TechConnect Magazine | Spring 2021 | Artificial Intelligence

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Sandra Watson Steven G. Zylstra


05 Sharing is Caring

Don Rodriguez


Third-party involvement benefits everyone in AI development

Morgan Carr


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04 Publisher’s Letter

Steven G. Zylstra discusses the reality, and future, of AI

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View more of TechConnect:

Lotus Labs founder and company helping to mold the future

09 Not Quite Kid’s Play

Learning to classify shows AI is still catching up to the brain

10 A View from Above

Northrop Grumman’s satellite facility helps put Earth into focus


AI in AZ

Hitting its stride with an exciting future ahead

14 Real-world Ready

ASU equips artificial intelligence to handle the abstract

15 Oro Valley Bio Incubator

UArizona Center for Innovation helps bring discoveries to market

16 No Operator Error


NAU’s autonomous drones to operate in remote environments

Herb on the Attack

Vine compound offers hope for pancreatic cancer patients

TechConnect | SPRING 2021 | 03


...................... The time is now to shape the future

“Have no fear of the future. Let us go forward into its mysteries, tear away the veils which hide it from our eyes, and move onwards with confidence and courage.” Sounds like something you would expect to hear from a techie, right? (Heck, I wish I had said it.) While these words were uttered by a person some considered a technological visionary, this person was someone who never even had an email address let alone used a cellphone. These words are attributed to Sir Winston Churchill. While not a scientist, he is credited with helping shape the British war machine in World War II as part of his ongoing support of scientific progress. On a higher level, Churchill saw it all as a way to preserve civilization itself. In this modern world filled with technology, it’s easy for many to fear the unknown of what lies ahead. For example, consider this issue’s theme: artificial intelligence (AI). You no doubt have heard the conjecture that research in this field will bring about the robots that turn on their human masters. Or, closer to home, widespread loss of jobs. To help those caught up in these scenarios of our future, consider one word: internet. In a recent posting from the World Economic Forum, the authors shared that a few decades ago skeptics forecast the end of the world we knew with advent of the internet. True, that world ended—and was replaced by one that was more fruitful. What happened was the creation of enough jobs in the U.S. economy to comprise 10% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2018. But that may be small potatoes compared to what AI could bring. PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey released two years ago revealed 63% of the respondents agreed AI will

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have a larger impact on the world than the internet revolution. PwC’s Global Artificial Intelligence Study released in 2017 estimated that AI will lead to a $15.7 trillion increase in global GDP by 2030. OK, you may be asking, “But what’s happening now, not at the end of the decade?” Looking at data from more than 50 million job postings, ZipRecruiter discovered that AI created three times as many jobs as it replaced in 2018. International Data Corporation in 2017 released research forecasting that AI associated with customer relationship management activities will increase global business revenues by $1.1 trillion by the end of 2021 while in the same time frame there will be creation of more than 800,000 direct jobs or 2 million if indirect and induced jobs are added. You also may be wondering what jobs AI will impact. Examples of jobs with decreasing demand are expected to include data entry clerks, and administrative and executive secretaries. On the flip side, there is expected to be increasing demand for data analysts and scientists, as well as AI and machine learning specialists. If you look a little closely at those titles, some skill sets of the former will be transferable to the latter when coupled with some training. The point is that doors are not closing but opening. We all can have roles to play in preserving our civilization. As former President Barack Obama was quoted as saying: “We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.” n


..................... Third-party involvement can benefit everyone in AI development

While many industries only create and maintain their products and services in-house for competitive reasons, that’s not always the case in the field of artificial intelligence. Third-party involvement actually can help smooth out the rough patches if not bring in new energy to take something to the next level. TechConnect asked three AI leaders about their experience with bringing third parties into their projects, as well as the atmosphere of camaraderie that is alive and well in Arizona. The executives are: • Srikanth Balusani, chief technology officer of Chandler-based MST Solutions • Rebecca Clyde, co-founder and chief executive officer of Scottdale-based • Minky Kernacs, CEO and founder of Phoenix-based Mercurio Analytics, founder and enterprise architect of Mediato Technologies

What difference has it made to you by turning to a party outside your organization to help with AI projects? Kernacs: It really helps organizations come up to speed once you go into an industry, so bringing in a team with a fresh perspective and against “We’ve always done it this way.” Coming in with the knowledge, as well as the soft skills that are required to change company culture, it persuades them and pulls them with you to a new way of thinking. Balusani: It helps to deliver more value to the consumer and also identify new opportunities—both for our customers as well as ourselves, which will help us to grow. There have been a lot of tech solutions available. For example, I’m using chatbots. There are lots of solutions available. Chatbot issues may not be worth it (to the client acting on his own) at this point in time. But there are third-party tools. Clients may or may not be experienced in these technologies. What is it like for us to implement some of those technologies? Sometimes you may not know exactly the outcomes and you may not even have some vision but you may not know how to get there (on your own). Clyde: We have been able to use interns from ASU, students who have contributed to our platform development and that has been very fruitful. Also, I would say Arizona Commerce Authority has been fantastic. They’re such a great partner. The Arizona Technology Council as well, where I’m a board member. The entire tech community here has been fantastic. Sometimes I’ll ping them just like, “Hey, I need to validate an idea” or “How would you deal with

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the situation?” and “I need an introduction. Can you help me with this?” You know, they’re always sharing each other’s job postings. I would say those have been my support networks here that I love and I depend on.

How do you build a team when the team may ultimately report to someone else? Kernacs: You can teach technology to anyone. Really, you look at the soft skills and you look at their attitude. It really comes down to integrity and you can even figure it out in a couple of interviews. Integrity is key. You can have the best skills. But if you don’t have integrity, I don’t want to work with you. We are teaching the child. I can’t trust you to teach that child and I equate AI to children. I would never do something that would be detrimental or make them a nuisance to society. That’s why I think it’s extremely important to be very vigilant about making sure that the people that you hire have some integrity. Balusani: What are (the client’s) goals? What do you really want to achieve from this particular experiment, or your building or deploying a new technology? So, based on that, then you figure out what technology is needed to go with that. You go after a really strong team with that good experience, not only from a technical understanding. You form the team and align them with the right stakeholders and you put some

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level of governance or some people to oversee the progress that will make it work. We do partner with some of the local companies. Also, we even conducted some sessions, even ideas from sessions on artificial intelligence to share my learnings. And we do talk with peers in the community and also share insights. You can’t win by yourself because the pace of change is so much and no single person or entity can win this. Clyde: Customers tend to be co-creators with us, especially since they may not have the technology background but they know where they want to go. Language approach is not going to advance if every company is creating its own version of this ontology. Open-source projects really make a big difference. Essentially think of ontology as like libraries, language libraries that understand concepts and relationships between those. So, for example, there might be a health care ontology that helps computers understand concepts with health care terminology, how they relate to each other.

What are the conditions that make Arizona the right place for a community to come together to help each other in AI vs. looking at one another as competitors? Balusani: There’s a lot of opportunity in artificial intelligence. The platforms are evolving, framework circuits are evolving. And if you have the right business

idea in Arizona...there are a lot of startup communities and also historic communities are active in Arizona. And also there are some working groups as well. For example, the Arizona Technology Council and (Arizona Commerce Authority) conduct a lot of sessions as well. Friction is low compared to eight or 10 years ago because there’s lot more information available. If you have the right vision or the right use case, startups can grow superfast in the space, making it a win for companies based in Arizona.

“You can’t win by yourself because the pace of change is so much and no single person or entity can win this.” Srikanth Balusani, chief technology officer of MST Solutions Kernacs: I think that we have a small community that is growing. We have a great resource pool in Arizona. It’s always been a very close-knit community even though you’re working in different companies or they might be competing against each other. There’s a lot of sharing going on and that really provides a learning (opportunity) because we’re all learning about it.

I don’t think there’s a lot of people that know a lot but I think that you can never know everything. And in this particular field, everyone is sharing data and making sure that with the user groups, with online everyone is actually sharing information, which is what I’ve seen primarily on LinkedIn. People are actually sharing that code and that just helps people not only learn but also it becomes one of those areas where you get input from the community to check your code. This is the environment that supports a startup, coming in giving them as much a chance as an established company to play a part in AI. Does that environment help the startups especially or is it just an equal playing field? It doesn’t matter if you’re a startup or an existing company. Having that information available and shared and really building that community will help spin off new ideas, which not only helps the new organization but it also helps the existing organization fine-tune. Clyde: (Since my start) it was more about Arizona being a great place to start a new company and a business, and being very business-friendly and having those resources between the accelerator, the angel groups and the customers that were going to allow us to test these ideas. That’s the one thing I love about: It’s like people here are willing to try new things. n

TechConnect | SPRING 2021 | 07

..................... Lotus Labs founder and her company helping to mold the future

Ahead of the curve. Right place at the right time. Whatever you call it, Anjali Nennelli seems to sense when something big is just around the corner. And that’s not just limited to the field of artificial intelligence. The founder and vice president of emerging technologies at Chandler-based Lotus Labs has been involved in projects that looking back might make you wonder whether she knew what the future held. For example, Nennelli was working on electric vehicle technology in college long before Tesla was making a mark with its regenerative braking. Although her professor told her she was working on what would become mainstream in a decade, she moved to Arizona to continue exploring the future while finding her own destiny at the same time. Nennelli became an intern at Honeywell when it was using robotics in manufacturing. Later, “even before the iPhones and Androids picked up, I was working on BlackBerry phones” to create a mobile application for Troon. No surprise her career became a trajectory. “I took one company from startup to exit,” Nennelli says. “I know how to do things, how to grow, how to scale and how to produce effective things.” But before you think this is a story all about her successes, let’s pause to make a few things clear. Nennelli is in a position to give back again and again. She is a board member of the Chandler Innovations incubator and one of the venture mentors in Arizona State University’s Venture Devils program. In addition, Nennelli and two colleagues launched the nonprofit Phoenix Mobile & Emerging Technology Group more than a decade ago. “We started with 10 people and now we are, I think, at 3,000-some odd and we never do marketing” of the group, she says. Another idea she embraces is the collective power of the group. Nennelli believes not in “one person knowing all the knowledge (but) the team having the knowledge to give us flexibility and more speed. That’s what I’m doing and speed is what I believe in.”

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It starts by using cameras installed at bus stops to count the people. While on the surface that may seem simple, live data analysis translates into buses not running empty, less fuel being wasted and traffic being reduced. In addition, wheelchairs are counted, so accessible buses can be dispatched where needed. Speaking of meeting needs, demographics of audience members inside a stadium also be interpreted to ensure those in wheelchairs can reach the places they want to go, good seating is provided and enough accessible restrooms are available, she explains. “It will improve the user experience,” Nennelli says. Other client projects include getting a handle on remedies for loss prevention—whether intentional or accidental—at self-service kiosks, she says. And a company in Europe wanted help on the best methods for stacking ice cream to drive the sales and help it bring in more revenue. Through it all, Nennelli is there to use her skills and experience to help and teach her team wherever and whenever, especially when it comes to her strong point of computer vision. “I believe in sharing in my team,” she says, “so what I do is I educate whoever walks into my company.” n



That combination is at work in several projects for her Lotus Labs team, who work remotely—and not all in the Phoenix area—even before the pandemic. Among the endeavors are those related to the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. While a non-disclosure agreement prevents her sharing too many details, Nennelli says they have taken on the challenge of handling crowds.

Anjali Nennelli, founder and VP of emerging technologies at Chandler-based Lotus Labs.


Not Quite Kid’s Play

..................... Learning to classify shows AI is still catching up to the brain

It’s easy to get caught up in imagining what’s the next big thing in the field of artificial intelligence, even to the point of debating that it will be something that surpasses the capabilities of the human brain. But don’t dismiss the fact that your gray matter already has set the bar pretty high when it comes to developments in AI. Consider the act of classification. Even as preschoolers, we were sorting things by colors even before we knew what was meant by the word “blue.” But it has taken a lot longer for AI to catch up to doing something we took for granted as kids. The impact of classification was a key part of the conversation during the recent podcast “Reality Check: The Future of AI Technologies” sponsored by the Arizona Technology Council and broadcast on Phoenix Business RadioX. Featured guests were James Bates, CEO of AdviNOW Medical in Scottsdale, and Greg Leeming, research and program director at Intel Labs. The podcast is available at With a lot of the brain dedicated to classification-type activities, Leeming says, your brain is automatically recognizing all sorts of things around you. “It’s very good at classifying things, figuring out what fits in this set,” he says. In Leeming’s role, he oversees many Intel academic engagements, with one of those responsibilities being artificical intelligence. He also acts as technical

director for Intel’s role in the Institute of Automated Mobility launched by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Bates’ company is working to automate all the things considered clerical or repetitive work in a medical office. “Our solution completely automates the medical visit from the beginning to the end,” he says. In health care, Bates sees the benefits of classification. “The Deep Learning guys like the Amazons of the world or the Microsofts or the Googles of the world,” he says, have developed approaches for taking existing data to create classifications. Privacy issues related to using medical records aside, Bates says, “if you can create an exact classification for every illness and illness combination then the AI would automatically diagnose better than any human.” While the benefits are not limited to medicine, first things first. Businesses need to understand what portions of the enterprise depend on classification tasks, Leeming says, especially to identify the nuanced differences between two different things. “Those are the things that are going to be impacted,” Leeming predicts. Leeming says the past five to 10 years in AI brought breakthroughs in the algorithm of Deep Learning. “Computer are very good at classification, he says. Bates predicts repetition in our jobs will go away in the next five to 10 years, but that it’s nothing to fear. As with the Industrial Revolution, “there was an adjustment that happened in the worldwide economy at that time for people to survive,” he says. “I think we’re going to have a similar type of aspect this time.” In the meantime, AI development will continue. Leeming says current research includes “Common Sense Reasoning and all the other aspects and they’ll play out probably over the next 10, 20, 30 years but for now, think about classification.” n

TechConnect | SPRING 2021 | 09


..................... Northrop Grumman’s satellite facility helps put Earth into focus

Getting a glimpse of where you are often can give a better sense of where you’re headed. And when that view is from high above Earth, even better. Teams of engineers at Northrop Grumman’s Gilbert Campus are constantly working toward this outcome at its state-of-the-art facility that provides design, manufacturing, assembly, integration and testing in support of high-profile satellite missions. Scheduled to launch in September is NASA’s Landsat 9, which will provide high-quality, land-imaging measurements of Earth’s land surface. Around the clock for the next several months, the satellite observatory is being tested in a large steel vacuum chamber where space conditions are being simulated, says Chris Keeler, director of programs at the campus. “It is near to what it’s going to be like in orbit as possible,” he says.


At the same time, the next in the Joint Polar Satellite System series, or JPSS-2, has had its science instruments integrated and some final assembly has been done as engineers start getting ready for environmental testing later this year, Keeler says. After launch in September 2022, JPSS-2 will support weather forecasting and climate-monitoring efforts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

JPSS-2 (foreground) and Landsat 9 being prepared side by side at Northrop Grumman’s satellite manufacturing facility in Gilbert.

The continuously evolving innovations driven by the teams—an average of 78 full-time equivalent engineers on each of these two particular projects—makes it possible to put instruments in those satellites so customers including the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA can perform activities such as look at Earth, watch how water is being used and see how weather patterns are shaping up, he says. Overall, satellites have advanced to the point that a lapse in communications doesn’t necessarily mean mission over. Some observatories contain the basics of artificial intelligence so they are able to take care of themselves if they lose contact with ground crews. “They know how to stay safe themselves,” Keeler says. “They know how to continue to operate without having to be told from a human on the ground to do so.” Imagine a car doing that. Now, imagine two cars since that’s roughly the size of a satellite built by Northrop Grumman, he says, with the weight depending on a customer’s needs for what needs to be flown and how much redundancy is required. “The cost of space is the biggest driver for the industry,” Keeler says. The limits wouldn’t be due to the manufacturer. While the Gilbert campus already is home to one of the largest and most advanced satellite assembly and test facilities in the nation, Northrop Grumman is adding 100,000 square feet to the existing manufacturing facility plus constructing a new administrative and operations building. With his hands firmly on the helm in Gilbert, Keeler couldn’t even imagine as a sci-fi lover growing up that one day he would be in his current role. He had no master plan early on. But while scanning the core curriculum of the University of Washington years ago, “I knew I was taking physics and chemistry classes, and I remember when I came across the degree aeronautics and astronautics and I was like, ‘There it is.’” For all budding engineers, Keeler recommends they pursue internships, and be authentic and open to feedback. And understand the commitment. “There’s a lot of demands on you and your life,” he says. “When you’ve got a satellite under test, you can’t be like, ‘It’s 3 a.m. I’m gonna go home,’ and you’re on second shift. You’re there to the end. Something goes wrong, you’re staying there till it’s fixed.” n

COURTNEY WILLIAMS Co-Founder, Emagine Solutions Technology

MIKE HERNANDEZ Site Operations Manager, IBM Tucson

YAO SHI University of Arizona graduate student, Master of Real Estate





Tech Parks Arizona builds connections between the University of Arizona, industry, and Arizona communities to promote, attract and grow businesses focused on technology innovation and commercialization. We provide business incubation, assistance programs, and state-of-the-art laboratory and office facilities that support job creation and the economic development goals of the University and Southern Arizona.

To learn more about Tech Parks Arizona, visit

AI in AZ

..................... Hitting its stride with an exciting future ahead

For the longest time, artificial intelligence (AI) was more theoretical than practical. “It used to be more like a science experiment,” says Rebecca Clyde, founder and CEO of “But how does it help with my business? That was hard to realize until now. The technology has been broken down into small pieces that can be used in helpful ways.” Paul Hughes, whose AI-powered company Enfuego Technologies just secured a $500,000 investment, agrees. “The AI environment has just started to grow. I’m excited to see how this looks.” It looks good, for jobs and the economy—and it’s heating up in Arizona. The industry was projected to generate 21,535 employment opportunities in the state last year, or 6% above the national average. By the end of this decade, the job opportunities are expected to increase by more than 22%.1 Credit a number of factors, including an Arizona business environment where good ideas can take off and flourish. Arizona’s collaborative technology ecosystem encourages inclusivity and collaboration. Computer science programs rated among the best in the country at Arizona State University and The University of Arizona provide the research muscle. And a new program at the Maricopa County Community Colleges District, created in partnership with the Arizona Commerce Authority and Intel,

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will prepare students for artificial intelligence jobs in health care, automotive, industrial, aerospace and other fields. It’s the first artificial intelligence certificate and associate degree program in the nation. “This program will train students for a competitive workforce, strengthen Arizona’s economy, as well as help close the opportunity gap we see across the state and be a model for educational institutions across the nation,” said the community college district’s interim chancellor, Dr. Steven R. Gonzales. Companies such as Intel, IBM, Wells Fargo, Deloitte and American Express seek workers with skills in artificial intelligence. As do startups like Clyde’s and Hughes’ companies. created a fast-learning virtual assistant powered by AI. It’s one of several Arizona Innovation Challenge awardees using AI. Enfuego uses AI to write resumes targeted to specific positions, helping job seekers effectively market themselves. It recently received a $500,000 grant from Schmidt Futures to support its goal of increasing 10,000 people’s income by at least 10%. Both companies demonstrate how AI, unlike its mysterious portrayals in the movies, has the potential to improve people’s lives. Hughes conceived Enfuego based on his own frustrations in seeking a job. Like many, he received little or no feedback. After a while, it becomes easier to just send the same resume for every job, which frustrates recruiters when they see no connection between the job description and a resume.

Enfuego revises a resume for each application, emphasizing skills that relate to the position. It gives job seekers a numeric score to show whether they’re a good fit and what skills they lack, empowering them to seek additional training.

“Sometimes, (people) have to choose between staying on hold to make a doctor’s appointment for someone who really needs it or losing their job. I look at artificial intelligence as making it possible for people to keep their job.”

Counterintuitively, Hughes says, the use of AI “reintroduces the human element.” AI filters out the applicants who aren’t a good fit, enabling job applicants and human resources staff to talk about soft skills, personality and other more nuanced elements of filling a position.

Clients benefit, too, from AI’s ability to sort through massive volumes of data. One of Clyde’s customers has a thousand locations across the country. After they started using, they could see what questions people were asking, enabling them to fix problems they didn’t realize they had and create better products. “I see AI supporting the human effort, not replacing it,” she says.

Clyde sees similar benefits. She recently spent 45 minutes on hold trying to get a medical appointment for one of her children. Her AI-powered virtual assistant can schedule and fill appointments, with no human involvement, in a few minutes.

She welcomes the new program at the Maricopa County Community Colleges. “There are lots of jobs that can be done with less than a four-year degree. We need someone to organize a framework. We need lots of testers. AI needs human supervision at the beginning to train it and make corrections.” The program’s graduates will be a good complement to computer engineers graduating from Arizona State University and The University of Arizona, says Dr. Yezhou Yang, an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at ASU. “We need workers who are well-qualified to take on new challenges,” he says. “There is a need of basic training. It’s not necessary for them to improve the system, but to have the capability to understand the fundamental mechanism of the machines. This is indeed needed.”n 1

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..................... Work focuses on equipping artificial intelligence to handle the abstract BY GARY WERNER Artificial intelligence (AI) promises transformative innovation for transportation, manufacturing, health care and education. It may also bring freedom from tedious tasks. Imagine robots doing laundry at your home or inspecting cargo at your local airport. These scenarios are not yet reality because of a longstanding issue in the field of computing: managing uncertainty. “What should a household robot do if it finds a pet cat-napping in a heap of dirty clothes? Or what should an inspection robot do with an unidentified package?” asks Siddharth Srivastava, assistant professor of computer science in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “Constantly asking humans for help is counterproductive, and immediate communication may not always be possible. We need them to compute what to do and to fall back to humans only when necessary.” These examples represent what are known as open-world environments, and they are a world apart from the controlled conditions of a robotics lab. Robots and autonomous agent systems, such as Siri or Alexa, currently lack the ability to process unknowns—and relationships among those unknowns—to navigate open-world settings in a way that humans do intuitively. Srivastava and his team at the Autonomous Agents and Intelligent Robots (AAIR) lab research how sequences of decisions are made across extended periods of time amid uncertainty. In that domain, they are working to solve the problem of unknowns within AI and advance robotics to a new level of utility, reliability and safety. “What excites me the most is determining how we can design algorithms that let AI systems automatically compute what they should do next, and then next after that, in order to reliably achieve complex, multi-step, user-assigned objectives in the real world,” he says.

For Srivastava and his team, the key to success in this work is abstract—literally the ability to reason with abstractions. “For instance, asking an autonomous system to bring a cup of tea is an abstract instruction,” he says. “I don’t specify where the tea is located, how it should be made or where it should be brought. Lack of such information can be viewed as an abstraction.” He explains that the seemingly simple act of a robot delivering that hypothetical cup of tea involves thousands of decision points related to planning and movement through an uncontrolled environment. What if there are children running through the house? What if the power goes out? Humans manage these uncertainties without even thinking. But the actual process represents a distillation of critical information from a vast field of data. “Finding concrete solutions in dynamic situations with unknown numbers and objects is difficult,” Srivastava says. “But in some of my earlier work, I found that identifying the right abstractions enables you to compute generalized plans or solutions that work very efficiently. So, my group and I are using these methods to develop AI systems that can operate reliably and efficiently in open-world environments.” Srivastava believes that the Fulton Schools community has the talent and resources necessary to develop the framework and the algorithms that will clear one of the biggest hurdles in AI. Through such innovation, doing the laundry may never be the same. n Gary Werner is a science writer at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Siddharth Srivastava, assistant professor of computer science in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.


Real-World Ready

researchers who show the potential to be academic role models and to advance the missions of their organizations. CAREER awards provide approximately half a million dollars over five years to further each recipient’s research.

Srivastava’s vision has captured the attention of the National Science Foundation, which has selected him for a 2020 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award. Such recognition is reserved for

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Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Bioscience Incubator

..................... Center for Innovation to help bring discoveries to the marketplace BY ANDY OBER The University of Arizona Center for Innovation at Oro Valley—an incubator focused on supporting bioscience startups—has officially opened its doors.

The center features office, lab and meeting space. The incubator will also offer companies access to lab equipment like an ultra-low minus-80-degrees freezer, biosafety cabinets and an inverted fluorescence microscope. Startups will also be guided through a 27-point roadmap for business development, designed to support bioscience discoveries and help translate them into marketable technologies. “The University of Arizona Center for Innovation at Oro Valley is a vital component in the growing innovation ecosystem being developed by The University of Arizona,” says Betsy Cantwell, UArizona senior vice president for research and innovation, who was recognized at the 2020 Governor’s Celebration of Innovation for her work to grow innovation impact at the university.

startup incubator network, which has outposts throughout the Southern Arizona region and is on a mission to grow scalable science and technology startup ventures that fuel the Arizona economy. The new incubator’s first tenant is TheraCea Pharma, an Arizona-based biotechnology startup that develops diagnostic positron emission tomography imaging agents, or PET scans, to detect cancer as well as cardiological, neurological and infectious diseases. The company earned a year of membership at the incubator by winning this year’s UACI Sponsored Launch Fueled by the BIOSA (Bioindustry Organization of Southern Arizona) competition. “UACI is providing fabulous support to startup companies by connecting them to the resources of UArizona and the Tucson community,” says Iman Daryaei, CEO of TheraCea Pharma and a senior research specialist in the UArizona Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “The new facility in Oro Valley is located in an area where some of the most valuable bioindustry leaders in the state of Arizona are located, which provides the companies the opportunity to connect to those businesses for a successful launch and expansion.” The University of Arizona Center for Innovation is currently accepting applications for new startups to join the center. The University of Arizona Center for Innovation has directly served over 150 companies and thousands of entrepreneurs over the course of nearly two decades. The network also includes the University of Arizona Center for Innovation at the UA Tech Park at Rita Road and the UA Tech Park at The Bridges. n Andy Ober is assistant director, news in UArizona’s University Communications.

“Establishing a bioscience-focused incubator fills a critical gap and is pivotal in extending the reach of our world-class research and innovation far beyond our campus to benefit society at large,” Cantwell says. The Oro Valley incubator is part of the University of Arizona Center for Innovation – Tech Parks Arizona’s

TechConnect | SPRING 2021 | 15


..................... Drones to become more autonomous in remote environments BY KERRY BENNETT Associate professor Fatemeh Afghah is developing algorithms that will enable a fleet of smart and autonomous drones to assess situations, change course, stand up against environmental factors, communicate with other drones and coordinate a strategy together, all with limited support from humans. Her work is supported by a $550,000 grant through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, one of the foundation’s most prestigious awards. The NSF presents CAREER awards to early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their organization. Afghah is a faculty member of the School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems (SICCS) at Northern Arizona University. “Dr. Afghah has established an excellent track record in the classroom and in her research at NAU, and she is an emerging leader, especially in the important area of autonomous vehicles. We’re proud to have her as a key member of the faculty in SICCS,” says Professor Ben Ruddell, who is the SICCS director. Afghah says drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), increasingly are being used for delivering packages, monitoring traffic, patrolling borders and navigating difficult terrain or conditions. “They can be particularly useful in unstructured and unknown environments to provide agile surveying in natural disasters and search-and-rescue operations.” But, she adds, because drones rely heavily on a human controller to program where they go and what they do, their effectiveness is limited.

environment like a forest fire or disaster area, they will be able to inspect the area, conduct imaging or other tasks, and coordinate between multiple UAVs—we don’t want them all taking images of the same thing,” Afghah says. “Instead of using expensive aircraft with a pilot, we will be able to use multiple small UAVs capable of making the optimum decision in a given situation and determining the best coordination strategy with their teammates.” To enable the operation of a network of drones, Afghah says reliable communication is necessary among the UAVs and between them and the ground station to transmit videos and images they collect.


Fatemeh Afghah, associate professor at Northern Arizona University. “If we have a specific disaster, the default communication system may not be working. We need to be working on new techniques so drones can talk with each other. This type of communication requires high transmission rates and a large radio bandwidth,” she says. “We will focus on developing spectrum management and co-existence strategies to facilitate dcommunication using 4G and 5G networks.” The five-year research project will have multiple phases. Afghah and her team will develop methods using simulations then implement them on drones and test them in a lab on campus and outdoors in the Centennial Forest near The Arboretum in Flagstaff. “We hope to have a proof-of-concept network of drones for coordination, communication and missions such as target tracking, remote sensing and package delivery in an autonomous manner,” Afghah says.

Afghah’s goal is to develop small, inexpensive, AI drone systems that can observe, understand, adapt and respond to changing environments on their own and communicate with other autonomous vehicles to perform more sophisticated missions.

The project also offers opportunities for educational and outreach activities to engage elementary and middle school students through hands-on drone demonstrations and create enhanced public awareness about better technologies and new uses for UAVs. n

“UAVs will be able to do the takeoff, landing and task management all by themselves. If they are in a remote

Kerry Bennett is communications manager in NAU’s Office of the Vice President for Research.

16 | TechConnect | SPRING 2021


..................... Compound from vine offers hope for pancreatic cancer patients BY STEVE YOZWIAK The results of a pre-clinical study led by researchers at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope, suggest how a compound derived from the thunder god vine—an herb used in China for centuries to treat joint pain, swelling and fever—is able to kill cancer cells and potentially improve clinical outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer. The plant’s key ingredient, triptolide, is the basis of a water-soluble prodrug called Minnelide, which appears to attack pancreatic cancer cells and the cocoon of stroma surrounding the tumor that shields it from the body’s immune system. Investigators recently published the study results in the journal Oncogenesis. The study found that the compound’s mechanism of action is the ability of triptolide (Minnelide) to disrupt what are known as super-enhancers, strings of DNA needed to maintain the genetic stability of pancreatic cancer cells and the cancer-associated-fibroblasts that help make up the stroma surrounding the cancer.


“The cancer cells rely on super-enhancers for their growth and survival,” says Dr. Haiyong Han, a

Dr. Haiyong Han, a professor in TGen’s Molecular Medicine Division

professor in TGen’s Molecular Medicine Division and one of the study’s senior authors. “We found that by disrupting these super-enhancers triptolide not only attacks the cancer cells but also the stroma, which helps accelerate cancer cell death. “While triptolide has been known to be a general transcriptional inhibitor and a potent antitumor agent, we are the first to report its role in modulating super-enhancers to regulate the expression of cancer-causing genes,” says Han, who is head of the basic research unit in TGen’s Pancreatic Cancer Program. Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, annually killing more than 47,000 Americans. “There is an urgent need to identify and develop treatment strategies that not only target the tumor cells, but can also modulate the stromal cells,” says Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, TGen Distinguished Professor and another senior author of the study. “Based on our findings, using modulating compounds such as triptolide to reprogram super-enhancers may provide means for effective treatment options for pancreas cancer patients,” says Von Hoff, one of the nation’s leading authorities on pancreatic cancer. Thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii), also known as léi gOng téng, is native to China, Japan and Korea. Traditional Chinese medicine has used the vine for more than 2,000 years as a treatment for everything from fever to inflammation and autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. The chemical compound triptolide is among the more than 100 bioactive ingredients derived from the thunder god vine. Also contributing to this study were Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Funding for this study was provided by grants from Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team, Baylor Scott & White Research Institute and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Additional support was provided by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Salk Cancer Center and the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation. n Steve Yozwiak is senior science writer at TGen.

TechConnect | SPRING 2021 | 17

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18 | TechConnect | SPRING 2021

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