Research that crosses a multitude of disciplines and connects the University with private industry is crucial for North Carolina’s economic development.

A recent event, “A Celebration of Game-Changing Science,” highlighted three separate initiatives of UNC researchers working with the private sector to solve challenges facing different technology industries.

The UNC Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI) supports UNC research in six areas: coastal and marine science; data science; pharmacoengineering; defense, military and security; energy; and advanced manufacturing. Researchers from the UNC system gave 12-minute, TED Talks-style presentations about how their research is affecting key issues facing industries in North Carolina and beyond. The event was moderated by Ginger Rothrock, director of emerging technologies for RTI International.

Brett Froelich: Ensuring Safe Seafood

Brett Froelich, a research assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, discussed one of the key challenges facing the state’s commercial fishing and seafood industry: how to detect harmful bacteria in seafood such as oysters.

Froelich noted that North Carolina has been called the “Napa Valley of oysters,” making the delicacy an attractive and lucrative industry for the state. But oysters live in water filled with bacteria, which is pumped into the mollusk through its gills. This can be particularly dangerous when a person with a medical condition – such as cancer, diabetes or HIV – ingests the bacteria, which can cause serious medical issues and even death.

Froelich’s research, in collaboration with lead principal investigator Rachel Noble and other investigators at UNC Charlotte and the Marine BioTechnologies Center of Innovation (MBCOI), is geared toward discovering when the seafood is more likely to be exposed to bacteria as well as identifying genetically which bacteria pose a significant threat to humans. Noble, Froelich, and their team team are working on tests to identify accurately which bacteria cause the most damage. The idea is to come up with a “fingerprint” for such bacteria, then develop a fast, accurate test to ensure it’s not present in someone’s food.

Franky So: Developing Carbon Electronics

Franky So, who worked for Motorola before turning to academic research, is a researcher at North Carolina State University’s Material Science and Engineering Department. He is currently part of a team led by Professor Harald Ade of NC State that also includes members from UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University. The team is designing new materials for electronics that are organic, meaning they made from carbon-based rather than silicon-based compounds.

For example, the production of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, involve heating materials at 1,000 degrees Celsius on sapphire, an expensive process. By using organic materials, So explained, LEDs could be made more easily on materials such as glass or plastic, a much less expensive means of production.

Already, there are products such as organic LED televisions and Apple watches on the market that use this process, leading to very thin products that ultimately will be cheaper to produce. He noted that organic solar panels are quickly replacing traditional panels, because they are much lighter and therefore cause less stress to a roof when they are mounted.

Ade, So, and their teams are seeking to create a variety of products using this technology, including flexible smart phones, electronic paper, lighting, and health products. By leading the research in this growing field, Ade and So anticipate that this work can have enormous potential for positively impacting North Carolina’s economy.

Mirsad Hadzikadic: Building Big Data

Mirsad Hadzikadic, professor of software and information systems at UNC Charlotte, leads the North Carolina Data Science and Analytics Initiative, a partnership among UNC Charlotte, North Carolina State University, and RENCI, the Renaissance Computing Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. Together, these campuses want to make North Carolina a leader in data science and analytics.

As the world continues to generate more pieces of data from financial transactions, consumer products such as fitness trackers, social media, and other data-generating activities, the ability to analyze data for universities, governments, and the private sector becomes more important, Hadzikadic said.

Hadzikadic told the audience that Big Data involves the four Vs: volume, or the scale of the data; velocity, or the speed of the analysis of data; variety, or the different forms of data; and veracity, or the degree of certainty of data accuracy. Poor data cost the US economy $3.1 trillion in 2015.

Hadzikadic’s project sets up an infrastructure to allow institutions to see what other relevant data has been collected about a specific subject in a safe, controlled, and well-regulated way. This could provide a big boost to research efforts; for example, scientific data could be merged with social media data to arrive at new conclusions that would not have been accessible without the help of data analytics. The ability to access the appropriate infrastructure is allowing Hadzikadic and his team to contribute to addressing emerging challenges such as the spread of the Zika Virus.

Big impact

Leslie Boney, Vice President of International, Community and Economic Engagement at UNC, said UNC ROI’s work is a “demonstration of the extent to which University research is connected with the state.”

UNC system research and development efforts brought in a record-setting $1.36 billion in 2014-2015. According to Boney, “The ROI program is a tangible manifestation of the real expertise we have on our campuses, which is deeply connected to the future of the state.”

North Carolina industries are learning the value of collaboration with UNC’s 16 university campuses. The partnership is symbiotic: businesses receive access to the knowledge and expertise of UNC researchers, while UNC faculty receive access to greater resources and insight into potential market-ready applications of their work.

John Hardin, executive director of the Office of Science, Technology & Innovation for the

North Carolina Department of Commerce, attended the symposium and said UNC ROI is having an impact on the lives of state residents in two ways.

He said, “First, it helps grow the economy by creating new technology and new jobs. It also helps improve the quality of lives by what it creates. This is exactly the type of initiative that UNC should be undertaking and supporting. Our universities are one of the greatest strengths in the state, and they bring new ideas with a well-trained workforce.”