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May 2013
Nurturing Six Seeds of Innovation
By Pete Prunkl

     For over 30 years the National Science Foundation (NSF) has played matchmaker with the nation’s businesses and universities. These clever scientists have taken a dollop of federal dollars, added a few rules and regulations, and created dozens of abiding relationships. The courtships are all centered on common research interests and many have lasted for years.

     Passions are kept alive because each has something the other needs. For the university, it is the money and sense of urgency that businesses bring. Companies pay a membership fee for entrée to the universities laboratories. Businesses also link important social and economic value to what might otherwise be isolated academic work. For business, it is the university’s expertise, students, equipment and ideas and the commercial possibilities of that intriguing mix.

     Each NSF pairing is not restricted to one university and one business, but many, with multiple universities and multiple businesses all working together. NSF’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRCs) have a significant track record of contributing to the commercialization of valuable research and, in fact, have served as a premier example of “leveraged” funding—a model for other government programs in how to develop cost-effective synergy with the nation’s research and development process.

     The Charlotte region can be particularly proud of UNC Charlotte’s participation in the IUCRC program, which has brought together significant industry-university partnerships helping to nurture the seeds of innovation targeting areas for future growth.


Planting a Seed

     An IUCRC typically begins with a small collaborative one-year planning grant to a group of university faculty members able to demonstrate the scientific, organizational and entrepreneurial skills necessary to form a team and run a successful Center. From there, it is up to the Center to obtain commitments for funding from the affiliated universities and industry partners.

     If successful on a merit review, NSF may make an initial five-year award; NSF funding may be extended for two subsequent five-year periods. After that, a center “graduates” and must reinvent itself and reapply for a final five years.

     Currently there are approximately 61 IUCRCs at 178 university sites across the nation. Corporate members now number over 500 with many holding memberships in two or more IUCRCs. Counting duplications, there are over 1,000 corporate memberships in FY 2012.

     Of UNC Charlotte’s six IUCRCs, two are in the planning stages, three are active and one has graduated and reapplied for a longer and revamped life span.

     Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Dr. Robert Wilhelm, also executive director of the Charlotte Research Institute, oversees the six IUCRCs at UNC Charlotte established in the following areas: Freeform Optics; Safety, Security, and Rescue; Metamaterials; Sustainably Integrated Buildings and Sites; Configuration Analytics and Automation; and Precision Metrology.

     “Some IUCRCs have as many as 50 corporate affiliates,” asserts Wilhelm. “We don’t have one that big yet, but it is our hope. Centers will not get support from NSF unless they have at least six member companies with each contributing $30,000 to $50,000 a year. For that investment, a corporation plays an active role in defining the Center’s research agenda. It also has access to research results and the university’s vast wealth of human capital.”

     Member companies regard the IUCRCs research agenda as “pre-competitive,” says Wilhelm. “It is early R&D.” Discoveries typically apply to a broad range of potential products rather than to one in particular. Nevertheless, IUCRCs consistently produce research that results in the creation of intellectual property. In one recent year, there were 29 invention disclosures, 30 patent applications, 12 patents, six license agreements and one copyright.


Six Seeds: Freeform Optics

     UNC Charlotte, the University of Rochester and Penn State University have teamed up to propose a Center for Freeform Optics for NSF support. Dr. Angela Davies, an assistant professor in optical metrology, would co-lead the IUCRC at UNC Charlotte.

     They cannot release the names of companies committed to joining it, as they won’t find out the NSF decision until July.

     “Freeform optics is the ability to manufacture optical surfaces in arbitrary shapes,” explains Davies. Arbitrary usually means shapes other than spherical. Google Glass, a wearable-computer with head-mounted display is a recent and highly publicized example.

     Collaboration with the University of Rochester and Dr. Jannick Rolland would bring “strong expertise” to the new center, says Davies. That’s because Rolland has perfected a head-worn display for augmented reality that looks like something out of the sci-fi thriller Minority Report.

     She takes information from the environment and integrates it with data from the Internet, GPS, an infrared camera, light-emitting diodes (LED) and mobile phone applications. It is then selectively displayed on lenses in a set of goggles. This is reality augmented by modern technology.

     Head-worn displays would revolutionize our driving experience. Highway travelers would see the next turn overlaid on their goggles, eyeglasses or windshield. Ratings for restaurants would pop up as you approach. In a blinding snowstorm or dense fog, images of vehicles ahead would be seen clearly in enough time to avoid an accident.

     Business tried to commercialize augmented reality glasses in the late 1990s and failed. Recent developments in miniaturization, illumination and freeform optics have brought ultra-cool augmented reality glasses closer to reality. But the microdisplay industry lags behind the technology, a problem the new Center intends to remedy.


Six Seeds: Safety, Security and Rescue

     Another of UNC Charlotte’s new partnerships is the Safety, Security and Rescue Research Center. Dr. Jing Xiao is its director. Although it may sound like a burglar alarm laboratory, Xiao’s research combines two modern technologies—robotics and sensing.

     “The two are inseparable,” says Xiao. With colleagues from the Universities of Minnesota and Denver, Xiao studies how these two technologies can enhance the safety and security of human workers. Her University of Pennsylvania colleagues have adopted the rescue emphasis. They are experts in developing small, agile flying robots that swarm, sense each other’s presence, survey disasters and coordinate rescue operations.

     Xiao champions the use of robotics and sensing in healthcare. Doctors already use robotics for minimally invasive surgery, a branch of medicine more precise than cutting with a hand-held scalpel. The robotic scalpel needs to provide important feedback to the human operator so that the physician does not cut too deeply or push too hard. That’s Xiao’s specialty, the science of haptics. She has successfully incorporated the sense of touch into robotic scalpels, making them more human.

     “A lot of elderly people want to stay at home,” says Xiao, “and robotics can help them.” These robots don’t look anything like a human nurse, but they can fetch water and food and remind patients to take their medicine. There are also smart hospital beds that integrate the various devices monitoring a patient’s condition.

     Some beds sense when a sleep apnea patient stops breathing. The bed then turns the patient so that breathing can resume. Mobile patients now have smart wheelchairs equipped with a laser range scanner, tablet computer, infrared camera and speech recognition software. The wheelchair can learn the layout of the home from the patient’s voice and then travel to where it is told.

     So far, three Charlotte businesses have partnered with this center: Robotics Operations CoroWare Charlotte, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Carolinas Medical Center. “We are still recruiting members,” says Xiao.


Six Seeds: Configuration Analytics and Automation

     Five banks including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, were recent victims of large scale cyber attacks. Foreign governments are prime suspects. What’s next? Wrong question, says Dr. Bei-Tseng Chu, chair of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Software and Information Systems.

     “It is better to ask what industry is not open to attack. The answer is only those we don’t care about. If it’s important and of value, it is in danger from ‘hacktivists’ and thieves,” says Chu.

     Protecting the nation’s information technology infrastructure is the goal of the newly approved Center for Configuration Analytics and Automation. Chu is a researcher at the center; Dr. Ehab Al-Shaer, its director. Its first day in business was May 1. George Mason University and the University of California-Davis are center members; allied companies will be announced later.

     Complex computer systems are built or configured with thousands of components—everything from routers and servers to firewalls, switches, DMZ subnetworks and proxies. “The more complexity, the more opportunity for error,” says Chu. Configuration analytics enable computers to do the work of correcting problems ahead of time.

     Moving information to the cloud presents a promise and peril for small businesses. Before the cloud, they couldn’t afford high-level system security. With the cloud, they have more resources, but they become a bigger target. In the movie, Jaws, the crew needed a bigger boat to take down a Great White. In the cloud, it is a bigger weapon like Cloud Checker, a pet software project of Dr. Al-Shaer and a big gun for his new center.


Six Seeds: Sustainably Integrated Buildings and Sites

     Urban Eden, UNC Charlotte’s entry into the 2013 Solar Decathlon competition, combines state-of-the-art photovoltaic panels and geopolymer cement concrete embedded with water-filled capillary tubes. With the help of the sun, it’s designed to fully power a home for 10 days. That feat may win the 49ers points at the Solar Decathlon Village in Irvine, California, in October.

     It may also help advance the work of the NSF Sustainably Integrated Buildings and Sites Center (SIBS). Associate Professor Dr. Robert Cox, who was an advisor on Urban Eden, is its director.

     The center is new. Its first day under NSF was tax day, April 15. Academic partners include Carnegie Mellon University and the City University of New York. At this early date, the participating companies are Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Ingersoll Rand, Johnson Controls, Vornado Realty Trust and the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

     SIBS will concentrate on four basic resources—air, energy, water and materials—and then spiral the investigation up a notch to see how each contributes to a building’s interior, the building itself and the environment in which the building is placed.

     “To date, most of our emphasis has been on energy,” says Cox. “We currently have a heavy emphasis on the use of data mining and sensing for improved energy efficiency in buildings.”

     Buildings are unlike other engineered environments, says Cox. They are often designed with aesthetics first and energy efficiency further down the line.

     “Even when architects design an energy-efficient building, when you put people in it, all of a sudden, it isn’t,” says Cox. “Occupants use more light than anticipated, they add space heaters.” The first rule of the new SIBS center is occupant comfort. A comfortable occupant is more productive and more efficient.


Six Seeds: Metamaterials

     It is a little more complicated to explain the magic taking place in Dr. Mike Fiddy’s two-year-old Metamaterial Center.

     Metamaterials are not found in nature. They are artificial structures engineered to have refractive indices below +1, even into the negative numbers. What makes them so intriguing is that they not only reverse a few laws of physics, but also move Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility closer to reality.

     Much of the work that goes on between Fiddy’s lab in Charlotte and those at City University of New York, Clarkson University and Western Carolina University is theoretical. Today’s metamaterials are microscopic and years away from production.

     Fiddy talks as often about meta-atoms, nanostructures and models as he does about metamaterials or invisibility. “When it comes to making practical metamaterials,” says Fiddy, “we need a world that is a lot more sophisticated than today.”

     At this early stage of development in a field barely 10 years old, research is driven by the Center’s corporate sponsors, says Fiddy. Those on board include Raytheon, Corning, Xerox, Goodrich, the Army Research Labs and the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

     The military certainly has an interest in Harry Potter’s cloak. Imagine a battleship that is invisible to both radar and sonar, one that can’t be seen or heard.

     “Today we can’t make something invisible, but we can make it hard to see at some frequencies,” says Fiddy. “The theory is there, but we are really still taking baby steps. We are only 10 to 15 percent of the way there.”


Six Seeds: Precision Metrology

     “We are big dogs in precision metrology,” says Wilhelm also Charlotte Research Institute’s executive director. Based on the number of industrial partners the Center for Precision Metrology has recruited (14), its faculty (20), laboratory inventory (41), past and current projects (49) and longevity (19 years), he is not exaggerating.

     Unlike all of the university’s other NSF IUCRCs, this is the only one based solely at UNC Charlotte. That’s because there are no other universities in its league. That too is no exaggeration.

     The metrology center invented the world’s first subatomic measuring machine, the first laser tracker and set at least four national standards adopted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. It also spun off numerous production companies, including Charlotte-based, InSituTec.

     The center graduated from NSF in 2008 and this year Center Director Dr. Bob Hocken has reapplied for continuing status as an IUCRC. “I’d be rather surprised if we were not approved,” he says. Precision Metrology Center was first approved in 1998.

     Included among its industrial affiliates are Caterpillar, Corning Cable Systems, Pratt & Whitney, GE Energy and General Dynamics. Hocken hopes that one of the Center’s early affiliates, Boeing, may soon be returning. Affiliates, some with offices in Charlotte or in nearby communities, provide the center with $400,000 in annual financial support.

     Clearly, the Precision Metrology Center is a success story writ large.


Significant Leverage: Buy-in and Return on Investment

     The IUCRC Program is a model of “leverage”—in terms of “leverage in,” obtaining the buy-in of partner companies, and in terms of “leverage out,” the return to the community on the Program’s activities.

     NSF’s financial contribution to the Centers is relatively small—about $15 million in FY 2011. Funding from sources other than NSF is much larger, totaling more than $68 million in FY 2011. Over the past three years, for every dollar the IUCRC Program invests, the average center secures $2.9 to $3.8 dollars in industry funding and between $7.3 to $10.9 of total funding.

     It is difficult to measure the impact of IUCRCs since they perform pre-competitive, shared research, nonetheless, the data consistently documents the leveraging effect of IUCRC financial support, the establishment of valuable partnerships, immediately realized R&D impacts and descriptions of technology breakthroughs. In one assessment strategy, it was determined that each dollar invested by NSF helped to create $69.4 in benefits, with a total net present value of $1.27 billion.

     “The IUCRC Program allows for critical collaboration delivering advancements in research that can be commercialized and monetized in the global marketplace more expeditiously,” attests Vice Chancellor Wilhelm. There is no doubt that the IUCRCs at UNC Charlotte truly leverage this region’s university resources and personnel, and business relationships, generating wealth and job creating opportunities.


For businesses interested in learning more or becoming engaged in these research projects should contact the UNCC Assistant Director of Business and Entrepreneurial Development Devin A. Collins at 704-250-5753 or


Pete Prunkl is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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