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The Innovation Index
Breakthroughs, bright ideas, and brave new advances
Arthritis Simulation Gloves
Here’s a novel way to make jars and packages easier to open: Let manufacturers see what it’s like to handle products with arthritic hands. These gloves, developed by Georgia Tech Research Institute engineers, stiffen the joints and make it harder to grip, turn, and push down on lids. Some manufacturers are already using the empathy-inducing handwear in product trials, and builders are using them to test doorknobs and cabinet drawers. That should enable companies to prepare for an aging population.
Augmented Reality Glasses
Imagine walking through town and seeing messages pop up, sort of like magical street signs. They might let you know about a sale in your favorite store, provide directions, or even let you play a sophisticated game. This “augmented reality,” the real world enhanced with computer-generated images, is available today via your smartphone. Coming soon from Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing: augmented reality glasses that put content directly in front of your eyeballs. Just don’t wear them while driving.
Bilingual Health Kiosks
You’ve probably checked your blood pressure at one of those sit-down devices in pharmacies or grocery stores. Now Duluth-based SoloHealth has taken the self-assessment idea a step further by introducing health-and-wellness stations. These bilingual kiosks offer screenings for vision, weight, and body mass index in addition to blood pressure, and they also provide a database of local doctors. They’re currently found in select Publix, CVS, and Walmart locations. FDA approval was granted in June, and there is a launch planned for this month—with a national rollout of kiosks through the end of 2012.
While chickens cannot vocalize why they’re crossing the road, a collaborative project between UGA and Georgia Tech is determining the birds’ overall stress and comfort levels by analyzing their squawks and clucks. Researchers hope to give farmers tools to raise happier, healthier birds—for example, pinpointing clucking that indicates a henhouse is too warm. This could also improve the welfare of Georgia’s poultry industry, which generates an $18 billion impact on our state’s economy.
Brain Cancer Treatments Using Nanofibers
Brain cancer kills more children than any other cancer, including leukemia. Due to radiation therapy, kids who survive are often left with lasting brain damage that ranks from severe to mild. Tobey MacDonald at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is testing drugs to shut down the cancer cells’ ability to spread—and to decrease the need for radiation. He is also making progress on a completely novel approach to treating cancer. Tiny nanofibers, developed at Georgia Tech, coax stem cells away from a tumor. These cells, responsible for cancer spreading, are then destroyed. This “ant trap” approach to stopping cancer still needs to be tested on humans, but it presents a possible alternative for physicians.
Cadaveric Nerve Grafts
Think of a nerve as an electrical wire. If you just need to repair minor damage, you can snip out the broken bit and solder the ends. But sometimes you need to fix a larger section; that requires a graft. Doctors usually take nerves from an area where sensation is less important—for example, restoring movement to your arm by swiping nerves from your foot. Cadaveric nerve grafts, performed at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Pediatric Hand & Upper Extremity Center of Georgia, allow surgeons to restore function without that trade-off. Unlike organ transplants, there’s no potential for rejection of transplanted nerves.
If you’ve ever heard someone talk about her dog as if Fido were more human than canine (perhaps you are that person), you’ll appreciate the experiment Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, is conducting. Inspired by the intellectual prowess of military pooches, Berns and his team are using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to analyze how human signals affect Rover’s brain waves. The research could have implications for companion-animal training as well as dogs on active military duty.
This ominous-sounding endeavor is actually a playful pursuit to personalize Atlanta’s greenspace and make it more useful. “Chair bombing means different things to different people,” says Kevin Green, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance. “Some say you can create chairs out of things that have been thrown away—pallets and stuff that you can stick in front of laundromats or wherever there’s seating needed.” The Alliance unleashed temporary bench bombs around Midtown to gauge how residents interact with the outdoor furniture.
It seems simple: If more people cycled, we’d reduce traffic, pollution, and obesity rates. But have you ever tried to bike in Atlanta? Treacherous. Despite the challenges, bike commuting nearly quadrupled here last decade and could go up more when the first cycle tracks are installed on Ponce de Leon Avenue and Juniper Street. Cycle tracks physically separate bikes from cars through the use of barriers—low walls, curbs, even parked vehicles—to make peddling easier and safer.
Drug-free Dementia Treatment
The people behind SimpleC, a drug-free multimedia solution for people with dementia and cognitive loss, have backgrounds in healthcare information systems, business, and psychology. Founders Dan Pompilio, Jason Zamer, and Paul Pelt aim to restore their clients’ quality of life through the SimpleC “companion,” which integrates music therapy, validation therapy (voice-overs of loved ones), reminiscence therapy, and various photographs in a virtual storyboard that emotionally engages, motivates, and reinforces the patient’s space-time orientation. “Now you can use smartphone apps to get half off products and services,” says Pompilio, CEO of SimpleC. “But computers need to be more than that, don’t you think?”
Eye-Tracking in Autism
Babies are born social—unless they are born on the autism spectrum. Autistic toddlers tend to look at physical objects or a person’s mouth as they talk rather than gazing in someone’s eyes. This finding, based on eye-tracking research by Ami Klin, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Marcus Autism Center, will allow early screening for autism. If babies are diagnosed early, they can receive intervention while their brains are still forming important neural pathways—treatment that is literally life-changing.
Flash Mob Giving
One day. Hundreds of needy charities. Thousands ready to give. They will connect through georgiagives.org, created by the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. Money goes immediately to any designated nonprofit, with only a small deduction for processing. GCN has selected December 6 as its test for flash mob giving, but the website, which debuts this month, will function year-round.
In the search for gasoline alternatives, UGA researchers are thinking local. One team developed a “super yeast” that turns pretreated pine into ethanol, while another is creating an energy source from the Miscanthus plant, a wild grass found in Georgia that burns cleaner than fossil fuels. (On a related note, Algae.Tec is producing jet fuel from algae in Australia and Sri Lanka, but the necessary bioreactors that it uses are made in Atlanta.)
According to the CDC, nearly one in twenty hospitalized patients will contract a healthcare-related infection. But Jason Locklin, an assistant professor of chemistry at UGA, has developed a technology that can make hospital garments, gowns, masks, or other potential offenders germ-free. The inexpensive process can be used on virtually any natural or synthetic material (including diapers!) and can be applied during or after manufacturing.
Goats as Lawn Mower Substitutes
Gas-powered lawn machinery accounts for a sizable swath of all man-made pollution, according to the EPA. Here’s a low-tech but viable alternative: goats. A team of UGA students started a project using goats to eat English ivy and privet at Tanyard Creek; Trees Atlanta has employed goats (and sheep) to clear kudzu from Chastain Park (see a cute picture on page 25) and Boulevard Crossing Park; and goat “crews” are being hired to clear private lawns. Watch out, John Deere.
Since the economy tanked, undeveloped land parcels—once imagined as bustling commercial enclaves or residential neighborhoods—have haunted Atlanta’s streetscape. But in 2011 the Midtown Alliance embraced green leases, a low-cost, high-impact solution to these eyesores. The organization leases the vacant lot from the developer for $1 per year, then uses its own maintenance crews and urban planners to transform the area into a “button park” with healthy grass, trees, benches, and (potentially) participatory artworks.
Heart Valve Center
About 5 million Americans have a heart valve disorder. When the blood doesn’t move properly through the heart’s chambers, there’s a greater risk of heart failure, stroke, blood clots, and sudden cardiac death. Thanks to a recent $20 million donation from the Marcus Foundation, the Piedmont Heart Institute is attracting the top medical professionals and experts in heart valve disease to provide valve repair or replacement, education, and research. It is the only heart valve reference center in the country.
Can faith bring people together, even across the divide of organized religion? That’s the concept behind the Higher Ground blog, written alternately by Presbyterian and Baptist ministers, an imam, and a rabbi and covering topics as disparate as the Trayvon Martin case, the Supreme Court ruling on healthcare, and the proposed Falcons stadium (the spiritual leaders suggest money might better help the less fortunate).
Getting a shot hurts, but microneedles promise to take away the pain. A patch, similar to a small bandage, would deliver the vaccine as tiny needles simply melt into your skin. Emory/Georgia Tech studies with the flu vaccine show the microneedles might be even more effective than the standard syringe.
At the Pediatric Nanomedicine Center, the only one of its kind in the world, researchers from Georgia Tech, Emory, and Children’s Healthcare are developing nanoscissors made of nucleoproteins that will enable them to snip out genetic mutations and induce cells to fix themselves. First on the agenda: sickle-cell anemia, a painful and life-threatening disorder of the red blood cells. Nanomedicine also may treat cystic fibrosis, heart disease, cancer, and infectious diseases.
“Doing well by doing good” is the mantra of social entrepreneurship. One example is Swipe for Change, which processes credit card transactions and gives part of the fee to selected nonprofits. The organization has designated preferred beneficiaries, but businesses can suggest others. Purchasers get the feel-good experience of giving—just by paying with plastic.
Social Media–Assisted Charity
People who merely “like” causes or retweet commentary have been labeled “slacktivists.” Atlanta-based beremedy.org makes social media practical, fielding requests from nonprofits, then emailing, texting, and tweeting to connect would-be donors with those in need. When a nonprofit sought a car seat for a new mom, Beremedy tracked one down in nine minutes.
When surgeons remove cancer, they need to get every bit of a tumor. That’s a difficult prospect if they can’t see the tumor boundaries during surgery. But soon the Spectropath will guide them. The system uses fluorescent dyes, polymer-coated gold particles, and a SpectroPen, attached by fiber-optic cable to a spectrometer. Created through a collaboration between Georgia Tech and Emory, Spectropath will enable surgeons to see the edges of tumors and reduce the need for chemotherapy and radiation.
Zero Waste Zones
In 2009 Holly Elmore—founder of Elemental Impact (Ei), an Atlanta-based nonprofit committed to sustainability—developed Zero Waste Zones, a program to reduce the volume of food-service waste hauled to landfills. “I thought, how do we create a program that makes good business sense on every level?” she says. Two years after its founding, Ei collaborated with the National Restaurant Association, a partnership that offers national reach and resources to ZWZ participants such as Ecco, a Midtown restaurant with a compost-friendly rooftop garden (and no Dumpster).
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.
Illustrations by Eric Mortensen