UMass Amherst Faculty Members Receive Acorn Innovation Grants

Three UMass Amherst faculty members received Acorn Innovation grants of $16,250 each to help them test the viability of their innovations and potentially bring them closer to market.

The Acorn Awards are funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and overseen by MassVentures, the state’s strategic venture capital arm. 

Faculty members receiving Acorn grants include Chengbo Ai, assistant professor in the College of Engineering, for his low-cost LiDAR sensor technology designed to monitor wheelchair accessibility of sidewalks; Carlos Gradil, extension professor in veterinary medicine and sciences, for his development of a long-acting, safer and more contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) for women adapted from devices developed for equine animals; and Sloan Siegrist, associate professor the department of microbiolgy, College of Natural Sciences, for her platform technology that uses universal cell surface labelling to rapidly detect bacterial growth and antibiotic susceptibility.

“These awards help bring promising research to market for the benefit of the Commonwealth, which is central to our economic development mission,” said UMass System Chancellor for Academic Programs and Senior Vice President for Economic Development, Katherine Newman. “We are thankful to the Legislature for establishing the Commonwealth’s Innovation Commercialization Seed Fund, which makes these grants available.”

The three UMass Amherst research projects were among twelve selected from a pool of 37 applicants. Vinit Nijhawan, managing director of MassVentures said the recipients were chosen for their project’s technical merit, commercial viability, project plan and strength of team.  “The strength of the selected projects and diversity of academic researchers demonstrates that Massachusetts leads the nation in translating basic research to the market,” Nijhawan said.

For more information on the Acorn Innovation grant program, see

More details on the research projects:

Low-Cost Crowdsourcing-Based Infrastructure Mapping for Pedestrian Accessibility

Chengbo Ai’s research, developed with doctoral student Qing Hou, aims to develop and validate an efficient and cost-effective pedestrian infrastructure inventory method, using low-cost LiDAR sensors, also known as 3D scanning. The technology would enable transportation agencies to maintain pedestrian walkways in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in a timely and comprehensive manner. If proven feasible, the principal investigator will further integrate the low-cost LiDAR sensors into motorized wheelchairs to achieve a fully automated, crowdsourced inventory of pedestrian infrastructure. 

Revolutionary Contraceptive Intrauterine Device for Women

Carlos Gradil is developing a ‘frameless’ long-acting contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) composed of three independent elliptically shaped rods. This device will offer the same efficacy as current IUDs, but with greater safety and lower risk of pain, expulsion and perforation, and it will not require strings. The researchers launched a women’s healthcare company, 3Daughters, to commercialize the IUD and will use Acorn funds to hone the prototype design and development and develop a clinical trial strategy.

A Novel Tool to Detect Bacterial Growth and Antibiotic Susceptibility

Sloan Siegrist and Emily Mezler, COO of Latde Diagnostics, are developing a platform technology using universal cell surface labelling to rapidly detect bacterial growth and antibiotic susceptibility. The technology will shorten the time to an antibiotic susceptibility profile at relatively low cost, saving lives and reducing costs in clinical and industrial settings. The first application is detection and antibiotic susceptibility profiling of bloodstream bacterial infections, but it could be readily adapted to speed pathogen and contaminant detection in a variety of settings such as food and biomedical manufacturing facilities.