On April 7, when the ninth annual University of Massachusetts Innovation Challenge final business plan competition was held, mDiagnostics, the  team from the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, garnered $15,000 in prize money to support development and marketing of its reliable, portable, single-use, low-cost, Hepatitis C screening device. The team was led by ECE doctoral student Akshaya Shanmugam and guided by her ECE faculty advisor Christopher Salthouse. The Innovation Challenge success only adds to an impressive list of honors earned by Shanmugam over the past two years. During that time, she has been chosen for a 2014 Eugene M. Isenberg Scholarship, was selected as one of the two 2012-2013 Hluchyj Fellows, and won first place in the 2013 ECE Ph.D. Poster Session, held last October.

At the Innovation Challenge, in addition to $7,500 awarded by the judges, the mDiagnostics team was honored with the third annual David Wolf Prize of $5,000, sponsored by the intellectual property law firm of Wolf Greenfield, which celebrates the memory of UMass Amherst alumnus David Wolf and his 60-year career as an intellectual property lawyer and leader of the firm. In addition, mDiagnostics received the first annual $2,500 Glass Prize, sponsored by the Robert and Sandra Glass Innovation Fund.

The purpose of mDiagnosticsis to develop low cost medical devices and health monitoring systems, with its current focus being the Hepatitis C screening device, aimed mainly at economically strapped people without the ability to obtain current Hepatitis C testing.  

As Shanmugam explained, “The Hepatitis C virus affects the liver and if untreated leads to death. So it is essential to get tested as soon as possible. In the U.S. 4-million individuals are infected with Hepatitis C, and 2.8 million are unaware due to accessibility issues or lack of resources. The proposed screening device addresses both these issues.”

Shanmugam’s testing device would cost only $100, which is 20 percent of the screening costs at hospitals. It is portable, and it produces results in less than an hour, compared to the average turnaround time for current field tests, which is two-to-four weeks. Existing devices that can be used in the field can only perform one of the two required tests. This device can also be modified to screen other diseases.  

Shanmugam said that a human-factor study on the device is underway, guided by Professor Donna Zucker in the College of Nursing at UMass Amherst. The market potential, risks, and strategies for commercialization of the Hepatitis C testing device were explored in the UMass Innovation Challenge.

Shanmugam’s mDiagnostics research is also supported by her Isenberg Scholarship and Hluchyj Fellowship.

The Isenberg Scholarship was established by the late Eugene M. Isenberg, a 1950 graduate of UMass Amherst and the retired CEO of Nabors Industries, Inc., and his wife Ronnie Isenberg. The scholarships are awarded to UMass Amherst graduate students who demonstrate academic merit and a commitment to the integration of science or engineering with management. These awards of up to $10,000 apiece annually are intended to prepare recipients for leadership roles in high-tech ventures, corporate R&D, technically oriented businesses, and other entrepreneurial initiatives.

In addition, Shanmugam was one of two doctoral students named as 2012-2013 Hluchyj Fellows at UMass Amherst. The Hluchyj Graduate Fellowship was started by Dr. Michael Hluchyj, a 1979 alumnus of the ECE department, and his wife Theresa “Terry” Hluchyj, a 1977 alumna from the College of Nursing. The fellowship supports two graduate students per year in the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing with annual stipends so they can do interdisciplinary research in the area of clinical healthcare.

On October 18 of 2013, the ECE department held its 2013 Ph.D. Poster Session, in which Shanmugam won first place and also received the “Special Tang Award,” sponsored by the Shirley and Ting-wei Tang Endowment. Her winning poster was entitled “Lensless Fluorescence imaging with height calculation.”

Shanmugam is doing her research under the guidance of Professor Salthouse, head of the Biomedical Electronics Lab. “In addition to using direct electrical interactions between silicon [integrated circuits] and cells,” as the lab website explains its research, “the Biomedical Electronics Lab leverages recent advances in biology and chemistry using fluorescence based sensors. Biologists have developed and continue to develop genetically engineered animals that express any of a number of fluorescent proteins in a subset of the animals’ cells. At the same time, chemists are developing fluorescence probes that can be injected into wild-type animals to label proteins or enzyme activity. We are designing a new class of instruments to enable new experiments using these powerful tools.

Since 2005, the UMass Innovation Challenge has provided $625,000 in awards to 73 different student-led teams. The awards are entirely supported by private sector contributions.The competition is designed to help current students and young alumni who have innovative ideas to develop business plans and move products closer to market. The Innovation Challenge is an interdisciplinary event that is overseen by faculty members who hold Isenberg Professorships at UMass Amherst. The competition is one among many initiatives in a campus-wide strategy to develop technological innovation and to bring that intellectual property to the private sector.

Established in 2005, the competition is the result of early work by Michael F. Malone, who is currently the Vice Chancellor of Research and Engagement and the Ronnie and Eugene Isenberg Distinguished Professor of Engineering; and the late Soren Bisgaard, who held the Eugene M. Isenberg Professorship of Technology Management in the Isenberg School of Management from 2002-2009. (May 2014)