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ASU entities nominated for Innovator of the Year Award

October 13, 2009

Two ASU entities – the College of Technology and Innovation on the Polytechnic campus and the School of Life Sciences on the Tempe campus – are finalists for the 2009 Innovator of the Year Award for Academia, which is given out as part of the Arizona Governor’s Celebration of Innovation.

Winner of the award, Arizona’s highest honor for technology innovation, will be named at a banquet on November 19. The award – given to a department or office within an accredited higher education institution that has achieved success through innovation in the past calendar year – is presented by the Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Department of Commerce.

Two specific ASU projects were highlighted as examples of innovation for each ASU entity. For the College of Technology and Innovation, the process of converting algae into jet fuel is cited; and for the School of Life Sciences, the development of computer software that can compare the genomes of humans and pathogens was cited.

In ASU’s School of Life Sciences, Sudhir Kumar, an ASU professor of biology, recognized early on the importance and usefulness of computer analysis of genetic data. His research group pioneered development of methods and discovery tools for the analysis of DNA of humans and their pathogens. Over the past year, Kumar, who also is director of the Center for Evolutionary Functional Genomics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, and his group have developed and refined tools for the computational analysis of DNA data (called MEGA software) and for mining scientific literature to build a tree of life scaled to time (TimeTree Web tool).

These two software tools have proven to be quite popular. The MEGA software for comparative genomics has been cited in more than 3,000 publications annually and the TimeTree of Life Web tool, launched this year, has been accessed 30,000 times in the past few months. Its widespread use includes a targeted educational component and is accessible to everyone.

“Around the world, thousands of scientists are studying the evolutionary diversification of life by taking advantage of rapidly expanding DNA genome databases,” said Robert Page, founding director of ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “The genomic software developed by Sudhir Kumar has improved not only the fundamental understanding of the process of evolution but also provided key insights into the evolution of beneficial (e.g. crops) and harmful (pathogens, pests) species.”

The work of Milton Sommerfeld and Qiang Hu, both professors of applied science and mathematics, was highlighted in the College of Technology and Innovation nomination. Sommerfeld and Hu have developed a process that can convert algae into aviation or jet fuel. Last year, Time magazine named the process one of the top innovations in 2008.

Sommerfeld and Hu have been working on algae as a source of renewable fuel for more than 25 years. The technology they developed uses sunlight, waste materials like carbon dioxide in flue gas, and nitrates and phosphates in waste waters as nutrients for growing a renewable algae feedstock that yields oil. The algae biomass residuals yield carbohydrates for ethanol production and proteins for animal feed or organic fertilizer.

“A significant aspect of Sommerfeld and Hu’s research is the holistic nature of their efforts,” said Douglas Green, interim chair of the applied science and mathematics department. “Not only are they interested in lipid production from algal cells, but they continually strive and have been successful in utilizing inputs and products to create a green, sustainable production chain.”

The researchers recently received significant funding for their algae projects and already two spin-off companies have been created from technologies developed in their laboratory.

The Governor’s Celebration of Innovation has become a premier community gathering in Arizona. The November 19 banquet will be held at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix.