Bakar Fellows advance commercially promising research

July 19, 2012
By: Wallace Ravven, Research

Research innovations by early-career UC Berkeley faculty — including technologies to move prosthetic limbs with the power of thought and to control Argentine ants using their own pheromones — are getting a significant boost toward commercial development from the campus’s Bakar Fellows Program.

Jose Carmena

The Bakar initiative, launched this year, is aimed at speeding the translation of Berkeley-bred innovations into practical applications and, in the process, improving the California economy. It creates a network of faculty, postdocs, students, staff and alumni to support researchers’ efforts to take their discoveries from the lab to the market.

From over 20 proposals submitted by faculty researchers, academic and industry advisers selected six to fund in the program’s first year. Each will receive as much as  $50,000 in research support for up to five years. The first Bakar Fellows were announced in June, with another cohort to be named in 2013.

Michel Maharbiz

“The selection committee was inspired by the outstanding quality of the proposals from faculty across the campus,” says Graham Fleming, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research. “I’m excited that the Bakar Fellows Program can help advance the work of these innovative faculty — creating a community of dynamic young researchers who can rely on a strong network of experts to help bring their discoveries to the market. “

Strategies for success

Jose Carmena, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and neuroscience, is using his Bakar Fellowship to refine the new technology — known as brain-machine interface, or BMI — that enables people with spinal cord injuries, stroke or other motor disabilities to direct movement of prostheses simply by thought His team hopes to refine strategies to connect, process and use neural signals to boost motor control.

Neil Tsutsui

The Bakar funding alsosupports Carmena’s colleague Michel Maharbiz, whose lab focuses on technology for motorized artificial limbs, but also works on ways to decode how the brain processes and produces speech. He hopes this can lead to long-term implants capable of converting brain patterns into speech for patients unable to talk.

“The Bakar Fellowship is a great help,” Maharbiz says. “It gives us the freedom to focus on the development work and the intellectual-property strategies needed to commercialize it. It also provides a way of building a commercialization community, including investors, around this topic.”

Microengineering technology isn’t the only Bakar-supported research that focuses on the small scale. Neil Tsutsui, associate professor of environmental science, policy and management, develops environmentally safe ways to control populations of Argentine ants — the No. 1 pest problem in homes and businesses, and a serious threat to California’s vitally important agriculture industry.

“The ants are probably the most common insect in the state — numbering in the trillions,” Tsutsui says. “The problems they pose stem from their atypical peace-loving nature. The colonies are not territorial, and they combine to form ‘supercolonies’ that can cover hundreds of square miles.”

Tanja Cuk

Tsutsui leads efforts to reduce population growth by turning the ants’ own communication pheromones against them. The Bakar grant, he says, “will give us the chance to ramp up — to try our strategies in the field so we can develop new, safe ways to control these pests. And it can allow us to formulate a plan to move several strategies from the lab to the market.”

Bridging the gap

Energy savings — whether reducing our use or improving how it is delivered — looms as a 21st-century priority. Tanja Cuk, assistant professor of chemistry, has received a Bakar fellowship to advance her research on “supercapacitors” — devices that can deliver more power than batteries, and more quickly, but as yet don’t store energy as well. Cuk’s goal is a new generation of supercapacitors optimized for both power delivery and energy storage.

“I believe that there is a lot to be done to optimize this type of energy storage,” she says. “The Bakar program puts us in contact with an industry perspective that can help us identify which combinations of power delivery and energy storage to optimize for.”

Amy Herr

The pace of the genomics revolution seems to suggest that the roots of disease and the path to diagnosing disorders can best be found in aberrant genes. But the array of proteins coded by genes hold a trove of diagnostic treasure too. The problem is that current technology can’t access much of it, leaving vital information buried in the biochemical complexity of blood and other tissues.

Bakar fellow Amy Herr, associate professor of bioengineering, says PSA screening, for example, has shown a mediocre ability to distinguish between malignant and benign conditions,. The ability to “fingerprint” different versions, or isoforms, of a given protein would refine diagnosis, but no systematic and efficient strategy exists to carry out this analysis.

With her Bakar support Herr is developing a screening strategy that in one microscope-sized device allows users to isolate, characterizeand measure the relative abundance of dozens of individual proteins normally found enmeshed in a soup other proteins.

Michael Rape

The envisioned device, a “massively multiplexed microanalytical tool,” is aimed at linking the burgeoning field of proteomics — the analysis of protein abundance and function in cells — with protein-based diagnosis and drug development.

And Michael Rape, associate professor of molecular and cell biology, will use his Bakar Fellowship to develop the first systematic strategy to screen for compounds that could yield potent drugs against a group or class of human enzymes with links to cancer.

 “It’s difficult to obtain NIH funding for translational projects,” says Rape. “Yet industry waits for academic labs to provide the groundwork — to show that it is possible to target these enzymes.

“The Bakar support,” he adds,” can help us bridge the gap.”

For more information, visit the Bakar Fellows Program website.