Pioneering computer technology that is spurring innovation and disruption across industries has earned David Blaauw and Dennis Sylvester, professors of electrical engineering and computer science, this year’s Distinguished University Innovator Award.

The pair will receive the award Oct. 22 at Celebrate Invention, an annual event that recognizes entrepreneurship and inventions from University of Michigan researchers.

The Distinguished University Innovator Award honors faculty who have developed transformative ideas, processes or technologies and shepherded them to market.

Blaauw, also the Kensall D. Wise Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Sylvester, who serves as associate chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, have worked together at U-M for nearly two decades.

Their research focus includes computers small enough to be embedded in the human eye to measure intraocular pressure or in a tumor to monitor pressure and pH, indicators of cancer treatment effectiveness.

These devices can run in perpetuity on miniscule amounts of energy harvested from the environment and be used to detect glucose levels, track air and water quality, monitor soil conditions, determine the health of bridges, enable automated transportation systems, and track monarch butterfly migrations.

They are building blocks for the internet of things revolution poised to transform industries, economies and lifestyles.

These ultra-low-power technologies are commercialized through three startup companies:

  • CubeWorks makes and markets the world’s smallest active wireless sensing platform.
  • Mythic produces an artificial intelligence platform that enables robotics, smart camera systems and intelligent appliances.
  • Ambiq Micro designs semiconductor solutions used in wearables, smart cards, wireless sensors, voice-controlled products and internet-of -things devices.

Blaauw and Sylvester are co-founders of CubeWorks and Ambiq Micro.

These companies are having a far-reaching impact. For example, Ambiq technology enables a new voice-activated, Alexa-friendly headset from an audio technology company in Shenzhen, China.

It underpins a biometric sensor system created for the wearables industry by a tech firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. And it’s the main processor in the first smartwatch that never needs to be recharged, created by U-M spinoff Matrix Industries in Menlo Park, California.

“Tiny sensors and actuators are revolutionizing the internet of things, allowing sensing and computing to enter new domains that previously could not have been imagined,” Blaauw said. “Low-power technology lies at the root of this revolution, allowing batteries, harvesting and the entire system to be miniaturized to voice-controlled products.”

Sylvester said business-savvy students have been essential to unleashing the commercial potential of this work.

“Since I arrived at Michigan in 2000, I’ve noticed a definite uptick in entrepreneurial activity and spirit among students,” he said. “A lot of time, it’s the students, the postdocs, the research fellows who are driving things forward.”

Major funders of Blaauw’s and Sylvester’s research include Sony, IBM, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the United Kingdom Ministry of Health and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“In the 17 years since professors Blaauw and Sylvester submitted their first invention report together, they’ve not only produced one of the world’s leading ultra-low-power systems research programs, but their innovations have given rise to numerous high-growth startup companies that are at the vanguard of the IoT transformation,” said Kelly Sexton, associate vice president for research-technology transfer and innovation partnerships.

“It’s really an incredible story, and an inspiration to U-M faculty who want to make a difference with their work.”

The vice president for research selects recipients of the Distinguished University Innovator Award based on the recommendation of a selection committee that reviews a pool of nominees. The award was established in 2007 and is supported by endowments from the Office of Research and the Stephen and Rosamund Forrest Family Foundation.

“As a public research university, we strive to foster innovation and translate research and scholarship for greater societal impact,” said Rebecca Cunningham, interim vice president for research. “Research to serve the world is our vision here at the University of Michigan, so we must ensure that society realizes the benefits of our research and scholarship.

“Professors Blaauw and Sylvester exemplify this vision in that they were able to translate their research from the lab to the marketplace, further expanding the impact and importance of their work.”

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