OFRN projects highlight a bright future for Ohio's tech-based economy

A technology initiative led by the state-funded Ohio Federal Research Network (OFRN) is well underway, with 18 innovative projects covering a variety of high-tech industries.

As work ramps up at six university-based Centers of Excellence (COE) throughout Ohio, several of these projects are showing potential to become powerful drivers of research dollars and jobs statewide, say those directly involved with the efforts.

"The structure of the OFRN encourages new ways to collaborate for the benefit of industry, academia and our federal partners," says OFRN’s Dennis Andersh. "We see researchers actively communicating with the commercial marketplace when usually that connection isn't there. And industry is exploring ways that they can continue to engage with Ohio researchers beyond the scope of the OFRN projects. We are finding that the OFRN is a great unifier."

An early economic impact

OFRN COEs are pursing over $200 million in federal funding opportunities and, to date, have won over $42 million in new resources for Ohio projects. This new funding represents a net gain of over $17 million above the $25 million originally provided to OFRN by the state. In addition to OFRN resources and federal awards, OFRN projects are attracting industry support to move forward technologies created by researchers in Ohio academic laboratories.

Projects like the Test and Evaluation of Autonomous Systems (TEAS), led by the Center for Communications, Cyber, Positioning, Navigation and Timing (C2PNT) COE, are already showing signs of future economic impact for the Buckeye State.

A collaboration among Wright State University, Ohio University and the Air Force Institute of Technology, TEAS will create processes and software to enable improved testing of unmanned, autonomous systems utilizing global positioning and global navigation satellite systems. Over the project's two-year lifespan, TEAS will evaluate flight-test software to ensure all components are stable and cannot be hacked. The technology will be tested in environments where an unmanned aerial vehicle's (UAV) satellite-based navigation system, or GPS, has become jammed, either by natural circumstances or during a military operation.

While the tech has immediate military applications, it could also be integrated into the software of Amazon's package-delivery drones, as well as the GPS systems of driverless ground vehicles. Preliminary talks are taking place with Amazon about funding the ongoing research. Project officials are also in contact with UPS and Elon Musk's rocket manufacturer SpaceX.

"OFRN funding has unearthed this amazing work that's not going on anywhere else, and now we're pushing it into the market," says Aaron Bates, a Commercialization Executive provided by OFRN to support the project.

The TEAS project is expected to lead to a multimillion-dollar commitment from software research firm Galois, which is currently setting up an office in Dayton. The company expects to include up to 15 high-paid computer science jobs in its Ohio office.

"This is a really big deal, but nobody is talking about it because it's so new," says Bates. "Five years from now, Galois will be a very common name in Ohio. OFRN is not playing a passive role here; this is a roll-up-your-sleeves type of situation, all spun out from OFRN's work."

David Gross, chief engineer at the Wright State Research Institute and a PI on TEAS, says collaborating with Galois has been an overwhelming boon to the project.

"The company's expertise is in secure software, and that's what we're working with them on," says Gross. "There's a synergy in place, and combing our expertise is giving us opportunities to learn from each other."

No sweat

A potent collaboration is also forming at the Center for Human Performance and Health Sciences (HPHS) COE, thanks to research based in PI Jason Heikenfeld's lab at the University of Cincinnati.

In collaboration with The Ohio State University and the University of Toledo, the Advanced Cognitive and Physical Sweat Biosensing project studies wearable sweat sensors designed to provide real-time analysis of body chemistry. The non-invasive sensors, about the size of a Band-Aid, monitor sweat on the skin as soon as it emerges, analyzing electrolytes, sodium, potassium, hormone levels and other markers that show early warnings of changes in the body.

Sweat Sensor in a flexible plastic wristband : photo credit Nature

The UC lab is developing the sensors and miniaturizing the electronics to fit around the wrist, creating sensors similar to a Fitbit wearable activity tracker. Through sweat biosensors, project officials can chemically quantify both physical and cognitive performance, as well as track in real-time the effects of environmental toxin exposure.

Detailed studies of the chemical composition of sweat are being conducted at OSU, while UT is designing the sweat-detecting sensors. "We're in the research phase, but everything is up and running," says Heikenfeld.

Though still in the early stages, Heikenfeld says he expects the team's research to advance goals set out by the defense and aerospace industries around which OFRN was initially formed.

"Fatigue is a big issue for the Department of Defense," Heikenfeld says. "They want to get that measured so their armed forces can report their body measurements in real time."

Other applications for sweat biosensing include the medical and athletic spaces. Such sensors could someday monitor medication concentrations in a patient's body to ensure they are taking their prescriptions at regular intervals.

It’s the opinion of those associated with the work that the Advanced Cognitive and Physical Sweat Biosensing project is looking good with an industry partner already helping to raise funding.

This COE research also demonstrates the alignment of OFRN activity with existing Ohio high-tech efforts as the project works to leverage existing athletics licensing by Eccrine Systems, one of Ohio's fastest growing investor-backed startup companies.

Growing a successful network

The potential for successful OFRN partnerships between academic institutions has already been realized through the submission of multiple joint funding proposals and the receipt of more than $42 million in awards. Active engagement with industry through focused outreach and networking events has uncovered a growing interest in sponsored research in the OFRN industry sectors. As hoped by the founders of OFRN, the increased cooperation between participating organizations is leading to the development of new topics of mutual interest, availability of new resources and new opportunities for Ohioans.

Though already engaged with 11 Ohio universities, 52 industry partners and the Air Force Research Laboratory, Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton, National Air and Space Intelligence Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-Glenn Research Center, the OFRN continues to build its network. Members of the Ohio business and academic communities are encouraged to become a part of the movement toward increased funding, company growth and job creation for Ohio. More information about OFRN and the university Centers of Excellence is available at www.ohiofrn.org.

This series of stories about the Ohio Federal Research Network explores how the organization aligns Ohio’s colleges and universities with the needs of federal agencies to increase research funding, industry collaboration and technology commercialization for job growth and economic development.