UMass Amherst students study in the newly-opened Isenberg School of Management Business Innovation Hub.

The mission of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is to create positive impact on the Commonwealth and the broader society we serve through education and advancing knowledge. As the flagship public university in Massachusetts, we cherish and add to the Commonwealth’s long tradition of intellectual and educational leadership.

Our institution is rooted in the idea that any qualified individual, regardless of wealth or social status, should have access to high-quality higher education. We draw from and support diverse experiences and perspectives as an essential strength of this learning community and accept for ourselves and instill in our students an ongoing commitment to create a better, more just world.

Pictured above: Students study in the newly opened Isenberg School of Management Business Innovation Hub.

Watch the video to see how the hub can help you.

Table of Contents

I am excited to provide this Report on Research that showcases the truly revolutionary research and scholarly activity being conducted by UMass Amherst students, faculty, staff, and partners.

Our campus continues its rise as a top public research university, recently reaching number 24 among the 146 public institutions ranked in the Best Colleges 2020 guide published by U.S. News & World Report. Our strong research enterprise is an important ingredient in this success. In Fiscal Year 2019, we received more than 1,100 sponsored research awards, totaling over $195 million, an increase of 21% from last year and a new all-time high for the campus.

Our campus strategic plan calls for continued focus on establishing UMass Amherst as a partner of choice in advancing and applying knowledge and innovation for the betterment of society. The stories and highlights in this report are just a glimpse of how we are doing this in research where we partner with government, industry, communities, and others to enhance the commonwealth and beyond.

You can find more about our strategy by reading the campus strategic plan and updated information about research at Research Next.

Thank you for your interest and support, and Go UMass!

Sincerely,
Michael F. Malone ’79PhD
Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement,
Ronnie and Eugene Isenberg Distinguished Professor of Engineering

Mapping the Brain
Psychological and brain scientists use revolutionary approaches to illuminate human behavior

Computing for the Common Good
Computer scientists create technology to do good in the world

Safeguarding Democracy
UMass Poll's innovative methods increase voter independence

Black Hole Horizon
UMass Amherst helps reveal first-ever black hole image

Beyond Batteries
New technology is laying the groundwork for a revolution in wireless wearables

Hear Our Stories
Narrative intervention helps disenfranchised families find their voice

Clean. Safe. Water.
UMass Amherst start-up brings revolutionary water technology to market

UMass Amherst scientists use revolutionary approaches to illuminate human behavior
Small child wears a brain monitoring cap while she looks at a screen monitor.

How do electronic signals in the brain translate to experiences? It’s the “hard question of consciousness.” What happens in our brain when we make the choices we do? Scientists at UMass Amherst are working to solve pieces of the puzzle, funded in part through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a pioneering national program that aims to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.

Paul Katz

“The goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to really understand the parts of the brain at the cellular level,” says Paul Katz, professor and director of neuroscience. To that end, Katz and his team of colleagues at research centers from Harvard to San Diego are working to create a wiring diagram of an entire
brain—albeit that of a sea slug, which contains 4,000 neurons, compared to a human’s 100 billion. Using techniques including electron microscopy and dyes that alter the absorption of light, the researchers can see individual connections between neurons, enabling them to build an atlas of the brain, with a map and annotations citing which genes are expressed. Unlike current brain mapping, which can define neurons but can’t distinguish behavior, says Katz, “We’ll be able to look at the whole brain and see how neural activity gets translated into how the animal makes choices.”

Kirby Deater-Deckard

“The research has potential application in motion sensing, such as in self-driving cars, and eventually,” Katz hopes, “will better our understanding of how our own brains process information and make decisions.” It’s also critical to the work of other UMass Amherst researchers such as Kirby Deater-Deckard, professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Healthy Development Initiative, a Springfield-based research lab that collaborates with the community to study the spectrum of developmental norms and challenges across the lifespan.

“Everything we’re doing is deeply informed by the science of neural circuits,” says Deater-Deckard. His efforts to understand the circuitry connected with learning and behavioral disorders in children are being enhanced through a groundbreaking imaging tool called fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy), a relatively non-invasive, low-cost method of directly and indirectly monitoring brain activity. “This leading edge technology allows us to directly image the activity of groups of cells and to reach a much larger and more representative group of participants,” he says.

Adam Grabel

Because fNIRS is both flexible and portable, it can be used on young children and others unable to tolerate technologies that require participants to stay motionless for long periods of time, such as an MRI. That gives researchers improved access to patients with disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and enables researchers to study adolescents when they’re interactive and making decisions—while driving a car or texting their friends, for example. “Through fNIRS we can study mental illness at very early manifestations,” says professor of psychological and brain sciences Adam Grabell, who directs the campus’s Self-Regulation, Emotions, & Early Development (SEED) Laboratory and is leading the use of fNIRS technology at the university. “We can learn how emotion regulation works mechanistically, which could inform therapeutic practices down the road.”

Grabell’s work has revealed that the relationship between activity in young children’s pre-frontal cortex and their level of irritability isn’t linear as might be expected, but more complex. “The field used to think of mental illness as very categorical—you have it or you don’t,” explains Grabell. “This gives us more information about the full normal to abnormal spectrum. In time this could help us determine a brain-based rationale for clinical decisions.”

While fNIRS technology is still “kind of the Wild West,” says Grabell, he expects it to continue to explode in popularity as the field establishes itself. To that point, he and Deater-Deckard were recently awarded a multi-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Developmental Sciences program to use fNIRS to study how nervous system coordination between brain and heart activity regulates thoughts, emotions and behaviors during early childhood (3 to 5 years old)—a period of rapid development. They will collaborate with preschools throughout the Pioneer Valley to provide hands-on experiences with students and school personnel. They expect the findings will be informative for early childhood educators and policymakers.

healthydevelopment.org

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Computer scientists create technology to do good in the world
Picture of a large circle of people working as seen from above.

In 2017, when Professor Laura Haas was recruited to lead the campus’s newly created College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), she knew she wanted to distinguish the college in some way. “I wanted us to have a sense of who we were,” says Haas. CICS already had a highly collaborative faculty, with some of the brightest minds in computer networks, systems, artificial intelligence, and data science; Haas sought to take that collaborative spirit further and to apply CICS research and educational strengths in a way that would align their efforts for a greater good.

After a year of brainstorming with faculty and staff, the Computing for the Common Good initiative, or C4CG, was born. “C4CG is about integrating values into your work, research, and education. That’s the heart of it,” says Haas. “We spent a year talking about who we are and what we want to do and what our aspirations are. This whole notion of working ‘for the common good’ emerged from these discussions. It’s about education and research, the two pillars of any college that are going to make lives better not only for the citizens of Massachusetts, but also for the world.”

Haas says there are three prongs to C4CG: education; research to improve computer technology, making it better and safer for all; and research to apply that technology or technologies in general to do some good in the world.

UMass Amherst faculty underscore the importance of research, teaching,

and the application of computing for the common good. From left:

Gerome Miklau, Alexandra Meliou, Dean Laura Haas, Yuriy Brun.

What distinguishes the campus’s C4CG, says Haas, is the three-pronged approach to using technology for good. “You will find a lot of places that are working on the third prong, and that’s wonderful. There are now also quite a few places, though fewer, that are starting to worry about ethics and how we educate our students. And there are a very few that are thinking about preparing technology to be better, making systems better. There’s been a little more of that in the last year or so. I like to say we can take some credit as trendsetters there,” says Haas.

As she elucidates the prongs, Haas talks about education—giving students skills to be the upright citizens they need to be, as well as good computer scientists. She talks about ethics, not as a concept out there, but as a factor that will impact students in their careers, as they confront tough ethical situations and decision-making.

“Today, students have a couple of optional seminars they can take, one of which brings in industry people to talk about real-world problems,” says Haas. “Another is more reading based. What we want to do going forward, and what we have a group of faculty working on at present is an Ethics Simulation Game.” Think of it as online training. The idea is to use role-playing simulation technologies to grab students’ interests and then challenge them with real-world scenarios, the sorts of things that they might find when they take their first job or that they might come across in the application of technology, says Haas. “A lot of what we are trying to do is to help students see the ethical implications of their technical work, and to empower students to say ‘no’ to something that doesn’t seem right or to go and ask other people for help. Even if they have the best hearts in the world, they may be terrified to question something their boss is doing,” says Haas. Though still a work in progress, Haas expects to see a demo of the software in the fall and she’s already been approached by other schools who are interested in it.

C4CG’s second thrust—improving computing technology, where systems can improve safety, ensure privacy and security, and have some notion of fairness—has the capability to flag issues that might come up in technology development. “Tall order, but really cool. This includes basic systems research that tries to make things more robust,” says Haas. She rattles off a number of projects, including one in robotics focused on autonomous vehicle safety. “How do you ensure vehicles avoid situations that could harm someone? Those sorts of changes in computer technology will make systems better,” says Haas.

"Computing for the Common Good is about

integrating values into your work, research,

and education. That's the heart of it."

–Laura Haas

Haas is also a big fan of the privacy, security, and fairness work being conducted by several groups in the college as she believes “it will have an impact on every single one of us.” CICS faculty members have formed a research initiative around these concepts called EQUATE (Equity, Accountability, Trust, and Explainability). Faculty who are engaged in research and education related to equitable algorithms and systems form the core of EQUATE. Educational efforts include the aforementioned coursework in ethics, and algorithm design that respects the values of fairness and transparency. Research efforts explore EQUATE topics within software systems and programming languages, machine learning, and vision, theory, and data management systems.

As an example, Haas talks about growing concerns regarding using algorithms for decision-making. EQUATE faculty Alexandra Meliou and Yuriy Brun study how software systems can exhibit bias and how software engineers can develop fairer, more equitable systems. They recently received a four-year, $1.05 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support their research.

“Software makes decisions about what products we are led to buy, who gets a loan, self-driving car actions that may lead to property damage or human injury, medical diagnoses and treatment, and every stage of the criminal justice system including arraignment and sentencing that determine who goes to jail and who is set free,” says Meliou. “And yet, examples of discrimination have shown up in many software applications, including advertising, hotel bookings, facial recognition, and image search,” she adds

Brun says they plan to create a theoretical foundation of software fairness, including defining a suite of fairness metrics that can be used to describe desired properties of software. “We also plan to create algorithms for testing and verifying the software fairness, for identifying bias causes, and for debugging discrimination bugs,” says Brun.

Watch this video to learn more.


A project that addresses all components of EQUATE, says Haas, is work conducted by privacy technologist Gerome Miklau for the 2020 Census. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Miklau has been working with the U.S. Census Bureau to develop technology that will better protect the privacy of citizens answering the census while still providing public access to aggregate census data important to federal, state and local decision-making.

“U.S. citizens are required to respond to the census and the Census Bureau is mandated by law to protect that data while at the same time making certain public releases,” says Miklau.

Recently, the Census Bureau decided that the current methods that they have been using to protect privacy may not be sufficient, says Miklau. “The Census Bureau actually attacked its own disclosure limitation methods and they found some vulnerabilities.”

Miklau and other scientists have been working with Census Bureau staff to develop new tools that will help boost privacy while ensuring access to aggregate census data. He and others are working on new methods of disclosure limitation using a model called “differential privacy.” Though the model was invented in 2006, Miklau says it has rarely found major practical applications, until very recently.

One advantage of differential privacy is the way the algorithms work, says Miklau. “The guarantee of privacy does not rely on keeping the algorithms themselves secret. It might seem like a subtle thing but that has a lot of implications for security and transparency” says Miklau. Another strength of differential privacy, he says, is the ability to accurately analyze the consequences of two subsequent data disclosures. “One of the real limitations of the past techniques is although you believe that each release is private by itself, what happens if somebody can put them together? You can’t always control what people will do with the data you are going to release so it’s really important to analyze what we call “composition” or subsequent, sequential releases. Many of the well-known privacy breaches that have made news result from these types of combinations of data,” says Miklau.

Ultimately, the Census Bureau has to decide how to trade off between two social goods: personal privacy and accurate statistics about the U.S. population. “There is an inherent tension between those two things and, as a society, we simply cannot have as much as we want of both of them,” says Miklau. “The use of our algorithms, and differentially private methods generally, will allow census directors to make better-informed decisions about this tradeoff.”

Master's candidate Jane Tangen '18 received a

CyberCorps Scholarship for Service award funded by

the National Science Foundation. "CyberCorps SFS

has given me the financial and academic resources

to work in jobs that make a difference."

The third thrust completes the C4CG picture—deploying computing technology for good. Again, Haas quickly rattles off a list of projects, each intriguing. There’s the machine vision project that analyzes radar images to better understand bird migration routes so that zoning decisions can be made with wildlife safety in mind. Another group of faculty are creating new devices that can be used to help people break bad habits—really bad habits—like addiction to drugs, or smoking, or obesity caused by lack of self-control.

There’s a service aspect to it, too, notes Haas. The campus participates in CyberCorpsTM Scholarship for Service funded by the National Science Foundation. The program supports undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in cybersecurity with a full scholarship with internship opportunities under the condition that they work for a federal agency for an equivalent number of years after graduation. “It’s very popular with the students and the faculty who administer the program because it’s a real opportunity to do something good for your country. Some students stay with a government agency and others will take those skills and work in private industry. We can’t produce students fast enough in the cybersecurity space,” says Haas.

“People talk about the new industrial revolution. We are in another wave of great change. Yes, there will be losers and winners but we have better tools for thinking about what’s happening or going to happen than we did and maybe we can get ahead of things like policy decisions,” says Haas. “This is our revolutionary idea for the next decade. I think we have a unique perspective in CICS. This came from our core, and I think we are going to change the world through this.”

C4CG

College of Information and Computer Sciences

EQUATE

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UMass Poll's innovative methods increase voter independence
Picture of a word cloud created from political poll data.

Outside of elections, polls are one of the surest ways for voters to get the attention of their elected officials and have their voices heard. But in an age of increasing partisanship, how do pollsters assure the public that their results are unbiased, representative, and accurate?

UMass Poll is tackling this problem through cutting-edge interactive techniques that let voters respond in more meaningful ways—and it’s becoming the region’s leading polling organization in the process.

Tatishe Nteta

“In a political system that often rewards the activities of the small number of people who have the time, inclination, and means to engage in politics, polls give citizens agency and influence over their elected officials,” says UMass Poll’s director, political science professor Tatishe M. Nteta. To reach more of a previously underrepresented population, UMass Poll has shifted almost entirely from phone-based to online polling and invented new ways to expand engagement.

“One issue with polling is it’s somewhat top down,” says Nteta. “Traditionally, pollsters determine the universe of responses people can give.” UMass Poll empowers people in a number of ways, including allowing them to formulate their own responses. “Instead of saying ‘what do you think of X, here are the answers,’ we ask respondents to enter one word that they think best characterizes each candidate.” The results are consolidated into a Word Cloud, a visually striking image that distinguishes UMass Poll from its peers and has attracted media attention, says Nteta.

Keeping voters engaged is vital in the run-up to the 2020 primaries and election, in which New England, home to a number of Democratic candidates, plays a key role. According to Nteta, UMass Poll is poised to become the go-to pollster in New England, based not only on innovation and reach but on transparency and trust. “We are first and foremost professors, not paid pollsters,” he says. “We are not concerned with our profit margin, but in providing an accurate snapshot of the attitudes, beliefs, and vote intentions of the residents of Massachusetts and New England to better understand the future direction of the state, region, and the nation.”

UMass Poll: polsci.umass.edu/research/umass-poll

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UMass Amherst helps reveal first-ever black hole image
Picture of the glowing, orange "event horizon" of a black hole.

An international team of astronomers including Gopal Narayanan and Peter Schloerb from UMass Amherst announced to the world last spring that they had observed the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive
black hole.

The image here reveals the black hole outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon. It is situated at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the Virgo cluster, 55 million light-years from Earth. “We’re seeing the unseeable,” says National Science Foundation director France Córdova.

Gopal Narayanan (left) and Peter Schloerb

are members of an international team

who have received the 2020 Breakthrough Prize

in Fundamental Physics for helping to reveal

the first-ever image of a black hole. 

Eight ground-based radio telescopes from around the world were used to collect the data. They formed the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), of which the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano (LMT) is a node. The LMT, located at the top of a 15,000-foot extinct volcano in the Mexican State of Puebla, is a collaboration of the Instituto Nacional de Astrofisics Óptica y Electronica (INAOE) and UMass Amherst. Schloerb is principal investigator of the LMT project for UMass.

Narayanan, principal investigator for UMass Amherst’s EHT mission, helped built two radio astronomy receivers used to collect EHT data at the LMT site. Because of its large aperture and central geographical location atop the summit of Volcan Sierra Negra, the LMT has been critical to the success of the EHT array, said Narayanan.

Narayanan points out that one of the exciting areas of modern astrophysics is the notion that in and around the singularity of space-time of black holes, the macroscopic world collides with the microscopic world. For example, physicist Stephen Hawking has conjectured that black holes are ideal laboratories where the concepts of quantum mechanics and general relativity can be melded into a grand unified theory of fundamental concepts.

“The place to study that is at the event horizon of a black hole. By detecting this one, we get to the point where we can test some of these theories and start to identify the fundamental laws that order the universe,” said Narayanan.

The EHT team was recently awarded the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for this groundbreaking work. The Prize recognizes individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge.

Other UMass Amherst team members receiving the prize with Narayanan and Schloerb are Professor Neal Erickson, astronomy graduate students Aleks Popstefanija and Sandra Bustamante, and engineers Vern Fath, Ron Grosslein and Kamal Souccar '95MS.

astro.umass.edu

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Narrative intervention helps disenfranchised families find their voice

What constitutes an “acceptable” family? When it comes to teen parents, society’s negative assumptions—often based on racist, classist, and sexist sentiment—can be an obstacle to improving the lives of young families. “In our society we’re not supposed to say anything good about teen motherhood. It’s a taboo topic,” says anthropology professor Betsy Krause. “Young parents are constantly subjected to stigma and shame. Their lived experiences are in a world of exacerbated inequality.”

As an antidote to the marginalization experienced by many teen parents, Krause has teamed with health promotion and policy professor Aline Gubrium to develop and direct Hear Our Stories, a project that invites young Latina parents in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to share their experiences and create short digital films that paint a more realistic and well-rounded picture of their lives. The films focus on experiences ranging from fighting false accusations of abuse to the excitement of welcoming a new sibling. It’s what Gubrium calls a “dignity-based approach,” and it’s at the forefront of a movement to counter the bias and shame surrounding teen pregnancy.

A group of  young women stands behind a large picture window.

"Young parents are constantly subjected to stigma

and shame. Their lived experiences are in a world of

exacerbated inequality."

—Betsy Krause

“The ways that teen pregnancy and parenting is talked about is very different from the lived experience,” says Gubrium. “Being a young parent is sometimes a motivator rather than a detractor.” Using the technique of narrative intervention, the teens work together to find their voices and reframe their life stories, gaining self-esteem, support, hope, and a sense of purpose in the process.

"It’s what Krause and Gubrium refer to as “narrative shock” in their most recent major publication, an article titled “‘Scribble Scrabble’: Migration, Young Parenting Latinas, and Digital Storytelling as Narrative Shock” in the June 2019 issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Medical Anthropology. As the authors explain, the disparities experienced by young parents are exacerbated by the sometimes constant migration and movement that make up a large part of their lives.

That’s one reason the program also includes a policy component focusing on areas where young mothers often face discrimination, such as access to housing and schooling, as well as a strategic communication aspect. “People think we’re trying to promote teen pregnancy,” explains Krause. “Things get put so quickly into a binary. We’re trying to create a third way—to figure out how to humanize young parents and recalibrate the narrative.”

That work is being done in part through public forums where participants show their films and answer questions—some of which are surprisingly judgmental, says Gubrium. But the young parents are prepared, often telling stories they’ve never told before. “They were able to call people out on statements that were blithely cast, saying ‘That isn’t my experience.’”

“As they become observers of their own lives, they gain confidence,” says Krause. "They go from an object of stigma to realizing they have voices."

umass.edu/hearourstories

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New technology is laying the goundwork for a revolution in wireless wearables
Close-up of a hand holding a microchip

Smartwatches were big breakthroughs when they hit the market in the early 2000s. Even nascent versions got consumers excited with their ability to play games and access newsfeeds. Two decades later, that Fitbit or Apple Watch on your wrist can actually collect, store, and transmit data. Wearable devices like these have amazing capacity within their tiny computers. But they have capacity limits, too. The culprit? The very thing that powers them—batteries.

Enter UMass Amherst researchers Sunghoon (Ivan) Lee, assistant professor of computer science, and Yeonsik Noh, assistant professor of nursing and electrical and computer engineering. Inspired by research on stroke survivors that relied on bulky, battery-powered sensors, Lee’s vision is to invent devices that not only operate without batteries but take the concept of battery-less wearables one step further. In his mind’s eye, the next generation of wearables will transfer power between wireless sensors using a far more efficient conductor—human skin.

“There’s been a lot of work with wireless power transfer,” said Lee, “but we’re the first to look at utilizing a person’s skin. We’re the first out with this type of research.”

Lee and Noh’s work is groundbreaking not just for its technological implications, but for the possibilities it opens up for personalized health monitoring. Their interdisciplinary approach is key to developing wearables that consider human factors in technology development.

From left: Assistant Professor Sunghoon Ivan Lee,

Master's candidate Bhushan Parab and

Senior Research Fellow Jeremy Gummeson.

Collaborating with fellow computer scientists Rui Wang and Jeremy Gummeson ’06, ’11MS, ’14PhD, the researchers conduct their work at the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) Center for Personalized Health Monitoring (CPHM). The project revolves around a novel concept of wirelessly transferring current through human skin to power battery-less wearable sensors. The self-powered sensors can be ultra-miniaturized and ergonomically designed for placement on small areas of the body, like a finger, an ear or even a tooth.

“We’re working on a process that shrinks the size of devices so they can be placed on small parts of the body,” Lee said. “And because you don’t have to change batteries, there’s a variety of ways in which wearable sensors can be improved and expanded.”

It’s a technological innovation unreachable with conventional in-device batteries. Which is why Lee and Noh believe their research can lay the groundwork to transform existing architectures and spawn a new generation of on-body sensors.

It’s the framework, in other words, for all sorts of applications—and one with the potential to revolutionize personalized health monitoring. The campus recently recognized that potential, awarding Lee and Noh a $40,000 grant supported by the Armstrong Fund for Science to advance the development of their research. Benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data available for the principals to apply to standard funding channels.

In making the award, Michael F. Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement, told Lee and Noh, “The selection committee viewed it very positively that you are bringing together an interdisciplinary team with significant expertise in wearable computing research to overcome a significant barrier to developing a new class of battery-less wearable devices.”

Over the next two years, the team will continue their inquiry process, asking and seeking answers to questions like whether one transmitter can support multiple sensors—and, if so, what are the constraints. So far, they’ve relied on Bluetooth to collect and transfer data. In the future, they hope to do it directly through the skin.

Lee and Noh’s project is one of many in the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring with potential to change the way health monitoring is done. The revolution in battery-less wearables for personalized health monitoring is happening, and UMass Amherst is leading the charge. Watch this space.

Institute for Applied Life Sciences: umass.edu/IALS

Center for Personalized Health Monitoring: umass.edu/cphm

Photos: Zinj Guo

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UMass Amherst start-up brings revolutionary water technology to market
picture of clean water being poured into a glass

Early on in her academic career, as an undergraduate studying environmental policy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, UMass Amherst doctoral candidate Julie Bliss Mullen was interested in water. She landed an internship at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) drinking water unit doing work that focused on both the policy and engineering aspects of water quality. But it was a life-changing trip to Guatemala with Engineers Without Borders that put her on the path to developing a revolutionary “plug-and-play” water purification system that is changing the way water treatment is done. Sparked by witnessing firsthand the negative effects on people and communities that arise from a lack of access to clean drinking water, Mullen was determined to make a difference in people’s lives by finding a way to get clean water to more people. “I really started to understand what it was like to not have access to clean water, or access to water at all, and that was a pivotal point for me where I decided I really wanted to focus on water treatment technologies,” says Mullen.

UMass Amherst alumnus Julie Bliss Mullen holds an early prototype of her revolutionary water purifiction ystem.

"I really started to understand what it was like to

not have access to clean water and that was a

pivotal point for me."

— Julie Bliss Mullen, Co-Founder and CEO, Aclarity

That pivotal point was one of many that led to Mullen’s start-up company years later, Aclarity, LLC, and its core patent-pending electrochemical water treatment technology. Based upon Mullen’s graduate research conducted with her advisor, Professor David Reckhow in UMass Amherst’s Water Innovation Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS) laboratory, Mullen’s novel electrochemical advanced oxidation process (EAOP) purifies water with electricity, a sustainable and efficient approach for water treatment.

“Instead of concentrating contaminants in a filter or brine, we chemically destroy those contaminants so that they don’t end up back into the water cycle,” says Mullen.

Mullen got the idea for her sustainable system when she was in charge of looking at new and innovative technologies that companies would bring to Reckhow’s lab.

“It was my job to work with companies and evaluate their technologies and then send them a report explaining their performance. Through that opportunity I was able to work with some unique and completely different water treatment technologies,” says Mullen.

As Mullen tested her technology, she knew she had something significant to offer the water treatment world. With Reckhow’s help, she explored commercialization opportunities, eventually filing a patent application through the campus’s Technology Transfer Office. She also took a series of entrepreneurship courses offered through the UMass Amherst Isenberg School of Management and its affiliated Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship to learn the business side of taking a technology to market. She enrolled in a customer discovery course in early 2017, which helped her figure out what potential customers care about and what they would want when it came to water purification and quality. The class opened Mullen up to the business and entrepreneurship world, and was a stepping stone for launching her startup.

“It would help me to figure out if this technology I’m developing is really going to solve problems or is it just something that I think is really cool but maybe no one is willing to buy or no one really wants. Taking that class, I was able to identify who potential customers might be and start to understand the broader landscape of what it would take to bring the technology to market. I really understand what that supply chain looks like now and how I can integrate into that supply chain, and how to build a product that people want,” says Mullen.

Mullen also met her business partner, Barrett Mully ’18 MBA, in the Isenberg classes. They took first place in the campus’s 2017 Berthiaume Center Innovation Challenge, receiving $26,000 in seed funding to further their concept. “It was a big validator for us to continue,” Mullen says. Since forming their alliance, they’ve successfully pitched their product to innovation audiences, acquiring over a million dollars of funding to further develop their products and to launch their business.

Picture of Aclarity's whole house water purification device

Aclarity's whole-house purification system

In 2018, Reckhow and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy brought a prototype of Mullen’s technology with them to India where they met with government officials and local decision makers to demonstrate the technology and to showcase research taking place at UMass.

“Water is a big issue in India and it’s actually something that we’ve started to get into. The chancellor wanted to show the power of the technology and the potential impact that it could have in the Indian market,” says Mullen. “One of the best things about this technology is that it works at small scale, with very little power, like a municipal treatment plant you can fit into a backpack.”

Aclarity currently has pilot projects around the world. Mullen says that for their pilot in Mali, Africa, they are working with a water kiosk company to treat water using Aclarity’s innovative system. The purified water is then sold to members of the community and distributed to stores.

“The initial pilots that we have are really to show that we can treat water anywhere for anybody and we’re really excited to make a difference,” says Mullen. Aclarity’s vision is to be the most impactful water company by delivering sustainable, cost effective, and superior water treatment solutions to the world.

The company is also looking at larger applications in industrial wastewater, which is an issue for industries such as agriculture, power, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverage. “The other advantage of what we’re doing is its breadth,” says Mullen. “We destroy contaminants rather than concentrating them into a brine for disposal, and even broaden the idea of water treatment to chemicals like PFAS which are currently thought of as being around forever. This is a greener approach, and is core to our mission.”

These are large ambitions, and Mullen is realistic about how difficult it will be to balance them with the limited resources of a start-up. “We try to be clear with customers exactly what the current device will do for them today, as opposed to what we can make it do in the future. This requires focus,” says Mullen. “We have to run today’s business, shipping devices to solve real problems for our customers, while back in the lab we’re pushing the boundaries of what we can accomplish. It’s exhilarating and revolutionary, but also very real.”

Check out how the University helped Aclarity get off the ground.


aclaritywater.com

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Picture of researchers working on solar technology in front of a large solar grid

The Technology Transfer Office moves technologies from lab to commercially viable products, processes, and services. It licenses campus technology to corporate partners and supports the development of new businesses derived from UMass Amherst technology.

2019 Technology Transfer By The Numbers

  • 73 Invention disclosures
  • 26 New patent applications filed
  • 26 Patents issued
  • 8 License and option agreements executed
  • 4 Start-ups formed
  • $739,8749 Total revenue

Technology Start-ups

Aclarity Provides Clean, Safe Water Globally

Aclarity, LLC (formerly ElectroPure) is a water purification start-up founded by graduate student Julie Bliss Mullen and Isenberg alumnus Barrett Mully (See story). Its core patent-pending electrochemical technology, based upon Mullen’s research conducted in her advisor Professor David Reckhow’s laboratory, removes pathogens, metals, and other impurities from water. Aclarity is currently focusing on the residential and commercial markets to produce a cost effective, low maintenance, and comprehensive home treatment solution to ensure safe, clean, and reliable drinking water. However, the core technology is scalable and the company is actively looking into other market segments.

This year the TTO signed a patent license agreement with Aclarity, giving them the exclusive right under UMass patents to make and sell electronic water purification devices.

TetraMem Creates Computers that Accelerate Edge Computing

TetraMem, Inc., co-founded by Professors Joshua Yang and Qiangfei Xia and an industry-experienced CEO, is creating the next generation of computing devices for burgeoning AI and IoT applications through memristors. Memristors physically change based on past current flow, conferring two key advantages over traditional transistor-based computing. One, they do not need to be continuously powered to retain memory, enabling low power computing. Two, memristors can go beyond binary and have multiple levels, enabling the design of computers that can eliminate the von Neumann bottleneck for conventional computing and hence increase throughput and energy efficiency.

This year the TTO has provided TetraMem with an option to license a series of UMass patent applications on such memristor devices for computing.

Technology Transfer Office

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Total sponsored research awards reached $195.3 million in fiscal 2019.
Aerial shot of the UMass Amherst campus

By the Numbers

  • Proposals submitted: 1,417
  • Proposal dollars: $724.4 million
  • Awards: 1,135
  • Award dollars: $195.3 million
  • Annual research expenditures: $211.14 million*

* FY2017 (most current data)

Distribution of Awarded Dollars by Sponsor Category – FY19

Distribution of Awarded Dollars from Federal Agencies - FY19

Distribution of Awarded Dollars from Private Sector - FY19

*A significant portion of these awards are prime federal funds.

Access the full annual report of sponsored activities here.

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