Wenyan Jia, Pitt research faculty member, is developing a device that will better facilitate monitoring brain activity without the need for wires or gels.


No Strings Attached

Pitt Innovator’s Wireless, Self-Adhesive Electrode Receives SBIR Grant

Wenyan Jia had no expectation of leading a startup company when she joined the lab of Pitt professor Mingui Sun as a postdoctoral scholar in 2005.

With persistence and commercial translation funding opportunities both from within and outside the university, and with guidance from the Innovation Institute, she is proceeding optimistically toward the day when her research is making a difference for doctors and their patients.

When Jia received National Institutes of Health funding for development of a wireless electrode in 2011, Jia combined that idea with an older patented technology in the lab — an electrode with micro teeth that painlessly “screw” into the skin without the need for messy and time-consuming gels or pastes — into a new device.

Dr. Sun and Jia then applied for and received a $12,000 grant from Pitt’s Center for Medical Innovation in 2014 to explore its clinical and commercial potential. Jia didn’t know it then, but she had set the wheels in motion to take the technology out of the university and into the real world where it can make an impact.

In 2017, Jia formed a company around the technology. To get her company off the ground, she applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The SBIR program provides grants from 11 federal agencies to small businesses to conduct research and development on promising technologies with commercial potential.

Her first submission was denied, which disappointed her, but did not deter her. Jia said the device can be of great advantage for monitoring brain activity in the clinic. She talked through the idea with previous collaborators in the Department of Neurosurgery, and remained convinced the device was addressing unmet needs.

One of those collaborators is Parthasarathy Thirumala, associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery.

Thirumala has now been consulting with Jia for several years on the development of the self-adhesive electrode, serving as clinical faculty lead for several Pitt innovation competitions.

“There are other products seeking to address the same problem,” Thriumala said. “I continue to believe this solution is superior and will benefit doctors and their patients, whether it’s in the clinic or in the emergency room.”

After her initial SBIR denial, Jia huddled with Paul Petrovich, Innovation Institute assistant director of business development, to digest the feedback from the first SBIR application and develop a  re-submission.

This time the application was successful and she received a Phase I grant of $150,000.

Jia said she is using the grant to continue work on the prototype of the device. In October she signed the agreement to license the technology from the University. She has named her company eWear Technologies LLC. She hopes by year’s end to have a prototype for human-subject evaluation.

She said that she intends to submit an application later this year for a Phase 2 SBIR grant, for which she could potentially receive up to $1 million to continue her translational research.

“Wenyan is an inspiring example of a Pitt innovator who is passionate not only about the process of creating new knowledge through research, but then taking the next step toward ensuring that research can make an impact on people’s lives,” said Paul Petrovich, assistant director of business development at the Innovation Institute.