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Paralyzed ASU engineering student wins $35,000 prize for therapy invention.
April 7, 2017

Engineering major wins $35,000 for inventing a therapy device for patients with paralysis

An Arizona State University student has won $35,000 for inventing a therapy device that could change his life and help thousands of people who can’t walk.

Dan Campbell, a robotics engineering major at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, invented AmbulAid to help people with neurological damage — like himself. Campbell, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a wrestling accident five years ago, uses a wheelchair.

He beat three other student-led entrepreneurial teams in the first ever Glowing Minds Consumer Product Challenge on Thursday at ASU's Tempe campus. Another team, called Shockingly Simple, won $10,000 for its invention — the Skeeter Eater, a non-chemical pest-control device.

Campbell said he invented the AmbulAid because nothing like it exists. The invention, a system of straps and supports, is used with a physical therapist in conjunction with a treadmill to help patients with “gait training” — essentially simulated walking. Gait training is important for people who have paralysis because it prevents osteoporosis, increases blood flow and, most importantly, can create neural connections between the muscles and the brain, sometimes leading to improved sensation and muscle use.

Campbell showed a video of himself using a sophisticated robotic exoskeleton gait trainer during his initial therapy after his injury. But those devices are expensive and rare. When he left the state-of-the-art facility for a regular clinic, his progress reversed.

“The day you’re discharged from therapy is typically the day your recovery ends,” he said. “For a lot of people that means losing sleep for the rest of your life wondering if your body’s potential to heal was actually reached.”

So he partnered with a doctor of physical therapy to launch his business, DK Therapeutics, and to create AmbulAid.

“Now I’m ready to bring it to millions of others who desperately need it,” he said.

He has a patent pending on the device and plans to sell it for about $2,000.

The panel of four judges, all longtime entrepreneurs, were impressed with Campbell’s simple design and well-executed business plan.

“The reason we got involved in putting this on was to try to bring out this entrepreneurial spirit in people. You’re living this nightmare and you’re making it into a dream,” said David Watson, who was a co-founder of the Philosophy line of skin-care products and founded Revolution Tea. He donated the prize money to the competition, which was sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“You are what this product represents, and I think being first to market will be gigantic.”

Campbell said even with high education, fewer than half of people resume working after a spinal-cord injury, so he would like to hire people with spinal injuries to be his sales force.

“They will carry on my advantage of belonging in the user group and being emotionally invested in the product,” he said.

Eventually he would like to integrate functional electronic stimulation in the AmbulAid, a process that uses electrical impulses to facilitate muscle movement.

“But that will need years of development, and I want to get this to market fast because there’s a glaring need for it,” Campbell said.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Michael Court, an MBA student and a founder of Shockingly Simple, said he thought of the Skeeter Eater after facing a mosquito problem at his house.

“I did some research, and I found out that mosquitoes are weak fliers. They can’t stand even a small breeze. There’s no product that exploits this right now,” he said.

The Skeeter Eater, which looks like a typical box fan, incorporates an electric grid inside it.

“A mosquito flies by and gets sucked into the intake, gets plastered into our electric grid and boom! It’s dead,” he said.

Court said the team plans to sell the device on its website, as well as Amazon and eBay, for $50 to $100.

Terry Lee, one of the judges, said he loved the idea and thought it would make a great infomercial product.

“Everyone wants to solve their mosquito problem, and everyone hates chemicals,” he said.

Court said the team is considering a one-for-one business model, like Tom’s Shoes, where the retail price pays for one device for the consumer and another for a country that is dealing with mosquito-borne diseases.

The other two finalist teams were M33 Labs, which created a “smart desk,” and Epic Creek, which developed a fly-fishing kit.

Brandon Smith, a technological entrepreneurship major at the Polytechnic campus, said M33 Labs wanted its product, Space, a high-technology desk with integrated hardware and high-density touch-screen display, to be beautiful as well as functional.

“We thought, what if we could take a computer and could pack all the power and all the functionality that a designer or engineer would need into one beautiful, unified package that would be ready to go out of the box?” said Smith, who is CEO of M33 Labs.

The company hopes to sell Space for $3,500, or $4,500 for a version for high-end design and animation professionals.

Jeff Ward, a technological entrepreneurship major and founder of Epic Creek, is a fly fisherman and decided to invent a streamlined system for using and buying flies. The box would hold cards of flies that are interchangeable and customized.

“You need a lot of equipment for fly fishing. You need different flies for different species of fish for different seasons and for different streams. And you need something to put those flies in,” he said.  

He is hoping to crowd-source the expertise to determine each set of flies and will distribute prototypes to celebrity fishermen.

“There are a lot of anglers who are avid. They want to preach, ‘This is what works,’ ” he said.


Top photo: Dan Campbell, a robotics engineering major at the Polytechnic campus, pitched his idea for AmbulAid during the Glowing Minds Consumer Product Challenge on Thursday. He won $35,000. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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Better living — and eating — through plants

April 10, 2017

New plants engineered to thrive in harsh conditions could solve world hunger, ASU biologist says, but it's a complicated issue

For the past 17 years, Roberto Gaxiola has been in an exclusive relationship. But it has nothing to do with his social life. Gaxiola is a plant biologist at ASU’s School of Life Sciences, and he is committed to one single gene.

But Gaxiola’s one and only is no ordinary gene. When its presence is increased in rice, corn, lettuce, barley, tomatoes, alfalfa and other plants, it works like a magic pill and could help solve the problem of food insecurity in the future.

More than 795 million people on Earth suffer from chronic undernourishment. Researchers expect climate change to exacerbate the problem, as rising temperatures and changes in rainfall affect crop yields. One solution, Gaxiola said, is to create new plants that can thrive in these changing conditions.

The gene Gaxiola works with, H+-PPase, is present in all plants and bacteria. He extracts the gene from a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana. The gene is very conserved, meaning it is very similar in all plants.

Plants produce sugar through photosynthesis. The H+-PPase gene is instrumental in loading sugar into the plant’s pipes, or vascular tissue. These pipes distribute sugar throughout the plant so it can grow. Gaxiola’s research has shown that increasing the expression of H+-PPase makes plants bigger and more fruitful.

A beautiful thing

To increase the expression of H+-PPase in a plant, Gaxiola first adds it to a type of bacteria. Then he lets the bacterium infect a plant. But instead of making the plant sick, this bacterium up-regulates H+-PPase, meaning the plant cells begin producing more of the gene. This is an example of genetic engineering. The transgenic plants that result have much more robust root systems, which makes them better at absorbing water and nutrients.

A plant’s roots have the ability to acidify soil, which liberates nutrients like nitrate, phosphate and potassium. The roots gobble those nutrients up. However, acidification also liberates aluminum and iron, elements that can harm the plant if it takes in too much.

When farmers acidify soil artificially, the process can go awry and the plants end up dying. But when plants liberate nutrients on their own, they also produce organic acids that bind to the harmful elements and keep them from intoxicating the plant.

“That’s why this is a beautiful thing,” Gaxiola said. “Plants know what they’re doing.”

Since discovering in 2000 that up-regulating the H+-PPase gene has so many beneficial effects inArabidopsis, Gaxiola and his colleagues have tested it in several different types of plants. The results are striking.

Gaxiola’s transgenic plants are drought and salt tolerant. They grow larger and produce more yield than control plants growing in the same low-water and high-salt conditions. That means fields with salty soil that are currently barren could be reclaimed for farming.

As the global population grows, we’ll need to produce more food. But as climate change affects weather patterns, that may become more difficult. Gaxiola hopes transgenic plants can be part of the solution.

"We have to face a crisis, feeding the everyday healthier and longer-living society, and also feeding societies that now have increased economic power," Gaxiola said. "Transgenic plants are not a magic bullet, but they are one step among a lot of steps that we now have available."

ASU biologist Roberto Gaxiola tweaks plants to grow larger by increasing the presence of a gene called H+-PPase. This process, called up-regulating, is a type of genetic engineering. The method has proven effective in rice, corn, lettuce, barley, tomatoes, alfalfa and other plants. Here, Gaxiola compares the roots of two control tomato plants with a transgenic tomato plant under low phosphorus soil conditions.


The future of transgenics

However, there are barriers to getting transgenic plants implemented mainstream. For example, Gaxiola tried to bring his modified lettuce to Salinas Valley, California, which is known as “the Salad Bowl of the World.” Farmers there are using fertilizer that contains more nitrate than plants can absorb. The excess ends up washed into the ocean where it disrupts fisheries. In other words, boosting one food source is damaging another.

The transgenic plants, with their improved ability to absorb nitrate, would solve this problem. But the California farmers won’t use them. Why?

“They said, ‘because it is transgenic,’” Gaxiola recalled. “I thought we could get permits, do some experiments and field trials and they would see that this is a safe gene, there are no allergies, you can use it.”

The Salinas Valley farmers still refused. They said their main buyer wouldn’t purchase transgenic plants.

“Who’s the buyer?” Gaxiola asked.


This incident illustrates a larger, ongoing societal debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some people fear that GMOs are a threat to human health. Gaxiola explains that his transgenic plants are completely innocuous to humans because he is not introducing any foreign genes into the crops. H+-PPase is present in all plants. Gaxiola simply modifies the plant so it produces more of the gene product.

The scientific community generally agrees that GMOs are safe to eat. But there are other reasons why consumers oppose their use. One major concern is that GMOs could harm the environment. For example, plants that are engineered to tolerate pesticides can lead to increased pesticide use.

But the issue isn’t black and white — Gaxiola notes that GMOs can also offer environmental benefits. For example, his transgenic lettuce would allow farmers to use less fertilizer, which would result in less chemical runoff into the ocean.

There are other reasons why consumers oppose GMOs, as well. The issue is complex, and as with any new technology, society must grapple with how best to regulate its use. Some European countries have banned all cultivation of genetically modified crops, while other countries are using them widely.

“Argentina and Brazil are developing their own transgenics, and that has allowed them to overcome crises,” Gaxiola said. “I’m positive that as soon as China opens the way, all the world is going to follow.”

When Gaxiola up-regulates the H+-PPase gene in rice, the plant develops a more robust root system and grows larger overall. Here, a control rice plant is compared with its transgenic counterpart.


Beware of pirates

Effective GMO policies need to be informed by research. However, Eric Welch, director of ASU’s Center for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Studies, found that scientists face barriers to getting biological materials they need for research.

For his work, Gaxiola needs access to the H+-PPase gene. Fortunately, it’s readily available to anyone who wants to tinker with it. But other genetic material can be trickier to procure. In some cases, that’s due to regulations that deter biropiracy. Biopiracy is the act of profiting from biological resources and indigenous knowledge without compensating the people or community where they originated. 

For example, imagine you are a scientist working for a multinational seed corporation. You take a vacation to a small, developing country in South America. While there, you visit local farms and find crops you haven’t seen before. The locals explain that these plants can flourish with very little water. You bring back samples of the plant, take them to your lab and isolate a useful gene. Your company patents the gene, commercializes a new plant and makes millions, while the locals who showed you the plant never see a dime.

Biopiracy regulations are in place to prevent scenarios like this from happening.

“They are there for biosecurity reasons or equity reasons or other types of common access and pooling reasons,” Welch said.

However, such regulations can also make it difficult for scientists to access germ plasms, like seeds or plant tissues, that are necessary for developing new plants that could benefit everyone.

In a recent study, Welch surveyed scientists who use genetic materials in their research. He found that 96 percent have encountered some sort of genetic resource policy or regulation. This can result in delays or obstructions to their work, which could have implications for future food security.

Welch said that regulations are in place for good reason. But they need to be implemented thoughtfully.

“Adding one more regulation, and another, and another just creates a mess,” he said.

Our food future depends on producing enough to nourish a growing population, sustaining the environment it comes from and protecting human rights in the process. It is a multifaceted issue that requires thoughtful policy based on scientific evidence and informed input from citizens.

Get involved and learn more about food and other sustainability challenges through ASU’s Earth Month events.


By Allie Necodemo, Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU