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Students win Deis’ Sprout Grants for tech startups

By Ben Federlin

Section: News

April 20, 2012

The university announced this year’s recipients of the Sprout Grants, ranging from mobile apps to the potential detection of dirty bombs. The Sprout Grant program was designed to promote innovation and entrepreneurship within the Brandeis community and facilitate the development of programs focused on technological commercialization.

Seven of the 20 candidates received funding, sponsored by the provost’s office and the Brandeis University Scientific Advisory Council. Approximately half of the applicants were in the life sciences while the other half were in computer science. Each candidate was decided by a separate panel of judges in the discipline. The innovators were awarded $80 thousand, $30 thousand more than last year.

Professors Lawrence Kirsch (PHYS) and Hermann Wellenstein (PHYS) have been developing a grant-winning project with undergraduate students. Their project, a so-called “spin-off” of years of designing and building particle detectors for high energy physics experiments at Fermi Lab and CERN, is an alternative form of radiation detectors. These detectors will be designed to screen containers for potentially dangerous substances such as dirty bombs. Ideally the project could be used by government agencies for the detection of intended terrorist attacks. According to Wellenstein, the demand for these kind of devices has increased greatly following the 9/11 attacks.

Another winner of the Sprout Grant was Professor David DeRosier (BIOL) who focuses on structural biology. He is currently working on a project with four other scientists, Professor Gina Turrigiano (BIOL) and her postdoctoral student, Marc Nahmani, as well as Frank Mello, whom Derosier described as a “superb machinist.”

The primary focus of their project is the brain. “We decided on the method of super-resolution fluorescence light microscopy carried out at very cold temperatures—temperatures not far from that of liquid nitrogen,” DeRoiser said.

He described the process involved in the execution of their project. “To do this work, we needed to design and build a cold stage that would keep the sample at very cold temperatures that would be compatible with a high-resolution microscope objective working at room temperature and that would fit on any fluorescent microscope. The project was a high-risk project—one that took us years to overcome all the challenges.”

Another group led by Dr. Suresh Gorla also focuses on biology but in a very different way. His group is studying the detection and prevention of a particular strain of tuberculosis. Gorla expressed his gratitude toward the grant and how it could help improve the work he and his co-workers are doing.

“Our laboratory has discovered nine new compounds that inhibit Mtb in a test tube. With the help of the Sprout grant, we will be able to study the efficacy of these compounds in animal model of Mtb infection,” Gorla said.

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