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Ask the Expert: Rein Ulijn

Rein Ulijn

  • Director, ASRC Sensor CAT
  • Director, Nanoscience Initiative of the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), CUNY
  • Einstein Professor of Chemistry, Hunter College

For this edition of Ask an Expert, we spoke with Rein Ulijn, Director of the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) Sensor CAT, a NYSTAR-funded Center of Advanced Technology (CAT) at the City University of New York (CUNY). In this role—one of three he holds at CUNY—Ulijn leads an effort to increase academic-industry collaboration to develop sensor-based technology. The CAT opened in early 2020 with promised NYSTAR support of $8.8 million over 10 years.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to New York

I am from the Netherlands, but I did most of my academic career in the UK. My background is fairly cross-disciplinary. My first degree was in biotechnology. Then I moved into chemistry and that was followed by materials science and eventually, I combined my interests to research bioinspired nanotechnology. About seven years ago, I was asked to come and discuss plans for the ASRC, a new research facility in New York City. While I had no plans to move, curiosity won me over, so I traveled to NYC to discuss the opportunity. I was completely blown away by the building, which was still under construction, and the vision of creating a world-class research hub in the heart of NYC, and strongly connected to the mission of CUNY as the largest urban public university system in the country.

I felt this was going to be a place where I could help shape an environment where other researchers and I could do groundbreaking basic science but also take advantage of the co-location of neuroscientists and environmental scientists to succeed in developing useful applications relevant to human and planetary health. That connection between basic science and developing new technology to solve societal problems is something that I have always been very excited about and is why this role was right for me.

The ASRC at CUNY houses 18 academic labs and 15 core facilities specializing in the imaging of nanostructures and biological samples, chemical analysis, nanoscale fabrication, technologies, and more. These are very high-end facilities that people from all over the area can come use to help solve their technical problems. We now have well over 1,000 users from academia and industry.

The ASRC Sensor CAT is a relatively new addition to the research center. Tell us about its mission.

We see a huge opportunity to use engineering and physical sciences to help solve problems in life sciences. Biosensors, or sensors in general, fit very well in that area, with physics and engineering coming together with materials to measure events of relevance to biology or biomedicine or the environment. It seemed a very natural fit to fill a space that wasn’t yet occupied in New York.

Sensors are expected to be a very big market (estimated at $228 billion globally by 2026). If you think about it, everybody now wears a bunch of sensors. Your phone is full of sensors. There are sensors in your smartwatch that measure your location, your movement, and vital signs. If you have a medical issue like diabetes, you may wear a continuous glucose monitor that uses artificial intelligence to determine and autonomously dose the right amounts of insulin to be delivered.

Beyond wearable devices, a big growth area is smart cities, when city councils want to understand things like air and water quality or monitor traffic flow to help it move better. The next years will see developments in autonomous vehicles. All of these areas rely on sensors and the connectivity of these sensors. These are amazing developments and areas of growth that are taking place right here in NYC.

So, what the Sensor CAT does is provide connections between academia and industry. If a company comes along and they want to solve a problem but may not have the equipment or expert knowledge to do so, they can come to the ASRC Sensor CAT. Small companies and big companies look to us to help solve problems but also to jointly develop new technologies.

One thing we hope to see as a result of the CAT is more company formation by students and faculty at CUNY and our neighboring institutions. New York City is a great place to start a company and we want to support these efforts. It is part of what will hopefully be a boom in biotechnology and nanotechnology and the city becoming more of a hub for innovation. There is good alignment between city and state; New York State supports the CAT programs, and Mayor De Blasio made a $1 billion investment in life sciences and biotech development in the city, so these things all go hand-in-hand and the time seems right to really give that whole area a boost. We believe this is exactly the right time to develop the ASRC Sensor CAT.

Part of your goal is to improve workforce development in the STEM fields. Tell us about that.

With New York coming back from the pandemic and in part reinventing itself, many expect it to become more of a technology hub, and that this tech will expand the current strengths in ICT and App development, especially toward biotechnology, and green, sustainable nanotechnology. If this takes off, jobs will be created, and there is clearly a need for highly skilled people to join that workforce.

I think CUNY has a unique opportunity there. We are a very large educational system with 250,000 full-time students and another 250,000 part-time. The vast majority of them end up working in the local area, so they are the workforce. CUNY is by far number one in the country in terms of propelling students from lower-class backgrounds into the middle class and we want to develop those opportunities more in the STEM fields. There is a huge opportunity there, and also a very big need.

If you talk to local large companies, they like to recruit CUNY students, especially because they want their workforce to look like New York City, to be as diverse as New York City, and the CUNY student population is exactly that. So, there is a need to get students interested in STEM and to get these students to be problem solvers and innovators.

What the CAT does is provide these students with the knowledge of how to transfer from academia into industry. We try to make that much more seamless. I think those paths are not always well recognized, especially in the CUNY community where some students are the first in their family to go to college, or they are kids of immigrants who may have cultural backgrounds where being a scientist is something that is viewed as uniquely a university job with a focus on teaching, rather than a route to help develop the next big thing. That is what we are really trying to get out there, the understanding that there are many exciting and important careers for talented young people who are interested in science and engineering.

Does this include lessons in entrepreneurship?

Indeed. It’s great to see that students are becoming more interested in entrepreneurship. Of the Ph.D. students who come through STEM programs, typically only about one in 10 ends up in academia. The other nine end up in small or large companies, and we try to help them prepare better for those roles and consider protecting their inventions, as well as publishing them in research papers and their thesis.

This year we piloted a new course for graduate students that we have co-developed with the Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship at CUNY’s Baruch College. It is an entrepreneurship STEM course where students learn about how to protect intellectual property, the apparent conflict between patenting vs. publishing, how to raise capital, how to tell if your idea is viable, and so on. We really try to make the Ph.D. more connected to entrepreneurship and open the eyes of these students to new opportunities.

That is why we started the class, to help students become aware of opportunities so if they invent something in the lab the first thing they think is “Can I publish it?” but also “Can I patent it?” and “Is it a good company idea?”. The class has been a lot of fun so far, we are about halfway through the first pilot and are already talking about expanding the class to work with a larger student cohort next academic year.

I know Sensor CAT is supporting a number of young companies. Tell us about a few of them.

We started the CAT in January 2020, so we decided what we should do first was see how we could make, in our own small way, some kind of contribution to the fight against COVID. We decided to identify companies that could pivot and potentially develop technology that was relevant to the pandemic. We focused on “what does the city need once things are opening up again?” So, we funded a company that was focused on decontaminating surfaces that could potentially be used on high-touch surfaces in the subway, such as handrails, and a couple of companies focused on developing new sensor technologies for detecting the SARS-CoV2 virus. Those were the first three.

We now have 10 companies that we support. We invest money strategically with a strong focus on cases where we could help companies get things off the ground.

One of them, Atolla Tech, is working on a sensor system to detect and identify small flying objects such as insects. This is a very big deal in agriculture, to prevent crop losses. We provided them with a grant to develop a working prototype and some help with testing this in a wind tunnel-type environment. Another is Vader Nanotechnology, which researches new bacterial strains that are able to break down toxic so-called forever plastics that are currently a huge long-term environmental health issue because they do not degrade naturally. We have worked with them in our imaging facilities to provide important proof-of-concept data that helps this company to illustrate their technology and gain interest from investors.

Another company we have been able to support is Next Generation Quantum Corp, a startup from City Tech focused on quantum technologies, another rapid-growth area. They are interested in developing new technologies for quantum sensors and quantum computing. They have been using the highly specialized equipment that we have available in our nanofabrication facility to produce prototype devices.

We spend a lot of time scouting for new companies and technologies and try to be there really early on to provide support when these companies need the help the most.

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