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UCSD engineering school launches 'agile research centers'

Albert Pisano, dean of the University of California, San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, has held this role for less than 1½ years, but has already unveiled plans for what he calls “agile research centers” within the school.

The projects are the Center for Wearable Sensors, which is up and running; a Center of Extreme Events Research is in the works, and a Sustainable Power and Energy Center and Center for Visual Computing are in the early planning stages.

In the summer issue of the school’s Pulse magazine, Pisano said he plans to launch three new centers a year for the next three to four years, and ensure they are nimble enough to reflect changes in research and industry opportunities.

“The agile centers will create environments where coordinated groups of world-class researchers from different disciplines work together,” Pisano said. “These teams, in turn, will be well positioned to benefit from the Jacobs School’s programs focused on developing, training and supporting entrepreneurs.”

Joseph Wang, faculty director for the Center for Wearable Sensors and a professor in the department of NanoEngineering, and Joshua Windmiller, one of Wang’s former graduate students who is now chief executive officer of lab-spinout Electrozyme, spoke at a Connect event Thursday about the research the center will focus on, and what commercial applications exist.

“We all know about the interest in wearable devices, mobile medicine and digital electronics devices,” Wang said. “There’s a lot of attention to incorporate sensing platforms into these wearable devices.”

That’s where the center comes in.

A group of 16 faculty members with expertise in all aspects of wearable sensors — from the biological sensors to electronic components, wireless communication needs, data handing, and medical and data fusion — are collaborating with industry partners to meet the research need and market opportunity.

The goal is to go beyond standard vital-sign monitoring to produce wearables capable of detecting complex chemical markers, medical, stress and fitness indicators, with applications in security and environmental monitoring.

The glucose-monitoring tattoos recently rolled out by Wang’s lab are an example. The flexible, screen-printed tattoo goes on the skin, and it is able to bring subdermal fluid to the surface of the skin, extracting glucose and analyzing it without ever having to use a needle or finger prick.

Wang also mentioned his group’s “forensic finger,” a thin sleeve slipped over a finger that can detect explosive material or gunshot residue and provide a detailed signature of chemicals present simply by wiping the finger over the desired area.

His lab has also produced noninvasive pH sensors, patches to monitor lactate levels during a workout — which are self-powered by bioharvesting energy directly from sweat — and textile sensors such as wetsuits, which the Navy has expressed interest in for its divers to detect underwater explosives.

Windmiller and Electrozyme also deal in sweat, but as a gauge of hydration rather than lactate.

The startup’s first product Hydrx, “the world’s first wearable sweat analytics platform,” as Windmiller describes it.

Using similar mass-produced epidermal patches to those Wang uses in the glucose indicator, Hydrx is able to use an electrolyte biosensor to give users a personal “sweat print” — a real-time readout of their sodium, potassium and calcium levels.

The biosensor also can shed light on when it’s time to drink, what you should drink and how much you should drink. Using predictive analytics, information from this small patch that moves and bends with your skin can tell users when to rehydrate before it’s necessary, to avoid injury or fatigue.

Windmiller said Electrozyme aims to be the intel inside other companies’ branded wearables by licensing their hardware, reference designs and software, and then manufacturing and selling the sensor strips as well.

The Center for Wearable Sensors’ mission is to fostering innovation and collaboration for students and faculty across disciplines in the engineering school, with a focus on market needs.

“What we’re really trying to do is chart out a new research direction that will help train a new type of student,” said Patrick Mercier, associate faculty director for the Center for Wearable Sensors and a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering.

“So we recognize that this area of research is very hot, there’s a lot of commercial activity in this space and we happen to have the right critical mass at UCSD to make a research endeavor in this area very successful.”

Mercier said that while graduate students are typically the ones doing the heavy lifting in research, most professors involved in this center and subsequent ones also take undergraduates into their research groups for an opportunity to be involved and collaborate with professors from different departments.

In addition to working with industry partners to determine market needs, the existing university-approved options available to industry — gift funds, sponsored research and fellowships — will be available under the research center umbrella.

Mercier will speak on the seamless integration of wearable medical devices April 16 at the Jacobs School’s Research Expo, with representatives from the other three agile research centers.

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