A team led by a USF Engineering professor and alum is awarded one of Florida’s top awards for innovation.
TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 1, 2021) – New technology created by a USF College of Engineering team to precisely measure blood flow in the body’s tissues — allowing for more accurate medical assessments of strokes, brain injuries and a wide range of diseases — has won the Cade Prize for Innovation, one of the Florida’s top awards for invention.
The team lead by USF Assistant Professor Ashwin Parthasarathy and alum Karthik Sriram was selected from a field of 21 finalists at a ceremony at Gainesville’s Cade Museum for Creativity and Innovation Thursday evening. The wearable and non-invasive optical tool is the basis for the team’s startup company, SPKL, LLC.
“It’s a great boost for us,” Parthasarathy said. “This is an idea we have had for a while and to have it recognized after years of work is incredible — and for me, the best thing is to be able to share it with my students. We have a long way to go, and we have a lot of work ahead of us, but this gives us the confidence to go forward.”
The USF invention stood out among innovations from across Florida, Alabama and Georgia to capture the $34,000 first prize. Named in honor of Gatorade inventor Robert Cade, the prize celebrates innovation by identifying, recognizing and celebrating inventors and entrepreneurs in the Southeast who demonstrate a creative approach to addressing problems.
The award adds to the extraordinary partnership of Parthasarathy and Sriram who were childhood friends in Chennai, India, and then lost touch with each other for decades only to reconnect years later and realize their combined talents could take the invention from lab to market. By happy coincidence, the two also share a connection to USF’s College of Engineering.
Sriram earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at USF in 2007. Parthasarathy joined USF’s engineering faculty in 2016 and leads the Translational Optics Imaging & Spectroscopy (TROPICS) Lab in the Department of Electrical Engineering, which is focused on the development and application of novel optical/opto-electronic instrumentation for the diagnosis, monitoring and characterization of diseases. The research and development team is rounded out by electrical engineering PhD students Arindam Biswas, Abdul Mohaimen Safi and Sadhu Moka.
SPKL was founded on the premise that optical technologies can be developed into noninvasive tools that quantitatively measure tissue function or physiology, helping doctors and surgeons make better decisions at the patient’s bedside. The new device is based on how light interacts with the motion of red blood cells, which allows for the direct measurement of the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to tissues, the team said.
The technology has potential applications for treating strokes, traumatic brain injuries, cancer, wounds and peripheral vascular disorders.
Currently, only a few technologies offer healthcare providers limited capability to quantitatively measure blood flow at the bedside. Magnetic Resonance Imagers (MRIs) can measure blood flow, but they are not portable, are very expensive for hospitals to obtain and operate, and can’t be used on all patients.
Prototype versions of the invention are currently undergoing bench testing in the TROPICS lab. Results demonstrating the feasibility of the invention have been presented at scientific conferences, such as the Optical Society of America and the Society of Optical Engineers, where it won best presentation awards. The research team has journal articles on their project currently undergoing peer-review.
Sriram, who now lives in New Jersey, has been a development and management executive with life sciences and biotechnology companies since earning his MBA from The Wharton School in 2019. During his graduate school years at USF, he also was a business development and intellectual property management intern at USF Research & Innovation’s Technology Transfer Office — the division of USF Research & Innovation where faculty patents and startups get are put into motion — making it yet another way his involvement in developing a USF invention into a startup has come full circle.
“Now we have to take it to the next level where you are talking to investors and other people who are interested in seed companies,” Sriram said. “Now the real fun starts.”
The team has been developing the patent-pending technology since 2019 and in early 2020 participated in USF’s I-Corps boot camp, a National Science Foundation-funded program that teaches faculty and students how to begin the process of taking an idea from the lab to market. Working with business mentors from the USF faculty, I-Corps teams learn how to identify potential customers, adapt their inventions to address real-world problems, and begin identifying potential funding sources and investors to support the project in its development.
David Conrad, director of USF Research & Innovation’s Technology Transfer Office, said the Cade Prize is especially meaningful in that the team is composed of a USF faculty member, students and an alum — all of whom reflect the USF community’s deep culture of innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.
“The Cade Prize is an incredible recognition of this technology’s potential for creating a better way to treat many diseases and injuries,” Conrad said. “Almost every family can relate to the experience of being at their loved one’s bedside and not knowing the full extent of an injury or whether a treatment is working precisely to save or restore damaged tissue.
“This team is doing exactly what good inventors do: They have recognized a dire need for better technology to solve a global problem; applied the entirety of their technological skills and creative thinking to solve it; and are creating a device that is inexpensive and small so that every hospital and clinic might have one.”