The latest version of the T5000 biosensor from Ibis Biosciences

Medical detective work may have just gotten a lot easier.

Just how difficult it is gets highlighted every time an infectious disease sweeps the globe, as the new strain of swine flu did earlier this year. Current methods of testing for disease-causing microbes are pretty effective at discovering whether an infected fluid or tissue sample contains a known virus or bacteria. But trying to detect previously unknown organisms is a whole different story.


To address this problem, David Ecker, co-founder of Ibis Biosciences Inc., and a team of researchers developed a sensor able to quickly detect and identify all the pathogens in a given sample.

The equipment promises not only to alert health officials to new disease strains, but also to guard against bioterrorism and enable hospitals to identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Abbott Laboratories and its Ibis Biosciences unit, which developed the Ibis T5000 sensor, took the Gold in this year’s Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Awards.

The Silver award went to Touch Bionics Inc. for its i-Limb artificial hand, which features bendable fingers and a rotating thumb. The hand uses sophisticated motors and computer controls to grip objects and move in ways that traditional prosthetic hands can’t.

Vihaan Networks Ltd., an Indian telecommunications company known as VNL, won the Bronze award for a solar-powered base station to bring cellphone access to remote rural villages. The inexpensive base station can be quickly assembled and set up by unskilled villagers, and can run entirely on the built-in solar panels and batteries.

For the ninth annual Innovation Awards, a Journal editor reviewed nearly 500 entries, sending more than 180 to a team of judges from research institutions, venture-capital firms and other companies. Judges considered whether innovations were truly groundbreaking and—new this year—looked at whether their application would be particularly useful in a time of economic hardship.

And the winners in each category are…

Computing Systems

Capturing real-life motion to use in computer animation can be complicated. Typically, actors are filmed wearing bodysuits covered with glowing dots or embedded with sensors that trace their movements, then high-powered computers use that data to help create characters that move realistically.

New York-based Organic Motion Inc. won in the computing-systems category for developing a motion-capture system that doesn’t require bodysuits or markers.

The core of the system is technology that uses sophisticated software to produce a digital clone of a person being filmed. Fourteen video cameras capture images simultaneously and send them to a standard computer with a high-end programmable graphics card, making the system far cheaper than the specialized equipment used in movie special-effects shops.

Organic Motion systems are being used in the creation of virtual environments for training coal-mine rescue personnel and for helping returning military veterans readjust to civilian life. Andrew Tschesnok, the company’s chief executive and founder, says future versions will work with next-generation game consoles for more-lifelike game experiences.

Consumer Electronics

Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute, or ITRI, won in the consumer-electronics category for its work developing a paper-thin, flexible speaker.

Researchers at ITRI, a nonprofit organization, devised a way to create arrays of tiny speakers that can be combined to produce high-fidelity speaker systems of almost any size.

Because the fleXpeaker is lightweight and consumes little power, it could be attractive for use in cellphones or in car sound systems. Other possible applications include giant banners that could be used to deliver public-service announcements in train stations or advertising messages in shopping malls.

ITRI is seeking to license the technology or create a spinoff ­company to commercialize the ­product.


SFC Smart Fuel Cell AG, based just outside Munich, won in this category for developing small, lightweight fuel cells that can be used by soldiers instead of much bulkier, heavier batteries to power communications and navigation devices and other battlefield equipment.

One advantage of the SFC fuel cells is that they produce power from methanol. Many fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen. But hydrogen is highly explosive, so it needs to be stored in special heavy-metal cartridges. Cartridges for the SFC fuel cells are less expensive, lighter and less bulky.


Serious Materials Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., was recognized in this category for its EcoRock drywall substitute, which is made with recycled material and, the company says, requires 80% less energy to make and produces 80% less carbon dioxide than standard gypsum-based drywall. EcoRock, which is also termite- and mold-resistant, will be priced to compete with premium drywall products. Serious Materials has been selling limited test quantities of the product to a few contractors since early this year and plans to expand production and distribution over the next two years.

Though some judges wondered if a relatively high price would limit how widely the product is used, it is a “novel solution to a basic problem that has enormous impact,” says Darlene Solomon, chief technology officer of Agilent Technologies and an Innovation Awards judge.

Health-Care IT, a Washington-based nonprofit, and its co-founder, Joel Selanikio, won in this category for EpiSurveyor, free software for mobile devices designed to help health officials in developing countries collect health information.

In developing countries, gathering and analyzing time-sensitive health-care information can be a challenge. Rural health clinics typically compile data only in paper records, making it difficult to spot and to respond quickly to emerging trends.

With EpiSurveyor, developed with support from the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation, health officials can create health-survey forms that can be downloaded to commonly used mobile phones. Health workers carrying the phones can then collect information—about immunization rates, vaccine supplies or possible disease outbreaks—when they visit local clinics. The information can then be quickly analyzed to determine, say, whether medical supplies need to be restocked or to track the spread of a disease.

The software has been rolled out in more than 20 African countries.

Materials and Other Base Technologies

Light fixtures based on light-emitting diodes—semiconductors that glow brightly when charged—promise long-lasting, low-energy illumination. But there’s a problem: The light produced is harsh and bluish in color. Special filters can be added to produce warmer tones, but they can make the fixtures less efficient. Devising a way to make warmer-colored, high-efficiency LEDs is seen as essential to their widespread adoption.

QD Vision Inc. of Watertown, Mass., won in this category for inventing a way to dramatically improve the color quality of LED lights by using quantum dots—tiny semiconducting nanocrystals. QD Vision quantum dots can also be used to make energy-efficient flat-panel and other displays that can deliver purer, more intense colors.


The company recently joined with a small LED light-fixture maker, Nexxus Lighting Inc., to make a screw-in LED bulb. The bulbs, which promise to be six times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, are expected on the market later this year.

Medical Devices

The i-Limb from U.K.-based Touch Bionics, the overall Silver winner, received top honors in this category.

Prosthetic hands typically have been limited to simple pincer-like grips that imitate the motions of a thumb and forefinger. While they can perform most essential hand functions, they lack the utility and appearance of a real hand.

The trick in developing the i-Limb was coming up with materials that could match the shape and weight of a human hand yet be powerful enough to handle all the tasks of muscle and bone. The hand uses motors that fit in the space of a knuckle to control the fingers; the motors are controlled by a computer chip.

With the hand, wearers can grip and turn a key, for instance, or hold a business card using a thumb and index finger. They can also close all the fingers and the thumb around an object, like a drink can or a shopping-bag handle. It’s also possible to point with the index finger, which is useful in operating a phone or a cash machine, among other things. The thumb can also be rested next to the rest of the hand, so that it doesn’t snag when putting on clothing.

Adding to its life-like appearance, the i-Limb comes covered with a flexible silicone skin. But wearers don’t have to go with the natural look. Stuart Mead, Touch Bionics’ chief executive, says a lot of younger wearers prefer either a clear skin that shows off the device’s inner workings or a black metallic covering “that looks a little like Darth Vader.”


Abbott’s Ibis Biosciences unit, the overall Gold winner, was the top entry in this category. The technology takes a novel approach to detecting and identifying pathogens. When faced with unidentified organisms, clinical labs typically have to incubate infected fluid or tissue samples and test them for bacteria or viruses. Newer microarray technologies can run thousands of such tests simultaneously. But they are expensive and require lots of high-quality genetic material for their analyses, making them less than ideal for diagnostic purposes, says Mr. Ecker, a divisional vice president at Abbott. (Last year’s Silver award winner, the PhyloChip, is a microarray system for detecting bacteria in water and other environmental samples.)


The i-Limb artificial hand, from Touch Bionics

Ibis uses a combination of technologies to identify organisms: mass spectrometry—a way of identifying the molecules that make up a sample by measuring their mass and charge—to determine the genetic markers of the organisms in a sample; a vast database of genetic signatures for different organisms; and a mathematical process to match the analysis with the signatures in the database. The test not only can reveal all the known organisms present in the sample, it also can also flag previously unknown organisms. Since the first system was completed in 2005, Ibis sensors have been deployed in 20 sites around the U.S., including the Centers for Disease Control. This spring, the device helped the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego to identify the first two cases of the H1N1 swine flu in the U.S. Abbott, a health-care company based in Abbott Park, Ill., acquired Ibis earlier this year.


Ksplice Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass., won in this category for software that makes it possible to install security patches and other software updates without rebooting computer systems.

Software makers periodically send out updates, and before they can take effect the computer system needs to be shut down and restarted. So even critical security updates are often delayed until late at night or weekends when shutdowns are less disruptive. Ksplice was developed so that companies can perform updates without interrupting their operations. The software was first deployed commercially last year, and the company has about a dozen customers. Though it currently is available only for Linux-based systems, the techniques can be applied to other operating systems, says Jeff Arnold, the company’s president and co-founder.


Qualcomm Inc., the San Diego-based wireless-technology company, won in this category for a mobile-device display it calls mirasol, a low-power, full-color alternative to traditional displays.

The mirasol display uses micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, and thin-film reflective material to produce color images that remain vivid even in direct sunlight. The displays are able to produce a full color spectrum, and images are refreshed quickly enough that full-motion video can be displayed as well as static images. By relying on ambient light, the displays require little power. The technology was originally developed by Iridigm Display Corp., which Qualcomm acquired in 2004 and renamed Qualcomm MEMS Technologies.

The first black-and-white displays using the technology became available in early 2008 and have been used in mobile navigating devices, Bluetooth headsets and MP3 players. The company introduced a color version in May, and has agreed to provide the displays for future cellphones from LG Electronics Inc.


Cloud computing promises to replace the complex array of hardware and software that makes up a company’s information-technology infrastructure with simple IT services delivered over the Internet, much the way that utilities provide electricity. But not all businesses can take advantage of cloud computing’s benefits—because of security concerns, or because they already have significant investments in their own data centers and other IT systems.

The latest version of VMware Inc.’s virtualization software suite, called vSphere, is this year’s winner in the software category. It promises to make it easier to turn a company’s existing data centers into a private cloud—an array of IT services delivered throughout a company over its own computer network—that’s secure, reliable and easy to manage.


A solar-powered base station for a cellular network, from VNL

VMware has long been the market leader in virtualization software, which makes it possible to run different applications or operating systems on a single computer by dividing the computer into several “virtual” machines, each running programs independent of the others.

 With vSphere, which VMware describes as a “cloud operating system,” IT managers can quickly turn all the servers in a data center into a network of virtual machines. A simple dashboard makes it possible to see all the applications that are running on each virtual device.

Judges noted that there is a lot of interest in private clouds, and said that VMware has taken a big step in helping companies build them.

“It’s a very important trend, and these guys are clearly the leader,” says Asheem Chandna, a partner at the venture-capital firm Greylock Partners who was one of the Innovation Awards judges.


The Bronze winner, VNL’s solar-powered base station for cellphone networks, led the wireless category.

Mobile-phone service can deliver huge benefits to developing countries. But getting cellphone coverage to remote, rural parts of India and other countries is hindered by high installation and operating costs, as well as the specialized knowledge needed to set up and run a cellular station. As a result, few operators have gone into these communities.

VNL is looking to overcome this obstacle with a low-power cellular base station that requires little capital expense and has almost no operating costs. The base stations can be powered by a small solar panel in daylight; batteries provide backup power for up to 72 hours.

Another challenge was making the device so simple that it can be installed at low cost by villagers.

The solution was inspired by the Scandinavian retailer Ikea: The entire base station comes delivered in six boxes, small enough to all fit in an ox cart. Simple illustrated instructions show how to put the pieces together using color-coded cables.

Even turning the station to the right microwave signal is easy—it emits a continuous beeping sound when the signal is strongest.

The technology may not be much of a technical breakthrough, but “it’s worthy because of what it might bring to developing countries,” says William Webb, head of research and development at Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator, and one of the Innovation Awards judges.

Via Wall Street Journal