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Recently, a multitude of entrepreneurs and researchers from the University of Arkansas have been making big headlines, as current and past students earn significant grants for their outstanding projects.

Cover photo by @pjlewis_6 on Instagram

All of the recipients have one thing in common: their ability to envision new approaches to old problems. That’s why their inventions and discoveries are being promoted: so they can shape the future and have a positive effect not just on markets but also on people’s lives and the region as a whole.

The impact of the University of Arkansas on the area has been immense, as it contributed $ 2.2 billion to the state’s economy in 2018 according to a recent report released in February by the Sam M. Walton College of Business. “The U of A stimulates the economy in many ways through our operations, our graduates and our work to improve lives through education, research and discovery, and service to Arkansas,” says Chancellor Joe Steinmetz. “We are proud to be Arkansas’ flagship and I am excited to see the impact of our mission continue to grow.”

Here are some of the grants and awards that University of Arkansas alumni, current students, and faculty have secured in recent months.

Targeting Food Waste in Public Schools

About 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted world-wide each year [...] That’s four times the amount needed to feed the more than 800 million people in the world who are food insecure.

Melissa Terry, U of A Graduate Student

Melissa Terry, a graduate student in public administration at the U of A, has received a $25,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement proposed food waste reduction solutions. Terry will use this EPA grant together with $400,000 from the Kroger Foundation to the World Wildlife Fund to field-test the new Food Waste Warriors Toolkit. The idea is to create a model for food waste reduction with a specific focus on K-12 schools that could be replicated across the country. Terry will help manage projects in Nashville, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Boulder, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland.

AbGrab: The New Non-Invasive Method for Laparoscopic Surgery

In the context of working towards earning their Certificate of Entrepreneurship, U of A alumni teamed up in Carol Reeves’ graduate-level New Venture Development Course; Reeves is the associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and innovation. Based on the lessons learned in this class, the team—formed by alumni from the College of Engineering and the Sam. M. Walton College of Business—created Lapovations LLC. Lapovations was a constant in headlines this past year, winning more than $300,000 in national pitch competitions and setting a new record for prize money won by a University of Arkansas student startup team. 

Now the National Science Foundation has awarded Lapovations LLC with a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research Phase I grant. With these funds, Lapovations LLC will be able to complete the development of AbGrab. This is a medical device which sucks on the patient’s abdominal wall at the beginning of laparoscopic surgery. Since vital organs might be seriously injured if the patient’s abdominal wall isn’t properly lifted and separated from them, AbGrab minimizes this risk by literally “grabbing” or sucking on the abdominal wall and pulling it away from vital organs. It’s expected to provide medical doctors with a non-invasive alternative to current methods, particularly, when conducting operations on patients with very limited or abundant amounts of fat on their abdominal wall, which are the cases where the risk is considerably higher.

The Next Generation of Digital Technology, Solar Energy, and Quantum Computing

It’s exciting to me that these elements have both been known for over 200 years, but now we are in a position to reveal their character as topological quantum materials.

Hugh Churchill, U of A Faculty

Hugh Churchill, an assistant professor of physics at the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, has received a Faculty Early Career Development Award of $545,241 from the National Science Foundation. These funds will be instrumental in continuing his research on the magnetic, electronic, and quantum topological properties of selenium and tellurium, which has already offered remarkable insights into the nature of these properties and has created the expectation of what will become the next generation of digital technology, solar energy, and quantum computing.

Churchill is studying 100-nanometer-wide nanowires made up of spiraling chains of either selenium or tellurium, as it was discovered that these elements have topological characteristics; this basically means that they are excellent at conducting electricity. Selenium and tellurium are rare elements with unique properties belonging to a category of materials called topological quantum materials. The characteristic structure of these nanowires would allow them to produce large magnetic fields, something that could be used in technology powered by magnetic properties as opposed to electronics. This would give rise to a new way of conducting energy—a technology in its own right with prospects yet to be explored.

Photo by @clay_gambill on Instagram

The region is anticipating that this sort of news will become more and more commonplace as additional funding options are added and researchers recruited by the U of A. This past November, the U of A announced a $23.7 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation that would fund research on three ‘signature areas’ and include $5 million for recruiting researchers. And just last month, the U of A announced the Commercialization Fund, which will award $1 million on a yearly basis for research with commercial potential to encourage research on new technologies that are capable of sustained competitive advantage.

It’s clear why the news about these grants are making such big waves: because U of A alumni, current students, and faculty are starting to change the status quo by deploying new solutions based on extensive research—something that will definitely improve the state of our community. Whether it is with inventions, research, or their capacity as entrepreneurs, these grantees are bringing great innovation and quality of life to the region, keeping its economy vibrant and its people taken care of. And as they venture into these projects with the received funding, Northwest Arkansas will continue to track these stories of progress and success.