Fostering Innovation through Collaboration

KRI building

This article originally appeared in Engineering @ Northeastern magazine, Spring 2021.

Located at the Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts, Northeastern’s George G. Kostas Research Institute, commonly known as KRI, brings together university-wide faculty and students, with industry and government to help solve important security, intelligence, and resilience challenges. KRI is home to several of Northeastern’s engineering research centers and labs, including the Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing; Colosseum, the world’s largest wireless testbed built by DARPA; the Awareness and Localization of Explosives Related Threats (ALERT) research center lab; and the Laboratory for Structural Testing of Resilient and Sustainable Systems—the largest of its kind east of the National Earthquake Center.

KRI’s approach to partnership is highlighted in the variety of partners who are an integrated component of the collaborative ecosystem. Along with several onsite government labs—such as the Army Research Lab Northeast and Air Force Counter Small-UAS and Air Force Systems Integration Lab—KRI has 22 industry partners across its campus, among them Raytheon Technologies, Rogers Corporation, VRC Metal Systems, and AeroVironment. These partnerships are critical to “accelerating academic discoveries into practical use,” says KRI CEO Peter Boynton.

In recent years, the Innovation Campus added an Expeditionary Cyber & Unmanned Aircraft Systems Lab—the first of its kind in the United States. Ongoing renovations also added 30,000 square feet of entrepreneurial space—the Venture Creation Center, furthering innovation opportunities for engineering faculty, students, and alumni.

Venture Creation Center

Barracks building sign

The 30,000 sq. ft. Venture Creation Center is located in the Barracks buildings; photo by Matthew Modoono

In 2015, Northeastern established the first “venture creation center” in Burlington, converting a 1950s-era U.S. Army barracks building, part of the 14-acre former Nike missile base—acquired by the university in the 1960s—that forms the current campus.

With a mission to create an affordable space where entrepreneurs would have access to KRI’s partner networks and the talent and expertise of Northeastern faculty and students, the KRI team conducted a low-cost renovation, brought the building up to code, and filled it with second-hand furniture. “We weren’t building a showcase,” explains Boynton. “It’s a place to innovate.”

Entrepreneurs from Northeastern— both faculty and alumni—flocked to the space, eager to take advantage of the facility and its resources. The 10,000-square-foot space, known as Barracks 1, soon filled.

Seeking out additional space, Northeastern found an ideal solution in Elliott Hall—the former site for continuing education—and its 20,000 square feet of unused classroom and faculty office space. The KRI team again kept it simple, bringing the building— now known as Barracks 2—up to code and providing the basics.

Barracks 1 offers shared wet lab space and additional fume hoods for wet chemistry while Barracks 2 currently has maker space and electronics lab space with plans to add wet chemistry. Spaces range from approximately 130 square feet to 700800-plus square feet and everything in between.

Boynton likens the environment to a vibrant neighborhood full of constant activity where spinouts can “thrive in an innovation ecosystem.” His team conducts monthly, 30-minute lunch and learns via Zoom where founders highlight what their companies are doing. A wide variety of participants, ranging from scientists to faculty, administrators, and industry/ government partners, attend the sessions that Boynton describes as both informative and inspirational.

“The company founders say they imagine this place is what Steve Jobs’ garage must have looked like,” says Boynton. “It’s exactly what they need: a place to do work at a price they can afford.”

Currently, there are 16 “spinouts” or early-stage companies in resident at KRI and here we highlight just a few.

man in clean room white clothes in lab

Ahmad Zameli, E’14, industrial engineering; photo by Matthew Modoono

Evergreens is a startup located at KRI. Northeastern alumnus Ahmad Zameli, E’14, industrial engineering, was intrigued by the challenges inherent in the supply chain for fresh food, particularly in Saudi Arabia where he grew up and where much of the produce is flown in from Europe. Seeking a solution to bring fresher food back home and make the food system more resilient, Zameli founded Evergreens to develop indoor crops without sun, soil, or pesticides for chemical and GMO-free fresh produce close to points of consumption and cut seed-to-harvest cycle times.

At KRI he found a perfect space for his company in Barracks 1, a robust talent pipeline, valuable connections, and a supportive network. “As a young company, to go out on your own, it’s very intimidating and if you want to be part of the community, it’s expensive,” he says. “Northeastern was the best of both worlds.”

Today, Zameli and his team are on the cusp of commercial production with three farms on campus growing strawberries, lettuce, arugula, and other greens. His core team includes five full-time employees: three Northeastern alumni, a product manager, and a former co-op student. Zameli notes that over the past four years his venture has drawn co-ops from diverse fields, including business, computer science, and environmental science.

“We were one of the first research partners to come on campus,” says Zameli. “We’ve created a special bond with KRI and I hope it will continue to grow. KRI played a major role in our success.”

professor and student working on lab with screw driver

Jeffrey Ruberti, professor, bioengineering and Patrick Bradley, PhD’19, bioengineering; photo by Adam Glanzman

Bioengineering Professor Jeffrey Ruberti studies collagen, specifically its ability to work on its own as a self-healing material. RegenX, his spinout at KRI, is an extension of the work that Ruberti has been doing in his lab for the past 15 years. “It takes the central pillar of my research and turns it into a product that could be useful in repairing tissue,” he says of the biotechnology company he founded with his former student Patrick Bradley, PhD’19, bioengineering, and Dr. Adam Hacking, a former Harvard researcher who now serves as CEO.

Collagen was long assumed to be a dead protein. “Turns out, that’s not true,” says Ruberti. “It’s constantly in flux. We’ve done research in the lab to show that collagen is energetically tuned to end up where it’s supposed to be. If you’ve torn a ligament, collagen will hone-in on the injury to aid in repair.”

The core team in Burlington currently comprises two bioengineering co-ops and co-founders Bradley and Hacking. Twenty students from four capstone groups in bioengineering have worked on projects to support RegenX’s mission. Ruberti notes that one of these teams came up with a solution for one of the company’s biggest challenges— securing a human collagen source—by devising a way to CRISPR human cells to “get them to crank up production of collagen so the cost point is low.”

portrait Randall Erb

Randall Erb, associate professor, mechanical and industrial engineering

Ruberti says that KRI’s service-oriented philosophy, nurturing environment, flexibility and affordability made the decision to base RegenX at KRI an easy one. “We looked at other spaces…they weren’t even close. There’s more space here for less money…we can do everything we want to do.” He adds, “If we’re successful, it’s due in large part because we were able to come over to KRI.”

Boston Materials “graduated” from KRI in 2017 with the commercial introduction of a new Z-axis carbon fiber material that can be used to make a variety of lightweight yet durable products, from airplane wings to wind turbines.

Co-founded by Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Associate Professor Randall Erb and alumni Michael Segal, E’16, and Anvesh Gurijala, E’16, Boston Materials took up residence in 300-600 square feet of space in Barracks 1. The team quickly made progress, and one year later they launched the company, first moving to nearby Bedford and then to their current home, a 37,000-square-foot facility in Billerica.

photo of Michael Segal and Anvesh Gurijala

Michael Segal, E’16, and Anvesh Gurijala, E’16, mechanical and industrial engineering; photo by Matthew Modoono

Like many of KRI’s spinout founders, Erb says the company benefited greatly from the affordability of lab space; access to the KRI ecosystem that allowed them to advance their technology through collaboration with industry partners such as Rogers Corporation and others; and the ability to tap into a talent pool of Northeastern co-ops. Another advantage, he says, is the economic benefit of having access to materials characterization equipment on-site to prove out their platform.

“We really see KRI as an enabler in our storyline,” says Erb. “The network we created through the KRI experience will continue. Even though we’ve twice graduated, we’re still strongly interacting with the KRI community.”

The Expeditionary Cyber & Unmanned Aircraft Systems Lab

A 1.8 million cubic-foot outdoor test cage with flight path to the 50’x50’x22’ indoor anechoic chamber, the Expeditionary Cyber and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Lab, funded by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research, is the first of its kind in the United States. It is designed for military and business leaders to partner with the university in cyber-security testing on drones. In 2019, The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center provided a $2.8 million grant to fund research through its unit at nearby Hanscom Air Force Base.

The walls, floor, and ceiling of the radio-silent drone testing facility are lined with hundreds of blue protruding arrowheads, made of foam, which are designed to absorb radio frequency waves. They transform the square room into an anechoic chamber that enable government and private researchers to join with Northeastern and other universities in creating defenses against potential drone attacks. The facility is also encased with a Faraday cage of conducting material that creates an electromagnetic shield.

student controlling flying drone in indoor anechoic chamber facility

The indoor anechoic chamber of the Expeditionary Cyber and Unmanned Aircraft Systems Lab; photo by Adam Glanzman

The indoor facility is connected to a netted enclosure outdoors, measuring 150 feet by 200 feet—large enough for GPS testing. Drones can be navigated in and out between the two areas for seamless exercises in all conditions. Additionally, sophisticated equipment enables researchers to understand expeditionary cyber, including handling electromagnetics and cyber over a very large frequency range; effects on navigation; and effects on global positioning signals, and how those can be corrupted at the expeditionary edge.

William Lincoln Smith Professor Tommaso Melodia, electrical and computer engineering, and director of the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, conducts research on unmanned aerial systems and on using drones to create new applications for societal benefit. “As a user of the UAS lab, my work is at the intersection of autonomous robotic drones and connectivity; how these drones are connected with each other so they can exchange information,” says Melodia. “We’re working on new technologies to connect drones that operate at a high-frequency rate—specifically 16 GHz—that’s known as millimeter-wave communications, one of the foundational technologies for 5G and beyond. What this facility enables us to do is fly drones of different sizes that carry payloads, like millimeter-wave radios, and test their performance.”

man in wireless data center with many racks of equipment

Colosseum, the world’s largest radio frequency emulator, is located at  the Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts, and is part of the  Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, directed by William  Lincoln Smith Professor Tommaso Melodia, electrical and computer engineering; photo by Matthew Modoono

Among the applications that Melodia and his team are working on are creating an on-demand mobile network of drones to provide additional wireless connectivity in specific locations when needed. They are also looking at using drones to provide connectivity in disaster scenarios. For example, in catastrophic hurricanes where entire wireless networks are wiped out, a network of drones could provide temporary connectivity to help locate survivors or provide disaster relief.

Melodia and his team fly connected drones in the large anechoic chamber and its Faraday cage, which prevents signals generated outside to get inside the chamber. “That means you get a much higher fidelity performance because there’s no interference,” he says. It’s a great tool for doing research in this space and for evaluating use cases.”

Likewise, the outdoor facility provides the team with the ability to fly multiple drones in a controlled situation. “We conducted a demo for the Air Force with eight different drones flying in this environment,” says Melodia. “We could not have created a credible demo without access to a facility of this size.”

Graduate student Lorenzo Bertizzolo, PhD’21, computer engineering, agrees with Melodia regarding the benefits of the UAS lab. “I’ve used the UAS Lab for several research projects, different drone applications, and to experiment with diverse wireless technologies,” he says. “I took advantage of the indoor and the outdoor areas alike, tested single- and multi-drone swarms, and explored innovative drone-based solutions for future wireless technologies like 5G and millimeter-wave. I couldn’t have carried out my research anywhere else.”

 

Related Faculty: Jeffrey W. Ruberti, Randall Erb, Tommaso Melodia