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David Blaauw and Dennis Sylvester, electrical engineering and computer science professors at the University of Michigan, are this year’s recipients of the 2019 Distinguished University Innovator Award, an honor given to University faculty who have both developed and marketed innovative ideas or technologies.
The two professors will be recognized on Oct. 22 at Celebrate Invention, an event honoring inventions and entrepreneurship from University staff members.
Blaauw and Sylvester first began doing research together at the University in 2001, focusing on the development of low power integrated circuits. Blaauw said the award is an appreciated acknowledgement of the work the researchers have done and recognized students as a major factor in moving the research forward.
“We don’t think about awards very much,” Blaauw said. “It’s nice because we’ve been working for a long time together … It’s a nice milestone to mark, and I can reflect on all the work that (our) students have done.”
Sylvester also echoed the importance of students in transformative research. He said he has worked with multiple students who believe in a technology and have the ability to take it to the market. Though he and Blaauw play a role, Sylvester said, the students become the key driver in the success of the product.
“It’s a testament to the area of work that I've been investing a lot of my time and career into, Sylvester said. “Between David and I, we’ve worked with probably 100 Ph.D. and master’s students over the last 15 to 16 years on these topics. All of them play a role in moving the research forward and eventually getting into commercialization and impact and industry.”
When they first began working together, Blaauw and Sylvester focused on computer-aided design which generated software to create computer chips. They later decided to design and build the chips themselves and have been working closely ever since, Sylvester said.
Blaauw and Sylvester have worked with the University’s Kellogg Eye Center to develop a low-energy consumption computer chip small enough to be embedded into the human eye to continuously track the eye’s pressure. They have also created a similar chip that can be embedded into tumors to monitor the tumor’s pressure and its surrounding environment. The power consumption of the chips is so low that the technology is able to utilize small-scale, low energy batteries to be powered for a relatively long period of time.
“We realized that by bringing down the power consumption, we can bring down the size of the battery,” Blaauw said. “We then realized that there was an opportunity to size down the entire system. There’s a few other challenges to do that, but that was the crystallizing moment that, wow, if we can have the computer consume so little power, it could potentially operate on a really tiny battery or with very little bit of light harvesting — then it became a possibility.”
The researchers have also co-founded start-up companies alongside some of their former students. Their first one, Ambiq Micro, is their oldest and largest company. It focuses on microcontrollers used in wearable smart technology such as smart watches.
CubeWorks, Blaauw and Sylvester’s second startup, takes the chips they have created to market. The company helps push research that identifies markets which could potentially use the chip technology.
Kelly Saxton, associate vice president for research-technology transfer and innovation partnerships, oversaw the selection committee for the award. In an email to The Daily, she said the sheer impact of Blaauw and Sylvester's work differentiated them from other candidates and the professors remain at the very cutting edge of where technology is headed.
“The technologies created by this team are in the market today, advancing multiple industries through the internet of things (IOT) revolution," Saxton wrote. "Professors Blaauw and Sylvester have applied an entrepreneurial mindset to their research, identifying technologies that have the opportunity to reach industrial scale and working to ensure that they are brought to market. Their innovations and the success of their startup companies in the marketplace have helped to place the University of Michigan on the map for leading venture capital firms from around the world.”
According to Sylvester, the award recognizing the professors’ partnership also demonstrates the strong collaborative environment present at the University.
“This award is a nice recognition of the good working relationship and that our department or the faculty in our department collaborate well together,” Sylvester said. “That’s not common in a lot of departments. A lot of universities that I know in electrical engineering, it’s very siloed and people work on their own, and they have their own kingdoms and they don't want to intersect. That’s not true here.”
Sylvester also discussed the importance of innovation through research. He said one of his favorite parts of research is working with others to find new ways to implement findings.
“To see when these astronomers or these ecologists or when these medical doctors come to us and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a really cool technology. Have you ever thought about using it for this?’ And we will say, ‘No, that’s a really interesting application. Let’s work on it together,’” Sylvester said. “I think one of the most fun parts is finding new, unforeseen application spaces for your work and then pursuing (it).”
Kinesiology sophomore Mary Koje was a student in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program as a freshman and does ACL rehabilitation research. She said she thinks innovative research such as the technologies created by Blaauw and Sylvester allow researchers to explore ideas outside of previous creations.
“(Research) allows for new ideas, and although they may be controversial at first, you have to break that stigma around new technology that people may be cautious about,” Koje said.
Engineering sophomore Andrea Vallenilla is currently working on a research project which plans to allow a HoloLens on robots to interpret verbal cues. Like Koje, she said she believes research like Blaauw and Sylvester’s has helped technology become what it is today.
“People who are pushing technology are also learning constantly, and what’s a better way to learn about something that’s never been done before?” Vallenilla said. “That’s pretty much what research is — asking those questions that have never been asked before.”