Two of Chicago’s most notable innovations of the year are rooted in Northwestern University research, according to Chicago Innovation, which bestowed the coveted honors on the Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System and Epicore Biosystems at the 21st annual Chicago Innovation Awards Nov. 16.
One, a collaboration with municipalities to monitor wastewater for COVID-19, the other, a healthcare startup that created a wearable patch that monitors sweat to deliver personalized hydration, stress and metabolic health insights, these high-impact inventions were among 20 winners, selected from 365 nominees, as Chicago’s most innovative products and services across industries and for organizations large and small.
“Northwestern is known for its collaborative research strengths — particularly at the intersection of disciplines, as is common within our University-wide research institutes and centers, such as the Center for Water Research,” said Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich. “That team-oriented approach also leads to our successful innovative partnerships with other local and regional institutions, which positions our research teams to solve urgent societal challenges and do so with speed and agility.”
Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System
Winner of the top-level award, the Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System is a creative solution to COVID-19 monitoring, born from a cross-institutional research effort led by Northwestern University, the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Argonne National Laboratory.
In collaboration with the Chicago and Illinois departments of public health and Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), the researchers test and analyze wastewater from sources around Chicago and Illinois to detect COVID-19’s presence and ultimately prevent the spread of illness. Northwestern is the data analysis lead for the program.
“Our major achievement was to rapidly develop methods to measure SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and track the spread of COVID-19 variants,” said Northwestern professor Aaron Packman. “City and state public health departments were involved in our research efforts from the beginning, and we designed the entire program to deliver actionable information to protect public health in Chicago and Illinois.”
Packman, who led the Northwestern team, is the director of the Center for Water Research, a leader of the Smart Great Lakes Initiative and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering.
Northwestern’s core data analysis team for the Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System includes Katelyn Leisman and Niall Mangan, both professors of engineering sciences and applied mathematics; David Morton, industrial engineering and management chair, and professor; along with Ph.D. students Maria Warns and Guyi Chen.
The Chicago-area research team was one of the first in the nation to reliably analyze samples of raw sewage for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 2021, providing real-time information to the Chicago and Illinois departments of public health to assist them during the pandemic.
The team also screens sewage samples for influenza A and B for the state.
Infected people shed genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 virus through urine and feces — even when symptoms aren’t present — making sewers and wastewater treatment facilities a perfect site to look for telltale signs of illness.
In Chicago, DPI partnered with Current — another 2022 Chicago Innovation Award recipient that received advisory support from Northwestern — to draw samples from neighborhoods to get a more local picture of COVID-19 trends, and at O’Hare International Airport to track potential new variants coming in from out of state.
Currently, the Wastewater network spans more than 80 monitoring sites, covering over two-thirds of Illinois’ population.
Epicore Biosystems is a healthcare startup that created the first sweat-sensing wearable platform to deliver personalized hydration, stress and metabolic insights to athletes, industrial workers and consumers. Epicore Biosystems’ Gx Sweat Patch and Gx App product, developed in partnership with Gatorade, received recognition in the form of the Collaboration Award at the Chicago Innovation Awards.
The organization was formed as a spinout company from Northwestern’s Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics and the John Rogers Laboratory.
Rogers, the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery and director of the Querrey Simpson Institute, co-founded the company, which he now advises, along with Northwestern Trustee Kimberly K. Querrey (’22, ’23 P).
The microfluidic technology captures tiny droplets of sweat directly from skin pores, which can then be analyzed in real-time, and used to monitor athlete performance by measuring how much fluid and electrolytes have been lost. In 2021, Epicore Biosystems and Gatorade launched the Gx Sweat Patch and Gx App, which are now available in retail stores and through e-commerce channels.
“It is an incredible honor to be selected for the Chicago Innovation collaboration prize amongst such an illustrious group of entries this year,” said Epicore Biosystems CEO and co-founder Dr. Roozbeh Ghaffari. “This recognition highlights the tireless efforts of our multidisciplinary team in bringing the Gx Sweat Patch and App from a concept to full-scale launch and creation of a new product category.”
Ghaffari is the director of translational research at Northwestern and an associate professor of biomedical engineering at McCormick. He has been recognized with many awards for his contributions to soft bioelectronics, nanoscale systems and neuroscience.
Epicore Biosystems has established its wearable products by partnering with leading Fortune 500 companies, the Department of Defense and research hospitals to drive personalized hydration and health management insights with its microfluidic wearables.
In March 2022, Ghaffari and team closed a $10 million series A investment round to help accelerate commercial scale up of its microfluidic biosensors and data cloud platform. The industrial version of their sweat-sensing product, called Connected Hydration, is currently in pilot testing and tailored for enterprise customers to address the hydration and nutrition needs of industrial workers in extreme labor conditions.
Sweat is a rich source of largely untapped biomarker data, containing solutes, metabolites, hormones, proteins, micronutrients and exogenous agents — each of which can provide insights to clinicians and be analyzed to bring data to consumers. From its origin as a McCormick spinout to the present, Epicore Biosystems has continued to advance its wearable microfluidic technology and products in the ever- expanding digital health sector.
Editor’s note: Rogers and Ghaffari have financial interests in Epicore Biosystems. Northwestern University also has financial interests (equity, royalties) in Epicore Biosystems.