ASU entrepreneurial program expands research impact
2022 Fulton Entrepreneurial Professors Yezhou “YZ” Yang and Hamid Marvi receive support for ventures that improve traffic monitoring and cancer treatment
Technological advances made through engineering research can improve many aspects of people’s lives. To make a real impact, however, researchers need to expand their work beyond the lab, such as through entrepreneurship.
The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University provides many opportunities for faculty members and students to create startups based on their research, and supports them through programs including the Fulton Entrepreneurial Professorship Program.
This competitive two-year professorship program provides tenured or tenure-track faculty members with time and $200,000 in resources to accelerate their ASU ventures and increase their impact. The professors can defer teaching and lab responsibilities to focus on their entrepreneurial activities, which include working with patent attorneys, attending Small Business Innovation Research workshops and meeting with investors and commercialization experts.
Yezhou “YZ” Yang, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and Hamid Marvi, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, were selected among nine pitch competition finalists to be named the 2022 Fulton Entrepreneurial Professors.
Zachary Holman, an associate professor of electrical engineering, director of the faculty entrepreneurship program in the Fulton Schools and co-founder of several startups, says Yang and Marvi stood out among the competition because they had done the “legwork” to create a successful venture and empower their doctoral student partners.
“YZ and Hamid had taken advantage of the resources available to them to learn entrepreneurship at ASU,” Holman says. “They had a combination of compelling technology built upon ASU research and a plan for successful commercialization.”
On the road to better city planning
Everyone has likely encountered an ill-timed traffic light or pedestrian crossing. While the fixes may seem easy, traffic engineering and transportation management are complex and expensive aspects of city planning — but necessary to contribute to a society’s overall operating efficiency.
ARGOS Vision, co-founded by Yang and Mohammad Farhadi, who recently earned his doctorate in computer engineering from the Fulton Schools, provides an inexpensive, integrated hardware and software solution for traffic counting, the observation of the vehicle and pedestrian traffic passing through an intersection or along various roadways. This product is based on the founders’ artificial intelligence and computer vision research in Yang’s Active Perception Group.
By working with local municipalities and the Institute of Automated Mobility, Yang and Farhadi discovered that current solutions for traffic counting either provide incomplete information or are prohibitively expensive for municipalities to install and maintain.
“Some big names in the industry are using computer vision to analyze traffic, but a particular system could cost $8,000 to $10,000 and an additional $15,000 to $20,000 to install with cabling [per intersection],” says Farhadi, who is ARGOS Vision’s CEO. “The city of Phoenix has more than 1,300 intersections — imagine installing those systems for all intersections” and along other segments of roadways, he says.
ARGOS Vision addresses these shortcomings with a cost-effective, easy-to-install, solar-powered camera module that can be attached to any pole along a roadway. The system perpetually monitors vehicular and pedestrian traffic with an on-site, power-efficient visual processing unit.
ARGOS Vision uses Yang’s patented visual recognition technology called temporal knowledge distillation, which can efficiently process video on edge devices, nearly in real time, to categorize different types of vehicles such as cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as bicycles and pedestrians. Then only the position and category of the vehicles and pedestrians are sent to ARGOS Vision’s servers over a narrow-band Internet of Things, or NB-IoT, 4G cellular network connection.
“Using temporal knowledge distillation, we can improve the processing efficiency on the device itself, and only send out metadata to the offsite server, guaranteeing privacy in this domain,” Yang says. A live demonstration on the ARGOS Vision website shows how the traffic camera data is interpreted and transmitted to the venture’s servers.
Traffic engineers can then access the data from ARGOS Vision for a fee and use the information to understand driver and pedestrian behavior and make important decisions about signal and crosswalk timing.
“ARGOS Vision is one of the technology transfer endeavors we are doing at the Active Perception Group that can improve the next generation of Arizona’s economy by utilizing advanced technologies,” Yang says.
According to Yang, the Fulton Entrepreneurial Professorship provides important connections with other entrepreneurial faculty members and Phoenix-area ventures.
“There’s a whole community where we can learn from others,” he says. “It is critical to have this initial tech transfer support.”
A magnetic guide to improved surgery
Navigating the avenues in the human body is a challenge. During minimally invasive surgery — such as interventional radiology, or IR, often used for cancer treatment — catheters and needles are typically pushed through blood vessels and organs to get to the site of treatment. To help track and guide the needle, physicians use an imaging method called X-ray fluoroscopy, which exposes patients to extra radiation.
However impactful this technology has been for many surgical procedures, Marvi says 90% of 125 IR specialists surveyed at the Annual Meeting of Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology Society of Europe want to see improvements to this method.
Marvi and his co-founder, Mahdi Ilami, a postdoctoral research scholar who earned his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from ASU, have developed a new technology with their venture, MagStee Medicals, to improve needle manipulability and tracking for IR procedures while minimizing tissue damage and radiation exposure with the use of magnetic steering and non-visual tracking technologies.
“This is done by attaching a magnetized tip to the needle or catheter and applying magnetic forces using magnetic sources moving around the patient’s body,” Marvi says. “By directly applying forces and torques to the tip of the needle, we can significantly improve the precision of the tip placement and reduce tissue damage.”
Because the needles are no longer pushed manually, they can be made of soft materials that cause less tissue damage and can bend along 3D paths to reach locations not accessible with other robotic technologies.
A non-visual tracking system eliminates radiation exposure from X-rays to both patients and physicians. Overall, it can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of surgery.
“This technology enables a vast variety of surgical and interventional radiology procedures including intra-vascular, airway and GI tract and intra-tissue and intra-organ procedures with minimal tissue damage and without any exposure to radiation,” Marvi says.
MagStee Medicals was launched in September 2021 to pursue technology developed through Ilami’s doctoral research in Marvi’s Bio-Inspired Robotics Technology and Healthcare, or BIRTH, lab.
“Over the past six years, three generations of devices for magnetic needle and catheter steering have been built and tested in the BIRTH lab,” Marvi says.
“The Fulton Entrepreneurial Professorship program will be incredibly helpful to our entrepreneurial efforts by providing financial, legal and mentorship support such that we can significantly speed up research, development and commercialization of this technology while maintaining ASU research productivity.”
A robust support system for ASU entrepreneurs
Budding entrepreneurs face many barriers to getting to market, but ASU strives to clear the path and actively support faculty members’ entrepreneurial success. This includes a robust pipeline to patent technology developed at ASU through Skysong Innovations, ASU’s entity for bringing ASU research into the marketplace, access to facilities and talent-building opportunities.
While many universities force faculty researchers to choose between research and commercializing their technology due to conflicts of interest, ASU helps faculty members navigate the conflict to reap the benefits.
“If you’re starting companies out of the university, you want them to have a relationship with the university — you would like for the companies to be funding projects back at the university, and for graduating students to join the company,” Holman says, noting this is an example of how ASU is structured differently to support entrepreneurship.
He also notes the lack of access to facilities is why “a lot of ideas die.”
ASU entrepreneurs have access to ASU Core Research Facilities and additional space at the WearTech Applied Research Center, SkySong, MacroTechnology Works at the ASU Research Park and other buildings. They can also lease space through a facility use agreement.
“Suppose you’re a faculty member who started a company and you’re not ready to go out and lease your own lab space, let alone purchase all the capital equipment that goes into it,” he says. “ASU has the ability for those companies to lease a small footprint of space in faculty members’ labs and get access to the equipment that’s in there.”
Holman says access to talent is also really important for startups and the university encourages faculty members to position doctoral students as leaders of their ventures.
The Master of Science in Innovation and Venture Development, or MSIVD, program is an important part of training engineering doctoral students to be CEOs of startups, as they can add this to their doctoral studies and gain important skills for successful venture development.
Farhadi, for example, also took advantage of programs such as the NSF Innovation Corps program at ASU and Venture Devils, in which ARGOS Vision competed among more than 75 students, staff, faculty, alumni and community entrepreneurs for seed funding at the semiannual demo day in 2021.
The breadth of resources available to ASU entrepreneurs helps a wide range of research make its way to the market, and Holman is proud of the ventures the Fulton Schools faculty entrepreneurship program has supported so far.
“I’m really excited about the diversity of startups and faculty we are sponsoring,” he says. “I am excited to see what comes out of the next round.”