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ASSIST Center looks to a self-sufficient future

Closeup of hand with flexible circuit around the index finger.

Nine years in, the Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) has continued to lead the way in developing flexible, self-powering and wearable devices that will help both physicians and patients in monitoring human health across fields.

ASSIST, started in 2012, is an Engineering Research Center (ERC) led by collaborators at NC State, Florida International University, Penn State University and the universities of Michigan, Notre Dame, Virginia, Utah and North Carolina. About to graduate from its 10 years of National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, ASSIST has developed a self-sufficiency plan to continue its work, with an emphasis on industry engagement and new partnerships, large grant proposals and non-research sources of revenue.

“The plan focuses on sustaining ASSIST’s leadership in ultra-low-power electronics, self-powering technologies, ultra-low-power sensors and flexible materials integration,” said Veena Misra, director of ASSIST and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State.

Over the last year, ASSIST has identified 15 clinical partnerships, received five grants, initiated a collaboration with UNC to support Alzheimer’s research and worked on developing partnerships with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division to make sensors for paratroopers.

Researchers have made strides in improving some of the center’s core technologies, which include a health and environmental tracker (HET) that helps people with asthma and a HET that monitors diet and wound healing. These HETs are both being used in clinical and behavioral research.

As part of these improvements, researchers built a new biochemical and biophotonic platform that can measure tissue oxygenation. At the University of Miami, clinicians continuously monitored wounds over a period of seven days using the ASSIST platform. The platform can be adapted to detect other biomarkers, and ASSIST is working with East Carolina University to submit proposals on monitoring kidney transplants to the National Institutes of Health.

These technologies are the two closest to becoming more widely used and commercialized. ASSIST launched two more companies last year, bringing its total to 10 startups.

“ASSIST continues to be highly entrepreneurial, with spinouts representing its most successful technology transfer and commercialization avenue to date,” Misra said.

Other accomplishments over the last year include progress in developing novel flexible materials properties for thermoelectric generators (TEGs), which are now more flexible than ever with record-high power levels. TEGs convert the small difference between body and ambient temperature into electricity. With a recent NSF Partnerships for Innovation grant, ASSIST will focus on manufacturing TEGs.

As it moves into its final year of NSF funding, ASSIST has an H-index higher than its sister ERCs, Misra said. “We are being recognized as leaders in self-powered systems.”