Four UMass Amherst Scientists Receive Manning Inventor Fellowships

Timothy Gehan
Sandra Roy

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst recently announced its first Manning Inventor Fellowships, awarded to four research science entrepreneurs to help these creative and motivated graduate students and postdoctoral fellows commercialize discoveries made in campus laboratories.

Manning Fellowships provide a one-year, $30,000 stipend for graduate fellows and a $50,000 stipend for postdoctoral fellows beginning Sept. 8, 2015. Alumnus Paul B. Manning, president and CEO of PBM Capital Group in Charlottesville, Va., who earned his B.S. in microbiology in 1977, established the fellowships to attract, encourage and recognize graduate student and postdoctoral inventors and to acknowledge the importance of translational research on the UMass Amherst campus.

A panel chaired by Dean Steve Goodwin of the College of Natural Sciences selected the winners based on the likelihood of project success and potential for commercialization. Goodwin says, “There was clearly a great pent-up demand for just such an opportunity. We received 28 impressive applications for these fellowships. They will be a real stimulation to the campus-wide effort to encourage translational research and entrepreneurship.”

Timothy Gehan of Danbury, Conn., expects to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry from UMass Amherst in August. With his chemistry department mentors Dhandapani Venkataraman and Paul Lahti, he is developing the next generation of photovoltaic device architectures using a technique they discovered for controlling molecular assembly of nanoparticles over multiple length scales that promises to allow faster, cheaper, more ecologically friendly manufacture of organic photovoltaics and other electronic devices. The Manning Inventor Fellowship will allow Gehan to scale up these organic photovoltaic devices using roll-to-roll processing to fabricate a product they call ‘PowerStripe.’ It can power a toy, charge a cell phone or light an LED bulb. They will also develop prototype organic nanoparticle solar cells to show to potential investors.

Sandra Roy, Ph.D. candidate in animal biotechnology and biomedical sciences, has been a research fellow and lab manager in Margaret Riley’s laboratory since 2009, where she has studied bacteriocins, toxins that bacteria produce to attack other closely related bacteria, particularly those that are active against Gram negative strains. Riley, Roy and colleagues formed the company Bacteriotix in 2010 to investigate the use of bacteriocins as new drug candidates for treating these infections. The fellowship will allow Roy to expand her basic laboratory research on catheter-acquired urinary tract infection (CAUTI) interventions to include proof-of-concept studies on the most promising drug candidates. This will include purifying bacteriocins to the level required for a manufacturer to use them in a test batch for FDA-required safety and efficacy studies.Roy, Riley and colleagues have engaged Pheromonicin Biotech USA, Inc. to commercialize this product and the fellowship should accelerate the process.

Jessica Smith, who received her Ph.D. in microbiology in 2014, is a postdoctoral researcher in Derek Lovley’s laboratory. She has used techniques such as transcriptomic, proteomic, and genetic analyses to identify electron transfer mechanisms used by Methanosarcina and Geobacter species. The goal of their proposed start-up company, Microbe Electric, is to offer real-time, low cost, microbe-sensing monitoring of groundwater contaminants with new techniques that are faster and cost less than current monitors. Microbe Electric plans to provide customers with two types of microbe-based environmental sensing services. The more market-ready is based on its patent-pending Subsurface Microbial Activity in Real Time (SMART) technology, a simple and robust method for monitoring microorganisms in groundwater, soil and sediments at landfills, refineries, gas stations and industrial sites. The Manning Inventor Fellowship will help Smith to assess customer demand for SMART sensors through interviews as well as in developing another sensor to identify specific chemicals in samples.

Narasimha Rao, who earned his Ph.D. in 2014 from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad, will become a postdoctoral researcher in chemist Jeanne Hardy’s laboratory at UMass Amherst. Rao will use medicinal chemistry to refine a compound that affects the function of caspase-6. He aims to move this class of compounds toward clinical trials for treating neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington and Alzheimer’s diseases. The Hardy lab discovered this family of compounds and uncovered its molecular mechanism, a major step toward a new therapy. Specifically, Rao plans to improve potency in the enzyme-based assay and improve cell permeability and cell-based efficacy.