Three EnterpriseWorks startups received awards at the inaugural Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) innovation awards Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair’s Tech Prairie STEAM Expo.
The awards were presented to faculty, staff or scientists from IIN hubs in three of the IIN’s key subject areas: environment and water, food and agriculture, and health and wellness. IIN also presented an award to the most impactful innovation by a team, as well as two awards to student innovators from IIN member universities.
“We are thrilled to celebrate these innovators and their discoveries,” said Jay Walsh, interim vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois System, which coordinates the network of IIN education and innovation hubs. “They are all examples of the incredible research, discovery and education going on at our state’s universities, and we are incredibly grateful for the impactful work that each one of them is doing.”
Innovators were honored for developments in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the eye; robots that measure critical plant traits; converting biomass, coal and other substances into high-value chemicals and liquid fuels; more functional, touch-sensitive prosthetics; COVID-19 testing; next-generation battery technology; and transforming a dilapidated research facility into Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s (SIUC) Green Roof Project, a home for experiential and experimental learning for all students.
“These innovators are an example of one of the things I love most about our state: We have brilliant people coming up with solutions to some of the world’s most difficult challenges,” said Bruce Sommer, director of economic development and innovation at the University of Illinois Springfield, whose office facilitated the awards program. “I am encouraged by the diversity of our recipients and the incredible work that they are doing.”
IIN Innovation Award recipients: EnterpriseWorks startups
Food & Agriculture Category
Girish Chowdhary is director of the Distributed Autonomous Systems Laboratory and Donald Biggar Willet Faculty Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and co-founder and chief technology officer of EarthSense.
EarthSense enables the creation of highly productive, resilient and sustainable crops, and fundamental improvements in farm profitability. Its first product, the TerraSentia robot field phenotyping system, provides 100 times as much trait data for a tenth the effort, compared to current methods of field data collection. The compact, easy-to-use, under-canopy robot measures critical plant traits such as stem width, leaf area index and leaf and stem diseases with unprecedented accuracy and ease. EarthSense’s machine vision and machine learning-based analytics seamlessly convert terabytes of multi-sensor field data to quantitative, consistent and objective information to reduce these risks. The TerraSentia robot uses a number of sensors to collect data on crop health, as well as machine learning-based analytics to convert this data into actionable insights for farmers. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, EarthSense is working to adapt its autonomous robots for cleaning in hospitals and public spaces. By reducing the need for sanitary workers, EarthSense’s robotic cleaning units can help lower the community transmission rates of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Health & Wellness Category
Aadeel Akhtar is founder of PSYONIC, which is based at the EnterpriseWorks incubator in the UIUC Research Park. Akhtar has developed algorithms that make upper-limb prosthetics much more functional to use. Some send electrical currents to stimulate the nerves so that users can “feel” what their prosthetics are touching; others record the electrical currents caused by muscle contractions, making it possible to control movement. Akhtar holds four patents on advances in prosthetics that have all gone into PSYONIC’s first product, the Ability Hand. The Ability Hand was designed to be controlled by both muscle sensors and Bluetooth, and provide tactile sensory data to its user, all while withstanding the normal stresses of everyday life without cracking. Akhtar’s 20-person team prioritized affordability throughout the design process and built a hand inexpensive enough to be covered by Medicare.
Alex Kosyakov of UIUC is founder of Natrion, a battery research and development startup. It was launched in 2018 by Kosyakov and co-founder Tom Rouffiac. Natrion, a leader in the research and development of next-generation battery technologies, has created a new high-performance, flexible and durable solid-electrolyte thin film for the production of all-solid-state batteries (ASSBs). Called the Lithium Solid Ionic Composite (LISIC), this technology has been designed as a “plug and play” component that can be rapidly implemented by lithium-ion battery manufacturers to turn their existing product lines into ASSBs that mitigate fire risk, improve lifespan, and enable the construction of longer-range electric vehicles. Natrion recently was named the grand-prize winner at UIUC’s 2021 Cozad New Venture Challenge and won first prize at the 2021 University Pitch Madness competition, which featured startups from nine Midwestern universities.