March 9, 2017

Purdue’s Discovery Park initiates world-changing solutions to global challenges with announcement of Big Idea Challenge winning teams

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — On Thursday (March 9), Purdue University’s Discovery Park announced the winners of the Big Idea Challenge, a new program that will provide resources to interdisciplinary teams of Purdue faculty and students pursuing bold proposals that address global challenges.

The seven winning teams intended to position the university as a leader in generating new solutions for solving global grand challenges in the areas of health, security and sustainability are:

“Affordable Net Zero Housing and Transportation Solutions”
Principal investigator: Leigh Raymond, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Environment in Discovery Park

Overview: Current housing and transportation options create environmental and social challenges and, in particular, impose high costs on low-income families. Drawing on expertise from multiple departments and colleges, Raymond and his team aim to transform the affordable housing sector so that onsite renewable energy and smart home and transportation technologies are the rule rather than the exception. 

“Harnessing Technology and Information Fusion to Enable Resilient and Sustainable Food-Water Balance under Evolving Environmental Conditions”

Principal investigator: David S. Ebert, the Silicon Valley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of VACCINE (Visual Analytics for Command, Control and Interoperability Environments) 

Overview: By the year 2030, food production must be increased by 70 percent in order to feed a larger world population. Today, almost 80 percent of the world’s fresh water withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers go to agriculture. Ebert and his collaborators will develop a human-computer collaborative decision-making system for sustainable agriculture that takes into account the complex relationships between real-world data, the socio-political environment and on-the-ground practices. The system will provide planners and policy- and decision-makers with more accurate information than previously possible, helping growers to optimize crop yields and minimize use of water and other resources. 

“Managing the Global Commons: Sustainable Agriculture and Use of World’s Land and Water Resources”
Principal investigator: Thomas Hertel, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics 

Overview: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are focused on ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Meeting that goal will require reconciling future demands for food, energy, clean water, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and poverty reduction. Examining the possibility of win-win outcomes, Hertel and his team will establish an applied research consortium to analyze scenarios and explore policy alternatives that promote responsible public and private investment, sustainable management of critical, shared natural resources, and collective action toward meeting the UN’s SDG.

“Revolutionizing Control of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases”
Principal investigator: Catherine Hill, professor of entomology and vector biology, Department of Entomology 

Overview: New and reemerging mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue are on the rise as a result of unprecedented human population growth, habitat destruction and climate change. Scientists are seeking to develop a robust arsenal of weapons to combat these diseases. Hill’s team aims to meet this challenge by developing new control technologies based on non-toxic and non-lethal pesticides that suppress pathogen transmission by mosquitoes. Ultimately, they intend to create and commercialize compounds that disrupt disease transmission from mosquito to human without killing the insect and while preserving biodiversity. 

“Photonics Science and Technologies for Security, Energy and Healthcare Applications”

Principal investigator: Yong P. Chen, professor of physics and astronomy, electrical and computer engineering, and director of the Purdue Quantum Center 

Overview: Approximately 50 million people in the U.S. alone become ill because of contamination by foodborne pathogens and other agents every year. Conventional and standard bacterial detection methods may take up to several hours or even a few days to yield an answer, and are inadequate to solve this problem. Building upon Purdue’s expertise in photonic science and engineering, and collaborations between multiple disciplines and stakeholders, Chen and his team intend to develop photonics-based food pathogen sensors that bridge the gap between university-scale research and real-world deployment, offering enhanced performance at lower cost. 

“Realizing Next-Generation Smart Manufacturing”

Principal investigator: Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Endowed Professor and Associate Head, Department of Computer Graphics Technology, and director of Purdue’s Product Lifecycle Management Center of Excellence 

Overview: The digital revolution ― driven by the rapid emergence of new technologies such as 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, autonomous systems, robotics and others ― is changing the way humans live, work and play. In particular, it is transforming manufacturing, which is experiencing a fourth industrial revolution. Exploring approaches to digitalization throughout manufacturing, Hartman’s team will engage with stakeholders, create roadmaps and develop a cohesive, multidisciplinary approach to next-generation manufacturing aimed at creating a new competitive edge for U.S. manufacturers, and at training the next generation of talent that will carry this revolution forward.

“Towards Cyber-Physical Vetting of Critical Infrastructures”
Principal investigator: Dongyan Xu, professor of computer science and interim director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) 

Overview: Critical cyber-enabled infrastructures, such as those in civil, energy, manufacturing and defense domains, are increasingly the target of cyber or physical attacks that pose significant threats to organizational and national security. However, no strong defenses currently exist that span both the cyber and physical domains. Xu and his team aim to develop an integrated framework for vetting a cyber-physical infrastructure system from both the cyber and the physical perspectives simultaneously. The outcome is expected to provide a new set of models, methods and tools for defending a wide range of cyber-physical infrastructures such as dams, nuclear facilities, IOT systems and others.

Discovery Park received 46 proposals from more than 230 participants across Purdue, representing 10 colleges and 45 departments. Of those proposals, 16 were selected to present their Big Idea on Feb. 23 to a panel of judges, which included Purdue faculty and other leaders in industry and academia. 

“The quality of the teams and the compelling nature of these proposals made the decision very hard,” said Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, chief scientist and executive director of Discovery Park. Panel judges considered various aspects of each proposal, including long-term viability, policy and ethics.

The call for proposals was directed at the nexus of five major areas of research: global sustainability, global health, data science, nanotechnology and defense. Research teams partnered with Discovery Park centers to hone their proposals. 

“It has been phenomenal watching these new partnerships evolve. These proposals will catalyze and enable brand new areas of research to address some of the biggest problems facing our world today,” Díaz de la Rubia said.

“The Big Idea Challenge is the essence of Discovery Park: forming new collaborations and bringing researchers together to solve complex problems that a single discipline cannot solve alone,” said Suresh Garimella, executive vice president for research and partnerships. “I am excited to see how each of these projects charts new pathways to discoveries, innovations and social and policy solutions for our world.”

Winning teams will receive funding for up to two years, based on the scope, milestones and budget laid out in the proposals. Discovery Park also plans to work with the teams that did not obtain funding to help them identify other partner organizations for achieving their research goals.

Discovery Park is an open laboratory for transdisciplinary collaboration at Purdue focused on the grand challenges of global health, global security and those that lie at the nexus of sustainable energy, world food supply and the environment. Large-scale interdisciplinary research is carried out in Discovery Park with an emphasis on driving innovations to the marketplace. Faculty, students and staff gain experience and access to the university’s entrepreneurial programs for help in commercializing their discoveries.

Writer: Amy Schlueter, 765-496-7823,

Sources: Tomás Díaz de la Rubia,

Suresh Garimella,

Related website:

The Discovery Park Big Idea Challenge

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