Electrical and biomedical engineering collaboration leads to Innovation Award nomination

// Electrical & Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering

Photo of Bhuvana Krishnaswamy and Megan McClean

Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Bhuvana Krishnaswamy and Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Megan McClean. Photo: Renee Meiller.

Each year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison develop new technologies, techniques and gadgets that can benefit the world. To protect their ideas, they file disclosures with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the first step in patenting and licensing inventions and technologies.

Some of those ideas stand out from the crowd. That’s why WARF chooses six of those disclosures as finalists for the WARF Innovation Award each year, which honors disclosures with the potential for high, long-term impacts and benefits for humankind. This year, a unique collaboration within the UW-Madison College of Engineering was nominated for the honor, selected from roughly 350 disclosures filed between July 2019 and the end of June 2020.

Bhuvana Krishnaswamy, an Assistant Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Megan McClean, an Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering, worked together on a collaboration bridging biology and electronics for hybrid biosensing. The project focuses on networking biosensors with potential applications in healthcare, environmental monitoring and food safety.

In the past few years, synthetic biology has made huge strides, leading to engineered microbes that can act as sensors—detecting molecules that are signs of disease in humans or animals, changes in soil, and pollutants in the environment. However, in their current iteration, there is no viable way to deploy most of those microbial sensors outside the lab, and they do not integrate well with conventional electronic systems.

“At the highest level, the goal of this technology is to allow biological sensing networks to communicate with electronic networks so each can do what they’re best at,” says McClean, who specializes in optogenetics and uses light to control these biological sensors by adding light-sensitive proteins to them.

Krishnaswamy is developing a communication framework that allows the biological sensors to interface with electronics and offload processing and computation to traditional computing systems and communication infrastructure. The result is a hybrid bioelectronic sensing network with the increased sensitivity of the biosensors and the speed and reliability of traditional electronics.

The team’s preliminary ideas on hybrid sensing design were published at the NANOCOM: Nanoscale Computing and Communication Conference in September 2020. WARF also accepted their design for patenting.

“I think it’s such a powerful idea because it does require expertise in these two spheres to come together in a way that they have not yet,” says Krishnaswamy. “It’s a very true collaboration in that sense.”

The pair is continuing their work on the hybrid sensor and developing ways to house more than one type of biosensor in a single device. One of their goals is to create a wearable system with biosensors capable of monitoring health via the skin.

This is Krishnaswamy’s second WARF Innovation Award nomination. She continues to work on a project developing low-power wireless networks that earned her and electrical and computer engineering graduate student Yaman Sangar a nomination in 2019.

Krishnaswamy and Sangar developed transmission techniques and algorithms that reduce the amount of data the sensors transmit—thus reducing the amount of power the network needs.

Eventually, Krishnaswamy says the system could enable large sensor networks deployed across agricultural fields that could help farmers keep tabs on nutrient and moisture levels, allowing them to be more strategic in their watering and fertilizing practices.

Being nominated for the WARF Innovation Award twice in her first two years on campus was surprising, says Krishnaswamy, but it’s a welcome validation of her research. “I think it’s really exciting being nominated for this award,” she says, especially in her latest venture with McClean. “We are bringing two seemingly non-overlapping areas together. It’s nice to have support and recognition that such collaborations are important.”

Two other disclosures by faculty in the College of Engineering were also nominated for the 2020 Innovation Award, including a project led by Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Randy Ashton, which was chosen as one of the winners, and another by Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Bu Wang.

WARF encourages UW-Madison faculty, students and staff to share their ideas early and as often as they are prepared to discuss them. Start the process of disclosing your invention to WARF here or by contacting Brian Frushour at 608-960-9871 or bfrushour@warf.org.

Author: Jason Daley