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How MSU fights crime, enhances car safety, conderves energy and a zillion other things

By Francie Todd

  • Published: 06/13/2011

MSU research continues to transfer to the marketplace and benefit society while helping spur the Michigan economy, as these examples from the College of Engineering illustrate.

One MSU researcher has figured a novel way to ID criminals via smart digital technology.  Another has created an automated process to design innovative vehicles, sensors, cardio-vascular stents and much more.  A researcher in nanotechnology has created a better composite material with applications in car manufacturing, energy cells, wind turbines, electronics and a zillion other applications.

Indeed, these examples show how researchers at MSU continue to uphold a time-honored tradition—putting newfound knowledge to use to make our lives better and in the process helping spur the economy.

For years Michigan State University has ranked among the top research-intensive universities in the world—a distinction that not only adds to the university’s academic reputation, but also offers solutions to global issues and drives economic development.  MSU discoveries that have dramatically improved human life have ranged from the hybridization of corn and homogenization of milk to such life-saving technologies as the HANS head restraint device, now compulsory in many motorsports, and the anti-cancer drugs cisplatin and carboplatin.

Much of today’s research at MSU today addresses the grand challenges of our time—energy, health, the environment, adequate and safe food and water supplies, safety and security.  For these efforts to fulfill their promise, they must travel beyond the confines of research labs; discoveries and inventions must also move into the marketplace to benefit society and enhance economic development.  

In the current economic climate, the creation of new industries—based on renewable energy, biotechnology, cyber security, and nanotechnology—are essential to the retooling of a manufacturing-based economy. Both established industry leaders and entrepreneurs increasingly look to university researchers as a source of new technology and innovative ideas that help them to become more competitive and create new jobs. Conversely, business and industry can help universities to better determine marketplace needs and ensure that graduates are equipped to meet the expectations of employers.

Technology transfer, through licensing of technology developed at MSU and the establishment of new companies that take discoveries from the lab bench to the marketplace, also builds financial strength.  For example, the dozens of patents MSU researchers are awarded each year spin out many economic benefits. “In 2009, the university received nearly $4.5 million in royalties as a result of patent licensing,” says Ian Gray, vice president for research and graduate studies. “Licensed technology can also lead to entirely new businesses and the creation of hundreds of jobs.”

The growing role of corporate partnerships to advance technology at MSU is especially evident in the College of Engineering. In addition to collaborating for technology transfer, industry organizations team up with faculty to conduct research, use research labs to test products and processes, provide co-op or internship positions for students, and support the college both financially and through active involvement in college advisory boards and activities.  Last year, 22 patents were issued within the College of Engineering—accounting for 42 percent of MSU’s total patent output for the fiscal year.

“In the past five years, the College of Engineering has seen amazing growth in its research portfolio,” says Leo Kempel, the college’s associate dean for research.  “Our growing reputation among grant-funding agencies and organizations has resulted in record levels of funding success—resulting in more than $45 million in research expenditures in 2010.  In addition to governmental and foundation funding, we work closely with MSU Business CONNECT and MSU Technologies to build relationships that bring industry together with faculty in research partnerships and to facilitate the commercialization of discoveries.”

Fighting Crime Digitally

While he would never characterize himself as a superhero, Anil Jain has spent a career spanning more than 35 years at MSU focused on technology that aids law enforcement.  Jain, University Distinguished Professor in the departments of computer science and engineering, as well as electrical and computer engineering, is also director of the MSU Pattern Recognition and Image Processing Lab.  His research interests include statistical pattern recognition, data clustering, texture analysis, document image understanding and biometric authentication.

An internationally recognized leader in the area of biometrics and pattern recognition research, he has received grants from organizations ranging from the National Institute of Justice to the FBI Biometric Center of Excellence. He holds six patents in the area of fingerprints alone.  Jain’s work in pattern recognition and machine vision systems has become increasingly significant as a result of today’s homeland security issues.

Despite what you may have seen on television crime shows, matching only a partial or latent fingerprint is not easy. Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Jain and his team are working on improving the performance of latent fingerprint matching as well as latent palmprint matching.  They are also developing technology (funded by the FBI) that could automatically determine if a fingerprint has been altered. Other projects are aimed at recognizing faces at a distance—developing technology that will match a distant image to a close-up shot in a database of suspects; matching facial sketches to mug shots; and “soft” biometrics such as tattoos and face marks, such as scars, moles, or discolorations on the skin, to help identify a suspect.

Jain and his colleagues have developed numerous technological advancements that have been licensed for commercialization in systems designed to prevent fraud, enhance security and curtail identity theft.  Most recently, the university has licensed unique tattoo matching technology to MorphoTrak, the world’s top provider of biometric and identity management systems. The technology uses features such as tattoo color, shape and texture to compute the similarity between images.

“This technology is an invaluable tool to assist law enforcement with intelligence gathering for suspect and victim identification,” Jain says. “Two major uses for the technology in particular will be identifying suspects as belonging to a particular gang if they have tattoos used by known gangs, and identifying victims of mass disasters such as tsunamis, when a body is too badly damaged to be identified through other means.”

Daniel Vassy, president and CEO of MorphoTrak, adds that “we understand the importance of joining forces with our nation’s top academic institutions to help extend crime fighting capabilities with groundbreaking technologies. We are uniquely positioned in the industry to bring this technology to market to assist law enforcement and corrections agencies in making our streets safer.”

Improving Design with Math and Computers

One longstanding spin-off companies resulting from MSU research is Red Cedar Technology, Inc. an East-Lansing based company co-founded in 1999 by MSU researchers Ron Averill and Erik Goodman. Red Cedar Technology ( develops and markets design automation and optimization software for various industries, includi

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