvious how governments, businesses, and other organizations should manage the transition to a desirable state of employment as the pandemic recedes. Using natural language processing algorithms such as GPT-4, this project will look to identify new ways that companies can use AI to better match applicants to necessary jobs, create new types of jobs, assess skill training needed, and identify interventions to help include women and other groups whose employment was disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

    In addition to Malone and Horton, the research team will include Rob Laubacher, associate director and research scientist at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and Kathleen Kennedy, executive director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and senior director at MIT Horizon. The team will also include Nitu Nivedita, managing director of artificial intelligence at Accenture, and Thomas Hancock, data science senior manager at Accenture. More

  • in

    Civil discourse project to launch at MIT

    A new project on civil discourse aims to promote open and civil discussion of difficult topics on the MIT campus.

    The project, which will launch this fall, includes a speaker series and curricular activities in MIT’s Concourse program for first-year students. MIT philosophers Alex Byrne and Brad Skow from the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy lead the project, in close coordination with Anne McCants, professor of history and director of Concourse, and Linda Rabieh, a Concourse lecturer. 

    The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations provided a substantial grant to help fund the project. Promoting civil discourse on college campuses is an area of focus for AVDF — they sponsor related projects at many schools, including Duke University and Davidson College.

    The first event in the speaker series is planned for the evening of Oct. 24, on the question of how we should respond to climate change. The two speakers are Professor Steven Koonin (New York University, ex-provost of Caltech, and an MIT alum) and MIT Professor Kerry Emanuel from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. Eight such events are planned over two years. Each will feature speakers discussing difficult or controversial topics, and will aim to model civil debate and dialogue involving experts from inside and outside the MIT community. 

    Byrne and Skow said that the project is meant to counterbalance a growing unwillingness to listen to others or to tolerate the expression of certain ideas. But the goal, says Byrne, “is not to platform heterodox views for their own sake, or to needlessly provoke. Rather, we want to platform collegial, informed conversations on important matters about which there is reasonable disagreement.” 

    Faculty at MIT voted last fall to adopt a statement on free expression, following a report written by an MIT working group. The project organizers want to build on that vote and the report. “The free expression statement says that discussion of controversial topics should not be prohibited or punished,” Skow says, “but the longer working-group report goes farther, urging MIT to promote free expression. This project is an attempt to do that — to show that open discussion and open inquiry are valuable.” 

    “It has the potential to generate lively, constructive, respectful discussion on campus and to show by example both that controversial views are not suppressed at MIT and that we learn by engaging with them openly,” says Kieran Setiya, the head of MIT Philosophy. Agustín Rayo, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, thinks that the project can “play a critical role in demonstrating — to faculty, students, staff, alumni, and friends — the Institute’s commitment to free speech and civil discourse.”

    Apart from climate change, topics for the first series of events include feminism and progress (Nov. 9, with Mary Harrington, author of “Feminism against Progress”), and Covid public health policy (Feb. 26, with Vinay Prasad, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco). Organizers say they hope the speaker series becomes a permanent part of MIT’s intellectual life after the grant period. To amplify the work to an audience beyond MIT, the project organizers have partnered with the Johns Hopkins University political scientist Yascha Mounk and his team at Persuasion to produce podcast episodes around the speaker events. They will air as special episodes of Mounk’s podcast “The Good Fight.” 

    The Concourse component of the project will take advantage of the small learning community setting to develop the tools and experience for productive disagreement. 

    “The core mission of Concourse depends on both the principle of free expression and the practice of civil discourse,” says McCants, “making it a natural springboard for promoting both across the intellectual culture of MIT.”  

    Concourse will experiment with, among other things, seminars discussing the history and practice of freedom of expression, roundtable discussions, and student-led debates. Braver Angels, an organization with the mission of reducing political polarization, is another partner, along with Persuasion. 

    “Our goal,” says Rabieh, “is to facilitate, in collaboration with Braver Angels, the probing, intense, and often difficult conversations that lie at the heart of the Concourse program and that are the hallmark of education.” More

  • in

    J-WAFS announces 2023 seed grant recipients

    Today, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) announced its ninth round of seed grants to support innovative research projects at MIT. The grants are designed to fund research efforts that tackle challenges related to water and food for human use, with the ultimate goal of creating meaningful impact as the world population continues to grow and the planet undergoes significant climate and environmental changes.Ten new projects led by 15 researchers from seven different departments will be supported this year. The projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop monitoring and other systems to help manage various aquaculture industries, optimize water purification materials, and more.“The seed grant program is J-WAFS’ flagship grant initiative,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “The funding is intended to spur groundbreaking MIT research addressing complex issues that are challenging our water and food systems. The 10 projects selected this year show great promise, and we look forward to the progress and accomplishments these talented researchers will make,” she adds.The 2023 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:Sara Beery, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is building the first completely automated system to estimate the size of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).Salmon are a keystone species in the PNW, feeding human populations for the last 7,500 years at least. However, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change threaten extinction of salmon populations across the region. Accurate salmon counts during their seasonal migration to their natal river to spawn are essential for fisheries’ regulation and management but are limited by human capacity. Fish population monitoring is a widespread challenge in the United States and worldwide. Beery and her team are working to build a system that will provide a detailed picture of the state of salmon populations in unprecedented, spatial, and temporal resolution by combining sonar sensors and computer vision and machine learning (CVML) techniques. The sonar will capture individual fish as they swim upstream and CVML will train accurate algorithms to interpret the sonar video for detecting, tracking, and counting fish automatically while adapting to changing river conditions and fish densities.Another aquaculture project is being led by Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Robert Vincent, the assistant director at MIT’s Sea Grant Program. They are working with Otto Cordero, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to control harmful bacteria blooms in aquaculture algae feed production.

    Aquaculture in the United States represents a $1.5 billion industry annually and helps support 1.7 million jobs, yet many American hatcheries are not able to keep up with demand. One barrier to aquaculture production is the high degree of variability in survival rates, most likely caused by a poorly controlled microbiome that leads to bacterial infections and sub-optimal feed efficiency. Triantafyllou, Vincent, and Cordero plan to monitor the microbiome composition of a shellfish hatchery in order to identify possible causing agents of mortality, as well as beneficial microbes. They hope to pair microbe data with detail phenotypic information about the animal population to generate rapid diagnostic tests and explore the potential for microbiome therapies to protect larvae and prevent future outbreaks. The researchers plan to transfer their findings and technology to the local and regional aquaculture community to ensure healthy aquaculture production that will support the expansion of the U.S. aquaculture industry.

    David Des Marais is the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His 2023 J-WAFS project seeks to understand plant growth responses to elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, in the hopes of identifying breeding strategies that maximize crop yield under future CO2 scenarios.Today’s crop plants experience higher atmospheric CO2 than 20 or 30 years ago. Crops such as wheat, oat, barley, and rice typically increase their growth rate and biomass when grown at experimentally elevated atmospheric CO2. This is known as the so-called “CO2 fertilization effect.” However, not all plant species respond to rising atmospheric CO2 with increased growth, and for the ones that do, increased growth doesn’t necessarily correspond to increased crop yield. Using specially built plant growth chambers that can control the concentration of CO2, Des Marais will explore how CO2 availability impacts the development of tillers (branches) in the grass species Brachypodium. He will study how gene expression controls tiller development, and whether this is affected by the growing environment. The tillering response refers to how many branches a plant produces, which sets a limit on how much grain it can yield. Therefore, optimizing the tillering response to elevated CO2 could greatly increase yield. Des Marais will also look at the complete genome sequence of Brachypodium, wheat, oat, and barley to help identify genes relevant for branch growth.Darcy McRose, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is researching whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used to make mineral-associated phosphorus more bioavailable.The nutrient phosphorus is essential for agricultural plant growth, but when added as a fertilizer, phosphorus sticks to the surface of soil minerals, decreasing bioavailability, limiting plant growth, and accumulating residual phosphorus. Heavily fertilized agricultural soils often harbor large reservoirs of this type of mineral-associated “legacy” phosphorus. Redox transformations are one chemical process that can liberate mineral-associated phosphorus. However, this needs to be carefully controlled, as overly mobile phosphorus can lead to runoff and pollution of natural waters. Ideally, phosphorus would be made bioavailable when plants need it and immobile when they don’t. Many plants make small metabolites called coumarins that might be able to solubilize mineral-adsorbed phosphorus and be activated and inactivated under different conditions. McRose will use laboratory experiments to determine whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used as a highly efficient and tunable system for phosphorus solubilization. She also aims to develop an imaging platform to investigate exchanges of phosphorus between plants and soil microbes.Many of the 2023 seed grants will support innovative technologies to monitor, quantify, and remediate various kinds of pollutants found in water. Two of the new projects address the problem of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), human-made chemicals that have recently emerged as a global health threat. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are used in many manufacturing processes. These chemicals are known to cause significant health issues including cancer, and they have become pervasive in soil, dust, air, groundwater, and drinking water. Unfortunately, the physical and chemical properties of PFAS render them difficult to detect and remove.Aristide Gumyusenge, the Merton C. Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is using metal-organic frameworks for low-cost sensing and capture of PFAS. Most metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are synthesized as particles, which complicates their high accuracy sensing performance due to defects such as intergranular boundaries. Thin, film-based electronic devices could enable the use of MOFs for many applications, especially chemical sensing. Gumyusenge’s project aims to design test kits based on two-dimensional conductive MOF films for detecting PFAS in drinking water. In early demonstrations, Gumyusenge and his team showed that these MOF films can sense PFAS at low concentrations. They will continue to iterate using a computation-guided approach to tune sensitivity and selectivity of the kits with the goal of deploying them in real-world scenarios.Carlos Portela, the Brit (1961) and Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ariel Furst, the Cook Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, are building novel architected materials to act as filters for the removal of PFAS from water. Portela and Furst will design and fabricate nanoscale materials that use activated carbon and porous polymers to create a physical adsorption system. They will engineer the materials to have tunable porosities and morphologies that can maximize interactions between contaminated water and functionalized surfaces, while providing a mechanically robust system.Rohit Karnik is a Tata Professor and interim co-department head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is working on another technology, his based on microbead sensors, to rapidly measure and monitor trace contaminants in water.Water pollution from both biological and chemical contaminants contributes to an estimated 1.36 million deaths annually. Chemical contaminants include pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals like lead, and compounds used in manufacturing. These emerging contaminants can be found throughout the environment, including in water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States sets recommended water quality standards, but states are responsible for developing their own monitoring criteria and systems, which must be approved by the EPA every three years. However, the availability of data on regulated chemicals and on candidate pollutants is limited by current testing methods that are either insensitive or expensive and laboratory-based, requiring trained scientists and technicians. Karnik’s project proposes a simple, self-contained, portable system for monitoring trace and emerging pollutants in water, making it suitable for field studies. The concept is based on multiplexed microbead-based sensors that use thermal or gravitational actuation to generate a signal. His proposed sandwich assay, a testing format that is appealing for environmental sensing, will enable both single-use and continuous monitoring. The hope is that the bead-based assays will increase the ease and reach of detecting and quantifying trace contaminants in water for both personal and industrial scale applications.Alexander Radosevich, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, are teaming up to create rapid, cost-effective, and reliable techniques for on-site arsenic detection in water.Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects as many as 500 million people worldwide. Arsenic poisoning can lead to a range of severe health problems from cancer to cardiovascular and neurological impacts. Both the EPA and the World Health Organization have established that 10 parts per billion is a practical threshold for arsenic in drinking water, but measuring arsenic in water at such low levels is challenging, especially in resource-limited environments where access to sensitive laboratory equipment may not be readily accessible. Radosevich and Swager plan to develop reaction-based chemical sensors that bind and extract electrons from aqueous arsenic. In this way, they will exploit the inherent reactivity of aqueous arsenic to selectively detect and quantify it. This work will establish the chemical basis for a new method of detecting trace arsenic in drinking water.Rajeev Ram is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. His J-WAFS research will advance a robust technology for monitoring nitrogen-containing pollutants, which threaten over 15,000 bodies of water in the United States alone.Nitrogen in the form of nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea can run off from agricultural fertilizer and lead to harmful algal blooms that jeopardize human health. Unfortunately, monitoring these contaminants in the environment is challenging, as sensors are difficult to maintain and expensive to deploy. Ram and his students will work to establish limits of detection for nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea in environmental, industrial, and agricultural samples using swept-source Raman spectroscopy. Swept-source Raman spectroscopy is a method of detecting the presence of a chemical by using a tunable, single mode laser that illuminates a sample. This method does not require costly, high-power lasers or a spectrometer. Ram will then develop and demonstrate a portable system that is capable of achieving chemical specificity in complex, natural environments. Data generated by such a system should help regulate polluters and guide remediation.Kripa Varanasi, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor and head of the Department of Biological Engineering, will join forces to develop an affordable water disinfection technology that selectively identifies, adsorbs, and kills “superbugs” in domestic and industrial wastewater.Recent research predicts that antibiotic-resistance bacteria (superbugs) will result in $100 trillion in health care expenses and 10 million deaths annually by 2050. The prevalence of superbugs in our water systems has increased due to corroded pipes, contamination, and climate change. Current drinking water disinfection technologies are designed to kill all types of bacteria before human consumption. However, for certain domestic and industrial applications there is a need to protect the good bacteria required for ecological processes that contribute to soil and plant health. Varanasi and Belcher will combine material, biological, process, and system engineering principles to design a sponge-based water disinfection technology that can identify and destroy harmful bacteria while leaving the good bacteria unharmed. By modifying the sponge surface with specialized nanomaterials, their approach will be able to kill superbugs faster and more efficiently. The sponge filters can be deployed under very low pressure, making them an affordable technology, especially in resource-constrained communities.In addition to the 10 seed grant projects, J-WAFS will also fund a research initiative led by Greg Sixt. Sixt is the research manager for climate and food systems at J-WAFS, and the director of the J-WAFS-led Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. His project focuses on the Lake Victoria Basin (LVB) of East Africa. The second-largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Victoria straddles three countries (Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya) and has a catchment area that encompasses two more (Rwanda and Burundi). Sixt will collaborate with Michael Hauser of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, and Paul Kariuki, of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.The group will study how to adapt food systems to climate change in the Lake Victoria Basin. The basin is facing a range of climate threats that could significantly impact livelihoods and food systems in the expansive region. For example, extreme weather events like droughts and floods are negatively affecting agricultural production and freshwater resources. Across the LVB, current approaches to land and water management are unsustainable and threaten future food and water security. The Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC), a specialized institution of the East African Community, wants to play a more vital role in coordinating transboundary land and water management to support transitions toward more resilient, sustainable, and equitable food systems. The primary goal of this research will be to support the LVBC’s transboundary land and water management efforts, specifically as they relate to sustainability and climate change adaptation in food systems. The research team will work with key stakeholders in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to identify specific capacity needs to facilitate land and water management transitions. The two-year project will produce actionable recommendations to the LVBC. More

  • in

    Inaugural J-WAFS Grand Challenge aims to develop enhanced crop variants and move them from lab to land

    According to MIT’s charter, established in 1861, part of the Institute’s mission is to advance the “development and practical application of science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufactures, and commerce.” Today, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) is one of the driving forces behind water and food-related research on campus, much of which relates to agriculture. In 2022, J-WAFS established the Water and Food Grand Challenge Grant to inspire MIT researchers to work toward a water-secure and food-secure future for our changing planet. Not unlike MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges, the J-WAFS Grand Challenge seeks to leverage multiple areas of expertise, programs, and Institute resources. The initial call for statements of interests returned 23 letters from MIT researchers spanning 18 departments, labs, and centers. J-WAFS hosted workshops for the proposers to present and discuss their initial ideas. These were winnowed down to a smaller set of invited concept papers, followed by the final proposal stage. 

    Today, J-WAFS is delighted to report that the inaugural J-WAFS Grand Challenge Grant has been awarded to a team of researchers led by Professor Matt Shoulders and research scientist Robert Wilson of the Department of Chemistry. A panel of expert, external reviewers highly endorsed their proposal, which tackles a longstanding problem in crop biology — how to make photosynthesis more efficient. The team will receive $1.5 million over three years to facilitate a multistage research project that combines cutting-edge innovations in synthetic and computational biology. If successful, this project could create major benefits for agriculture and food systems worldwide.

    “Food systems are a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, and they are also increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. That’s why when we talk about climate change, we have to talk about food systems, and vice versa,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “J-WAFS is central to MIT’s efforts to address the interlocking challenges of climate, water, and food. This new grant program aims to catalyze innovative projects that will have real and meaningful impacts on water and food. I congratulate Professor Shoulders and the rest of the research team on being the inaugural recipients of this grant.”

    Shoulders will work with Bryan Bryson, associate professor of biological engineering, as well as Bin Zhang, associate professor of chemistry, and Mary Gehring, a professor in the Department of Biology and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Robert Wilson from the Shoulders lab will be coordinating the research effort. The team at MIT will work with outside collaborators Spencer Whitney, a professor from the Australian National University, and Ahmed Badran, an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute. A milestone-based collaboration will also take place with Stephen Long, a professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The group consists of experts in continuous directed evolution, machine learning, molecular dynamics simulations, translational plant biochemistry, and field trials.

    “This project seeks to fundamentally improve the RuBisCO enzyme that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into the energy-rich molecules that constitute our food,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V. “This difficult problem is a true grand challenge, calling for extensive resources. With J-WAFS’ support, this long-sought goal may finally be achieved through MIT’s leading-edge research,” he adds.

    RuBisCO: No, it’s not a new breakfast cereal; it just might be the key to an agricultural revolution

    A growing global population, the effects of climate change, and social and political conflicts like the war in Ukraine are all threatening food supplies, particularly grain crops. Current projections estimate that crop production must increase by at least 50 percent over the next 30 years to meet food demands. One key barrier to increased crop yields is a photosynthetic enzyme called Ribulose-1,5-Bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase (RuBisCO). During photosynthesis, crops use energy gathered from light to draw carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and transform it into sugars and cellulose for growth, a process known as carbon fixation. RuBisCO is essential for capturing the CO2 from the air to initiate conversion of CO2 into energy-rich molecules like glucose. This reaction occurs during the second stage of photosynthesis, also known as the Calvin cycle. Without RuBisCO, the chemical reactions that account for virtually all carbon acquisition in life could not occur.

    Unfortunately, RuBisCO has biochemical shortcomings. Notably, the enzyme acts slowly. Many other enzymes can process a thousand molecules per second, but RuBisCO in chloroplasts fixes less than six carbon dioxide molecules per second, often limiting the rate of plant photosynthesis. Another problem is that oxygen (O2) molecules and carbon dioxide molecules are relatively similar in shape and chemical properties, and RuBisCO is unable to fully discriminate between the two. The inadvertent fixation of oxygen by RuBisCO leads to energy and carbon loss. What’s more, at higher temperatures RuBisCO reacts even more frequently with oxygen, which will contribute to decreased photosynthetic efficiency in many staple crops as our climate warms.

    The scientific consensus is that genetic engineering and synthetic biology approaches could revolutionize photosynthesis and offer protection against crop losses. To date, crop RuBisCO engineering has been impaired by technological obstacles that have limited any success in significantly enhancing crop production. Excitingly, genetic engineering and synthetic biology tools are now at a point where they can be applied and tested with the aim of creating crops with new or improved biological pathways for producing more food for the growing population.

    An epic plan for fighting food insecurity

    The 2023 J-WAFS Grand Challenge project will use state-of-the-art, transformative protein engineering techniques drawn from biomedicine to improve the biochemistry of photosynthesis, specifically focusing on RuBisCO. Shoulders and his team are planning to build what they call the Enhanced Photosynthesis in Crops (EPiC) platform. The project will evolve and design better crop RuBisCO in the laboratory, followed by validation of the improved enzymes in plants, ultimately resulting in the deployment of enhanced RuBisCO in field trials to evaluate the impact on crop yield. 

    Several recent developments make high-throughput engineering of crop RuBisCO possible. RuBisCO requires a complex chaperone network for proper assembly and function in plants. Chaperones are like helpers that guide proteins during their maturation process, shielding them from aggregation while coordinating their correct assembly. Wilson and his collaborators previously unlocked the ability to recombinantly produce plant RuBisCO outside of plant chloroplasts by reconstructing this chaperone network in Escherichia coli (E. coli). Whitney has now established that the RuBisCO enzymes from a range of agriculturally relevant crops, including potato, carrot, strawberry, and tobacco, can also be expressed using this technology. Whitney and Wilson have further developed a range of RuBisCO-dependent E. coli screens that can identify improved RuBisCO from complex gene libraries. Moreover, Shoulders and his lab have developed sophisticated in vivo mutagenesis technologies that enable efficient continuous directed evolution campaigns. Continuous directed evolution refers to a protein engineering process that can accelerate the steps of natural evolution simultaneously in an uninterrupted cycle in the lab, allowing for rapid testing of protein sequences. While Shoulders and Badran both have prior experience with cutting-edge directed evolution platforms, this will be the first time directed evolution is applied to RuBisCO from plants.

    Artificial intelligence is changing the way enzyme engineering is undertaken by researchers. Principal investigators Zhang and Bryson will leverage modern computational methods to simulate the dynamics of RuBisCO structure and explore its evolutionary landscape. Specifically, Zhang will use molecular dynamics simulations to simulate and monitor the conformational dynamics of the atoms in a protein and its programmed environment over time. This approach will help the team evaluate the effect of mutations and new chemical functionalities on the properties of RuBisCO. Bryson will employ artificial intelligence and machine learning to search the RuBisCO activity landscape for optimal sequences. The computational and biological arms of the EPiC platform will work together to both validate and inform each other’s approaches to accelerate the overall engineering effort.

    Shoulders and the group will deploy their designed enzymes in tobacco plants to evaluate their effects on growth and yield relative to natural RuBisCO. Gehring, a plant biologist, will assist with screening improved RuBisCO variants using the tobacco variety Nicotiana benthamianaI, where transient expression can be deployed. Transient expression is a speedy approach to test whether novel engineered RuBisCO variants can be correctly synthesized in leaf chloroplasts. Variants that pass this quality-control checkpoint at MIT will be passed to the Whitney Lab at the Australian National University for stable transformation into Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), enabling robust measurements of photosynthetic improvement. In a final step, Professor Long at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will perform field trials of the most promising variants.

    Even small improvements could have a big impact

    A common criticism of efforts to improve RuBisCO is that natural evolution has not already identified a better enzyme, possibly implying that none will be found. Traditional views have speculated a catalytic trade-off between RuBisCO’s specificity factor for CO2 / O2 versus its CO2 fixation efficiency, leading to the belief that specificity factor improvements might be offset by even slower carbon fixation or vice versa. This trade-off has been suggested to explain why natural evolution has been slow to achieve a better RuBisCO. But Shoulders and the team are convinced that the EPiC platform can unlock significant overall improvements to plant RuBisCO. This view is supported by the fact that Wilson and Whitney have previously used directed evolution to improve CO2 fixation efficiency by 50 percent in RuBisCO from cyanobacteria (the ancient progenitors of plant chloroplasts) while simultaneously increasing the specificity factor. 

    The EPiC researchers anticipate that their initial variants could yield 20 percent increases in RuBisCO’s specificity factor without impairing other aspects of catalysis. More sophisticated variants could lift RuBisCO out of its evolutionary trap and display attributes not currently observed in nature. “If we achieve anywhere close to such an improvement and it translates to crops, the results could help transform agriculture,” Shoulders says. “If our accomplishments are more modest, it will still recruit massive new investments to this essential field.”

    Successful engineering of RuBisCO would be a scientific feat of its own and ignite renewed enthusiasm for improving plant CO2 fixation. Combined with other advances in photosynthetic engineering, such as improved light usage, a new green revolution in agriculture could be achieved. Long-term impacts of the technology’s success will be measured in improvements to crop yield and grain availability, as well as resilience against yield losses under higher field temperatures. Moreover, improved land productivity together with policy initiatives would assist in reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. With more “crop per drop,” reductions in water consumption from agriculture would be a major boost to sustainable farming practices.

    “Our collaborative team of biochemists and synthetic biologists, computational biologists, and chemists is deeply integrated with plant biologists and field trial experts, yielding a robust feedback loop for enzyme engineering,” Shoulders adds. “Together, this team will be able to make a concerted effort using the most modern, state-of-the-art techniques to engineer crop RuBisCO with an eye to helping make meaningful gains in securing a stable crop supply, hopefully with accompanying improvements in both food and water security.” More

  • in

    Moving perovskite advancements from the lab to the manufacturing floor

    The following was issued as a joint announcement from MIT.nano and the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics; CubicPV; Verde Technologies; Princeton University; and the University of California at San Diego.

    Tandem solar cells are made of stacked materials — such as silicon paired with perovskites — that together absorb more of the solar spectrum than single materials, resulting in a dramatic increase in efficiency. Their potential to generate significantly more power than conventional cells could make a meaningful difference in the race to combat climate change and the transition to a clean-energy future.

    However, current methods to create stable and efficient perovskite layers require time-consuming, painstaking rounds of design iteration and testing, inhibiting their development for commercial use. Today, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) announced that MIT has been selected to receive an $11.25 million cost-shared award to establish a new research center to address this challenge by using a co-optimization framework guided by machine learning and automation.

    A collaborative effort with lead industry participant CubicPV, solar startup Verde Technologies, and academic partners Princeton University and the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego), the center will bring together teams of researchers to support the creation of perovskite-silicon tandem solar modules that are co-designed for both stability and performance, with goals to significantly accelerate R&D and the transfer of these achievements into commercial environments.

    “Urgent challenges demand rapid action. This center will accelerate the development of tandem solar modules by bringing academia and industry into closer partnership,” says MIT professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, who will direct the center. “We’re grateful to the Department of Energy for supporting this powerful new model and excited to get to work.”

    Adam Lorenz, CTO of solar energy technology company CubicPV, stresses the importance of thinking about scale, alongside quality and efficiency, to accelerate the perovskite effort into the commercial environment. “Instead of chasing record efficiencies with tiny pixel-sized devices and later attempting to stabilize them, we will simultaneously target stability, reproducibility, and efficiency,” he says. “It’s a module-centric approach that creates a direct channel for R&D advancements into industry.”

    The center will be named Accelerated Co-Design of Durable, Reproducible, and Efficient Perovskite Tandems, or ADDEPT. The grant will be administered through the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE).

    David Fenning, associate professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego, has worked with Buonassisi on the idea of merging materials, automation, and computation, specifically in this field of artificial intelligence and solar, since 2014. Now, a central thrust of the ADDEPT project will be to deploy machine learning and robotic screening to optimize processing of perovskite-based solar materials for efficiency and durability.

    “We have already seen early indications of successful technology transfer between our UC San Diego robot PASCAL and industry,” says Fenning. “With this new center, we will bring research labs and the emerging perovskite industry together to improve reproducibility and reduce time to market.”

    “Our generation has an obligation to work collaboratively in the fight against climate change,” says Skylar Bagdon, CEO of Verde Technologies, which received the American-Made Perovskite Startup Prize. “Throughout the course of this center, Verde will do everything in our power to help this brilliant team transition lab-scale breakthroughs into the world where they can have an impact.”

    Several of the academic partners echoed the importance of the joint effort between academia and industry. Barry Rand, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, pointed to the intersection of scientific knowledge and market awareness. “Understanding how chemistry affects films and interfaces will empower us to co-design for stability and performance,” he says. “The center will accelerate this use-inspired science, with close guidance from our end customers, the industry partners.”

    A critical resource for the center will be MIT.nano, a 200,000-square-foot research facility set in the heart of the campus. MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, says he envisions MIT.nano as a hub for industry and academic partners, facilitating technology development and transfer through shared lab space, open-access equipment, and streamlined intellectual property frameworks.

    “MIT has a history of groundbreaking innovation using perovskite materials for solar applications,” says Bulović. “We’re thrilled to help build on that history by anchoring ADDEPT at MIT.nano and working to help the nation advance the future of these promising materials.”

    MIT was selected as a part of the SETO Fiscal Year 2022 Photovoltaics (PV) funding program, an effort to reduce costs and supply chain vulnerabilities, further develop durable and recyclable solar technologies, and advance perovskite PV technologies toward commercialization. ADDEPT is one project that will tackle perovskite durability, which will extend module life. The overarching goal of these projects is to lower the levelized cost of electricity generated by PV.

    Research groups involved with the ADDEPT project at MIT include Buonassisi’s Accelerated Materials Laboratory for Sustainability (AMLS), Bulović’s Organic and Nanostructured Electronics (ONE) Lab, and the Bawendi Group led by Lester Wolfe Professor in Chemistry Moungi Bawendi. Also working on the project is Jeremiah Mwaura, research scientist in the ONE Lab. More

  • in

    MIT-led teams win National Science Foundation grants to research sustainable materials

    Three MIT-led teams are among 16 nationwide to receive funding awards to address sustainable materials for global challenges through the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling societal or scientific challenges at an accelerated pace, by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach.

    “Solutions for today’s national-scale societal challenges are hard to solve within a single discipline. Instead, these challenges require convergence to merge ideas, approaches, and technologies from a wide range of diverse sectors, disciplines, and experts,” the NSF explains in its description of the Convergence Accelerator program. Phase 1 of the award involves planning to expand initial concepts, identify new team members, participate in an NSF development curriculum, and create an early prototype.

    Sustainable microchips

    One of the funded projects, “Building a Sustainable, Innovative Ecosystem for Microchip Manufacturing,” will be led by Anuradha Murthy Agarwal, a principal research scientist at the MIT Materials Research Laboratory. The aim of this project is to help transition the manufacturing of microchips to more sustainable processes that, for example, can reduce e-waste landfills by allowing repair of chips, or enable users to swap out a rogue chip in a motherboard rather than tossing out the entire laptop or cellphone.

    “Our goal is to help transition microchip manufacturing towards a sustainable industry,” says Agarwal. “We aim to do that by partnering with industry in a multimodal approach that prototypes technology designs to minimize energy consumption and waste generation, retrains the semiconductor workforce, and creates a roadmap for a new industrial ecology to mitigate materials-critical limitations and supply-chain constraints.”

    Agarwal’s co-principal investigators are Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University, and two MIT faculty affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory: Juejun Hu, the John Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; and Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

    The training component of the project will also create curricula for multiple audiences. “At Bridgewater State University, we will create a new undergraduate course on microchip manufacturing sustainability, and eventually adapt it for audiences from K-12, as well as incumbent employees,” says Serna.

    Sajan Saini and Erik Verlage of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), and Randolph Kirchain from the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, who have led MIT initiatives in virtual reality digital education, materials criticality, and roadmapping, are key contributors. The project also includes DMSE graduate students Drew Weninger and Luigi Ranno, and undergraduate Samuel Bechtold from Bridgewater State University’s Department of Physics.

    Sustainable topological materials

    Under the direction of Mingda Li, the Class of 1947 Career Development Professor and an Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, the “Sustainable Topological Energy Materials (STEM) for Energy-efficient Applications” project will accelerate research in sustainable topological quantum materials.

    Topological materials are ones that retain a particular property through all external disturbances. Such materials could potentially be a boon for quantum computing, which has so far been plagued by instability, and would usher in a post-silicon era for microelectronics. Even better, says Li, topological materials can do their job without dissipating energy even at room temperatures.

    Topological materials can find a variety of applications in quantum computing, energy harvesting, and microelectronics. Despite their promise, and a few thousands of potential candidates, discovery and mass production of these materials has been challenging. Topology itself is not a measurable characteristic so researchers have to first develop ways to find hints of it. Synthesis of materials and related process optimization can take months, if not years, Li adds. Machine learning can accelerate the discovery and vetting stage.

    Given that a best-in-class topological quantum material has the potential to disrupt the semiconductor and computing industries, Li and team are paying special attention to the environmental sustainability of prospective materials. For example, some potential candidates include gold, lead, or cadmium, whose scarcity or toxicity does not lend itself to mass production and have been disqualified.

    Co-principal investigators on the project include Liang Fu, associate professor of physics at MIT; Tomas Palacios, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories; Susanne Stemmer of the University of California at Santa Barbara; and Qiong Ma of Boston College. The $750,000 one-year Phase 1 grant will focus on three priorities: building a topological materials database; identifying the most environmentally sustainable candidates for energy-efficient topological applications; and building the foundation for a Center for Sustainable Topological Energy Materials at MIT that will encourage industry-academia collaborations.

    At a time when the size of silicon-based electronic circuit boards is reaching its lower limit, the promise of topological materials whose conductivity increases with decreasing size is especially attractive, Li says. In addition, topological materials can harvest wasted heat: Imagine using your body heat to power your phone. “There are different types of application scenarios, and we can go much beyond the capabilities of existing materials,” Li says, “the possibilities of topological materials are endlessly exciting.”

    Socioresilient materials design

    Researchers in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) have been awarded $750,000 in a cross-disciplinary project that aims to fundamentally redirect materials research and development toward more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and resilient materials. This “socioresilient materials design” will serve as the foundation for a new research and development framework that takes into account technical, environmental, and social factors from the beginning of the materials design and development process.

    Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Ellan Spero PhD ’14, an instructor in DMSE, are leading this research effort, which includes Cornell University, the University of Swansea, Citrine Informatics, Station1, and 14 other organizations in academia, industry, venture capital, the social sector, government, and philanthropy.

    The team’s project, “Mind Over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design,” emphasizes that circular design approaches, which aim to minimize waste and maximize the reuse, repair, and recycling of materials, are often insufficient to address negative repercussions for the planet and for human health and safety.

    Too often society understands the unintended negative consequences long after the materials that make up our homes and cities and systems have been in production and use for many years. Examples include disparate and negative public health impacts due to industrial scale manufacturing of materials, water and air contamination with harmful materials, and increased risk of fire in lower-income housing buildings due to flawed materials usage and design. Adverse climate events including drought, flood, extreme temperatures, and hurricanes have accelerated materials degradation, for example in critical infrastructure, leading to amplified environmental damage and social injustice. While classical materials design and selection approaches are insufficient to address these challenges, the new research project aims to do just that.

    “The imagination and technical expertise that goes into materials design is too often separated from the environmental and social realities of extraction, manufacturing, and end-of-life for materials,” says Ortiz. 

    Drawing on materials science and engineering, chemistry, and computer science, the project will develop a framework for materials design and development. It will incorporate powerful computational capabilities — artificial intelligence and machine learning with physics-based materials models — plus rigorous methodologies from the social sciences and the humanities to understand what impacts any new material put into production could have on society. More

  • in

    SMART Innovation Center awarded five-year NRF grant for new deep tech ventures

    The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore has announced a five-year grant awarded to the SMART Innovation Center (SMART IC) by the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) as part of its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan. The SMART IC plays a key role in accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore and will channel the grant toward refining and commercializing developments in the field of deep technologies through financial support and training.

    Singapore has recently expanded its innovation ecosystem to hone deep technologies to solve complex problems in areas of pivotal importance. While there has been increased support for deep tech here, with investments in deep tech startups surging from $324 million in 2020 to $861 million in 2021, startups of this nature tend to take a longer time to scale, get acquired, or get publicly listed due to increased time, labor, and capital needed. By providing researchers with financial and strategic support from the early stages of their research and development, the SMART IC hopes to accelerate this process and help bring new and disruptive technologies to the market.

    “SMART’s Innovation Center prides itself as being one of the key drivers of research and innovation, by identifying and nurturing emerging technologies and accelerating them towards commercialization,” says Howard Califano, director of SMART IC. “With the support of the NRF, we look forward to another five years of further growing the ecosystem by ensuring an environment where research — and research funds — are properly directed to what the market and society need. This is how we will be able to solve problems faster and more efficiently, and ensure that value is generated from scientific research.”

    Set up in 2009 by MIT and funded by the NRF, the SMART IC furthers SMART’s goals by nurturing promising and innovative technologies that faculty and research teams in Singapore are working on. Some emerging technologies include, but are not limited to, biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations.

    Having trained over 300 postdocs since its inception, the SMART IC has supported the launch of 55 companies that have created over 3,300 jobs. Some of these companies were spearheaded by SMART’s interdisciplinary research groups, including biotech companies Theonys and Thrixen, autonomous vehicle software company nuTonomy, and integrated circuit company New Silicon. During the RIE 2020 period, 66 Ignition Grants and 69 Innovation Grants were awarded to SMART’s researchers, as well as faculty at other Singapore universities and research institutes.

    The following four programs are open to researchers from education and research facilities, as well as institutes of higher learning, in Singapore:

    Innovation Grant 2.0: The enhanced SMART Innovation Center’s flagship program, the Innovation Grant 2.0, is a gated three-phase program focused on enabling scientist-entrepreneurs to launch a successful venture, with training and intense monitoring across all phases. This grant program can provide up to $800,000 Singaporean dollars and is open to all areas of deep technology (engineering, artificial intelligence, biomedical, new materials, etc). The first grant call for the Innovation Grant 2.0 is open through Oct. 15. Researchers, scientists, and engineers at Singapore’s public institutions of higher learning, research centers, public hospitals, and medical research centers — especially those working on disruptive technologies with commercial potential — are invited to apply for the Innovation Grant 2.0.

    I2START Grant: In collaboration with SMART, the National Health Innovation Center Singapore, and Enterprise Singapore, this novel integrated program will develop master classes on venture building, with a focus on medical devices, diagnostics, and medical technologies. The grant amount is up to S$1,350,000. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    STDR Stream 2: The Singapore Therapeutics Development Review (STDR) program is jointly operated by SMART, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the Experimental Drug Development Center. The grant is available in two phases, a pre-pilot phase of S$100,000 and a Pilot phase of S$830,000, with a potential combined total of up to S$930,000. The next STDR Pre-Pilot grant call will open on Sept. 15.

    Central Gap Fund: The SMART IC is an Innovation and Enterprise Office under the NRF’s Central Gap Fund. This program helps projects that have already received an Innovation 2.0, STDR Stream 2, or I2START Grant but require additional funding to bridge to seed or Series A funding, with possible funding of up to S$5 million. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    The SMART IC will also continue developing robust entrepreneurship mentorship programs and regular industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community.

    “SMART, through the Innovation Center, is honored to be able to help researchers take these revolutionary technologies to the marketplace, where they can contribute to the economy and society. The projects we fund are commercialized in Singapore, ensuring that the local economy is the first to benefit,” says Eugene Fitzgerald, chief executive officer and director of SMART, and professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.

    SMART was established by MIT and the NRF in 2007 and serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for cutting-edge research of interest to both parties. SMART is the first entity in the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five Interdisciplinary Research Groups: Antimicrobial Resistance, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The SMART IC was set up by MIT and the NRF in 2009. It identifies and nurtures a broad range of emerging technologies including but not limited to biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations, and accelerates them toward commercialization. The SMART IC runs a rigorous grant system that identifies and funds promising projects to help them de-risk their technologies, conduct proof-of-concept experiments, and determine go-to-market strategies. It also prides itself on robust entrepreneurship boot camps and mentorship, and frequent industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community. SMART’s Innovation grant program is the only scheme that is open to all institutes of higher learning and research institutes across Singapore. More