MSU Innovation Center recognizes faculty and student inventors

EAST LANSING — Michigan State Univesrity’s Innovation Center held its annual Innovation Cenebration Thursday, highlighting ground-breaking technology from MSU labs and startup companies from across Michigan State University’s campus.

Advanced materials, the internet of things, and new therapies for fighting antibiotics-resistant bacteria and many more fascinating technologies were showcased at the event, held in the Huntington Club at Spartan Stadium, along with new startup companies.

A full list of faculty and student startup exhibitors can be found at:

The event recognized the MSU Innovator of the Year, Innovation of the Year, Corporate Connector of the Year, and an award for lifetime Technology Transfer Achievement. Commended for their perseverance and creativity at the MSU Innovation Celebration, awardees are presented with plaques and a cash prize.

“Bringing a totally new product or service to the marketplace is a long process that requires hard work, dedication and immense creativity,” said Charles Hasemann, assistant vice president for innovation and economic development at MSU, and executive director of the Innovation Center. “It is our responsibility to ensure that the innovations being created by MSU faculty and students make their way into practice in the world. The Innovation Center is here to provide resources that lower the barriers for MSU faculty and students to move their work along the path from nascent innovation to a ready-for-market product.”

The 2017 Innovation of the Year award went to Donald Morelli, chair of Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, for his work in thermoelectric technology. Morelli’s work in thermoelectric materials converts waste heat sources into electricity. While they have been studied for decades, only a few have reached commercial applications because of their low efficiency, high cost, and use of rare elements. This process is the first step in creating a low-cost, widespread technology for converting heat to electricity.

“In our search for efficient, abundant, and nontoxic thermoelectric materials, we were led to the tetrahedrites, a family of compounds of commonly occurring elements, by theoretical calculations of their properties,” Morelli said. “The fact that they are naturally occurring minerals is an added bonus. One can either synthesize them in the lab, or use the natural mineral itself as a source thermoelectric material. The compounds are especially interesting because they combine very low thermal conductivity with unusually good electronic properties.”

Morelli is a professor of materials science and served as director of the MSU/Department of Energy Frontier Research Center on Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion from 2008 until 2016.

The 2018 Innovators of the Year are Christoph Benning and John Ohlrogge, for their work in understanding how plants accumulate oil, via WRINKLED1 genetic research. Their key discovery, WRINKLED1 is the name for a ubiquitous regulator in oil-accumulating plant tissues. Many plant species accumulate vegetable oil in their seeds as a major storage component, which provides carbon and energy for seedling development. These oils are a staple in the human diet and are increasingly important as renewable feed stocks for industry.

WRINKLED1 is a key transcription factor in the regulation of plant oil synthesis in seed and non-seed tissues. Transcription factors are like switches that turn biochemical pathways on (or off) in cells. Currently, a wealth of information supports the pivotal role of WRINKLED1 (WRI1) in the regulation of plant seed oil biosynthesis. But the structural features of WRI1 important for its function are not well understood. Recent research identified ways to increase the stability of the WRI1 protein. Expressing the enhanced WRI1 in developing seeds allows the seeds to store much more vegetable oil which is why their research has been so important.

Benning is MSU Foundation professor and director of the Plant Research Laboratory at MSU. Research in the Benning laboratory focuses on lipid metabolism in photosynthetic organisms. The lab is involved in the design of novel biofuel plants with enhanced energy density in their vegetative tissues through the induction of storage oil accumulation.

Ohlrogge is professor emeritus of plant biology and University Distinguished Professor at MSU. The long term goal of the Ohlrogge lab is to understand how plants control the activity of fatty acid synthesis and lipid metabolism pathways and how their products are channeled into diverse roles and locations within or outside the plant cell.

With nearly 100 inventions disclosed, more than 400 peer-reviewed papers, 35 patents and 16 technologies licensed to industry, the 2018 MSU Technology Transfer Achievement Award went to Lawrence T. Drzal, University Distinguished Professor in chemical engineering and materials science.

Drzal in 2007 was a co-founder of the successful MSU startup, XG Sciences. He also is director of the Composite Materials and Structures Center at MSU, and was appointed cirector of the Vehicle Technical Application Area in the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. From 1991 to 1999, he was co-director of the NSF State/Industry/University Center for Low-Cost, High-Speed Polymer Composites Processing at MSU.

An educator, mentor and leader at MSU for more than 20 years, his composite materials research is primarily in adhesion and the fiber-matrix interphase in polymer matrix composite materials reinforced with carbon, glass, polymeric and bio-based fibers and in multifunctional composites in which graphene nanoplatelets, cellulose nanofibers, and other nanoparticles added to the fiber-matrix interphase. Applications for his expertise range from automotive and construction industries to fuel cells, batteries and electronics.

MSU’s Corporate Connector of the Year is David J. Closs, the John H. McConnell Chair Professor of Business Administration in the Department of Supply Chain Management. His extensive work as an active mentor, connector and member on the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals has connected countless undergraduate and graduate students to future employers, and brought MSU’s innovative research to real-world business challenges around the world.

Closs has been extensively involved in the development and application of computer models and information systems for logistics operations and planning. The computer models have included applications for location analysis, inventory management, forecasting and routing. His experience focuses on the logistics related issues in the consumer products, medical and pharmaceutical products and parts industries. Closs participates in logistics executive development seminars and has presented sessions on five continents.

The MSU Innovation Center combines innovation, technology transfer, start-up support, and a portfolio of dedicated business and community partnerships to bring cutting-edge ideas to the marketplace. Composed of Business-Connect, MSU Technologies, and Spartan Innovations, the MSU Innovation Center stewards ideas from concept to product, launching more than 160 discoveries into patented products and start-up businesses annually. Learn more at

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