Early Innovations at UMD

Duluth researchers earn Early Innovation Funds (EIF) 

With support from EIF, support is going into impactful startup projects.

The Early Innovation Fund (EIF) is a competitive funding program available to the entire University of Minnesota (UMN) research community to fund short-term projects that advance early-stage innovations. The program provides $3,000 to $10,000 per project and funds five to ten projects per cycle. The EIF is designed to help advance the technology readiness of an innovation. This support fills a funding gap between the ideation step and the stage when larger funding options become available. EIF can provide the capital needed to turn early innovations into a reality.

This opportunity is open to all UMN researchers and employees, including faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and staff. It is offered twice a year, in the spring and fall. In the past two cycles, four of the Early Innovation Award recipients have been from the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD).

Here are the fund recipients from UMD, and a bit about their projects.

Jomara Sandbulte
A Wearable Tool Design Idea to Aid Mental Wellness

Jomara Sandbulte headshot

“With the FreeMind application, we’re working to enhance existing wearable fitness trackers by better supporting users’ mental health and stress management goals. Existing wearable devices like Fitbit and Apple Watch are good at tracking data, but that doesn’t adequately support users in creating concrete mental health-related goals and turning them into actionable plans like practicing gratitude or journaling. By integrating a broader set of data that isn’t limited to the device’s physical sensors, we can actually help individuals achieve positive mental wellness. The FreeMind system will combine data from a user's daily experience, like their calendar events, with heart rate and other sensor data and combine that with contextual data like their location and the weather to infer situational biometric data. Based on that combined data, the FreeMind system will make a suggestion of healthy behaviors to aid mental wellness. This more holistic approach helps users better understand how their health data relates to their daily experiences. By integrating this information with self-intervention plans, such as a wellness goal like practicing gratitude, and reflecting on and analyzing their current situation, users could develop new perspectives of themselves and change their behaviors for the better.”

Craig Hill
LOONBuoyTM - Lake Observation IOT Network Buoy
Low cost smart sensing in marine environments for improved water monitoring

Craig Hill stands at a rail on the Blue Heron research vessel on Lake Superior.

“Most buoys in use today are large and expensive, but the information they provide is invaluable and can be used in a number of ways, from research to public safety. This project aims to create smaller, lighter and less expensive buoy systems that would be more accessible, and significantly enhance our ability to track and report widespread, real-time waves and water quality in our inland and coastal marine ecosystems. The LOONBuoy (Lake Observation IOT Network Buoy) uses low-cost sensors to create small real-time, customizable sensing platforms in an affordable and adaptable form. This can allow for more monitoring in more places. Strategically locating these LOONBuoy systems across the region means everyone from researchers, to individuals, communities, educational institutions, agencies, and other interested stakeholders can have new opportunities to integrate marine monitoring systems into day-to-day operations. From the research perspective, this could open up a lot of opportunities, and from the public safety perspective, it has the potential to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Luke Busta
Bioengineered Yeast Strains to Produce Unique Flavors in Brewed Beverages

Luke Busta headshot

"Yeast-fermented beverages, particularly beer, are given their flavor profiles by adding plant-derived ingredients such as hops. The flavor chemicals from these added ingredients infuse into the beer and contribute to taste and aroma. However, hops are often the most expensive ingredients in the brewing process and make up about 30% of the carbon footprint of the ingredients that go into a batch of hopped beer. In addition, more than 2500 liters of water are required to produce a single kilogram of hops. We are working to develop bioengineered brewer’s yeast that produces the same flavor chemicals that are found in hops. With our engineered yeast, brewers could simultaneously ferment their beer and introduce complex tastes and aromas without adding hops. In other words, our engineered yeast would potentially (i) decrease the amount of money and time required to make beer, (ii) decrease the environmental footprint of beer making, and (iii) give a brewer access to more diverse flavor profiles that can’t easily be obtained using hops."

Peng Fang
A Hybrid Reconfigurable Switching Capacitor Structure for Wide Input/Output Voltage Power Converter Design

Peng Fang headshot

"Power converters are devices that change the voltage or current of an electrical power source to match what is needed by various electronic loads. Every time you plug in your phone or computer, you’re using a power converter. When power converters are made to work with a wide range of voltages, they often have poor efficiency. In this project, we’ve invented a new modular power structure to address this issue. By using multiple power modules that can be easily added or removed, our prototype has achieved high efficiency across a wide range of input voltages, far exceeding the efficiency of the best commercial designs. This technology allows for a "universal" power converter that can work with many different input voltage levels, simplifying system design and reducing manufacturing costs."