University of Minnesota Duluth associate professor Alison Hoxie demonstrating spraying technology to students in her lab

CSE startups win top prizes at 2020 MN Cup

Companies leverage CSE research to impact health and the environment

University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering-led startup BlueCube Bio won the $50,000 grand prize at the 2020 MN Cup after competing against several other division winners. Another CSE company, CounterFlow Technologies, was named runner-up and received $20,000.

BlueCube Bio created the first-ever safe, non-toxic means for preserving biological cells used for cell therapy—a method that treats diseases including leukemia and melanoma.

CounterFlow Technologies invented a new type of spray nozzle that operates more efficiently. The device could ultimately lead to big energy savings and reduction of CO2 emissions in myriad industries.

Both built upon years of research done in CSE, the companies also took advantage of University of Minnesota resources including the Technology Commercialization office and the local Minnesota Innovation Corps program.

Learn about the professors and students behind both companies below.

BlueCube Bio: Making treatments safer

The idea behind BlueCube Bio began seven years ago, when University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor Allison Hubel looked out her window and wondered, “How do trees survive Minnesota winters?”

Hubel, who is also the director of the U of M’s Biopreservation Core Resource (BioCoR), and her research lab got to work. They found that trees use combinations of sugars, sugar alcohols, and amino acids to stabilize their cells during winter—and, they used this same combination of molecules to develop a new way to preserve cells used for medical therapies.

A student works under a hood in a U of M cryopreservation lab
A lab technician retrieves cryopreserved cells from liquid nitrogen storage. Photo credit: Allison Hubel

One thing in particular that excites Hubel is that BlueCube Bio is an all-women team. Karen Dodson, the startup’s CEO, has spent 26 years working for the National Marrow Donor Program. Biomedical engineering Ph.D. students Rui Li and Katie Hornberger, who both work in Hubel’s lab, serve as the directors of R&D and manufacturing, respectively.

“Women innovators are typically underrepresented in innovation,” Hubel said. “Everywhere from the patent process on forward."

"That is something that the U of M is trying to address and enhance diversity within the innovation ecosystem, including women and people of color," she said.

Current methods of cell preservation use a molecule called dimethyl sulfoxide, which is toxic to both the cells and the patients that receive them, causing side effects such as nausea, shortness of breath, and sometimes more severe heart and neurological problems.

Hubel’s method is the first in history that is non-toxic. And, it actually results in more functional cells post-preservation.

“There have not been other successful options or alternatives [to dimethyl sulfoxide], and people have been trying for 50 years now to find a replacement,” she explained. “Most of those approaches involved finding a single molecule, but that’s not how nature acts. We’re going to have to use combinations of molecules, and that’s really made all the difference in the world.”

Learn more about the researchers’ preservation technology on the BlueCube Bio website.

CounterFlow Technologies: Spraying away CO2 emissions

Spray nozzles tend to fly under the public radar. But, spraying technology is actually crucial to nearly every industry in the United States. Spray drying dairy products and pharmaceutical powders, making artificial snow, spray painting and coating, controlling weeds in agricultural fields, covering cereal with sugar, spraying disinfectant for COVID-19—the list goes on.

It’s in this field that the CounterFlow Technologies team believes they can have a real impact. The company is co-led by mechanical engineering faculty Paul Strykowski, Vinod Srinivasan, and Alison Hoxie, and industry expert Doug Parker, who spent 27 years running research labs for 3M.

“[Spraying] is exciting in that it’s everywhere,” said Strykowski, a George W. Taylor Distinguished Professor and the college’s associate dean for undergraduate programs.

“It’s unseen, but it is super important because it saves energy, and energy is everything right now,” he said.

Branching off of Strykowski and Hoxie’s previous research on ramjet engines and biofuels, the researchers took what they learned about mixing and spraying fuel to create a nozzle that uses less energy and even has the ability to spray very thick fluids.

CounterFlow Technologies new spray nozzle
CounterFlow Technologies' new spray nozzle uses water more efficiently and, therefore, less energy. If implemented across industries in the U.S., the invention could have a big impact on carbon emissions. Photo credit: Alison Hoxie

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, industry accounted for about one-third of the country’s total energy consumption in 2019. Because its spray nozzle can be applied to almost any industry, CounterFlow Technologies has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions and energy usage.

“When you look at an individual industry, it doesn’t seem like there will be a huge impact,” said Hoxie, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth who has made it her career goal to decrease fossil fuel usage in Minnesota. “But when you conglomerate that over everything, I think we really could have an impact in reducing CO2 footprint.”

The U of M team also recently received a National Science Foundation grant to further fund their research in this area.

Learn more about the spray nozzle technology on the CounterFlow Technologies website.

Story by Olivia Hultgren