Cunningham named Fellow of OSA and NAI

ECE News

Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Professor Brian Cunningham was recently appointed a Fellow of both The Optical Society and the National Academy of Inventors.
  • His biosensing innovations include sensors that detect water-borne contaminants and toxins, and others that target specific biomarkers and antibodies.
  • Cunningham is an alumnus of the department (BSEE '86, MSEE '87, PhD '90) and has been a full-time faculty member since 2004.

Sometimes when the students are bustling across the Bardeen Quad, between engineering classes, book bags on, you wonder about their future accomplishments and accolades, as though a young Hemmingway could have just brushed past on the streets of Oak Park. Some students on the quad will found successful start-ups; that’s certain. Many will have major technological breakthroughs and become corporate officers or tenured professors. Others will seemingly do it all. This is the case for Professor Brian T Cunningham, an alumnus of the department, who was recently appointed a Fellow of both The Optical Society and the National Academy of Inventors.

Brian T. Cunningham
Brian T. Cunningham
Cunningham (BSEE ’86, MSEE ’87, PhD ’90) is well known for his biosensing innovations, including work that was announced earlier this year whereby an iPhone can be converted into a sophisticated device for identifying contaminants in water, and another project that could automate screening for early-stage cancer. But when Cunningham was a graduate student, working in Professor Greg Stillman’s lab, even he couldn’t have predicted his future as a biosensing expert. 

“At that time, all I wanted to work on were semiconductor lasers, semiconductor detectors, things that might be used for night vision…[or] thermal imaging,” he recalled. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Sandia National Laboratory, he joined Raytheon as a senior project scientist, and there he worked on infrared detectors that could be used for heat-seeking missiles. “There wasn’t any biology with any of that,” he recalled. “We were concerned with making the fastest transistors, semi-conductor light emitters, and light detectors.”  

He moved to Draper Laboratory in 1995, continuing to work on defense-related projects, but while he was there, the applications of his research began to change. His team was initially creating gyroscopes and accelerometers for guided missiles, using a micromachining fabrication process. Those sensors have since been transferred out of the defense sector and into the consumer market: They are in smartphones and tablets, detecting hand-held rotation and movement. They are in airbag deployment systems. 

Draper then became interested in using the same micromachining technology to create tiny sensors to detect biological and chemical attacks, in areas of military conflict and in cities and transportation hubs. “Really we were interested in putting biology and micromachining together, where you take squishy things like antibody molecules and attaching them to hard things like silicon wafers, and being able to use that to detect an anthrax spore,” Cunningham explained. Others had created biosensors previously, but they were rudimentary. None were micromachined, and most were too bulky for applications outside of a laboratory. 

Around the same time, two of Cunningham’s close family members were diagnosed with cancer. “Military and defense is all very important to the country,” he said, “[but] I literally had a revelation, where I felt that I wanted to have more impact on something that would help human beings, and so I made a conscious decision from that to work on biological applications of technology.”

He maintained his leadership role at Draper Laboratories, but in 1998, he began working simultaneously with the Center for Innovative Minimally Invasive Therapy in Boston. They partnered with physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital who were interested in detecting bacteria in intensive care units that might presage the development of antibiotic resistance. After two years, Cunningham and two friends from the Sloan School of Management founded a startup, SRU Biosystems, that designed and commercialized the BIND Biosensor and Bioreader. Cunningham served as CTO.

He was concurrently offered an adjunct faculty position at the University of Illinois, and once SRU Biosystems was fully rolling, in 2004, Cunningham joined as a full-ime faculty member. The company responsibilities had become more about “quality control, and the manufacturing, and the marketing, and the business relationships,” he recalled, “and I don’t know, I felt like I had a lot of new ideas that I wanted to follow through on.”

Since then, he has worked with graduate students to create biosensors of all sorts, many with photonic crystal surfaces. Some sensors target specific substances—biomarkers and antibodies that signify otherwise imperceptible diseases or infections—while others, like the iPhone-adapted water biosensor, can detect a wide array of toxins and contaminants. Soon small, inexpensive biosensing equipment could become a regular part of health and medical routines. 

It is for these innovations that Cunningham has been recognized as a Fellow of The Optical Society and the National Academy of Inventors, both prestigious appointments. “It is an honor to be selected,” Cunningham said, “and it’s nice that your colleagues think that you’re doing good enough work that they’ll recognize you in that way.” He credited the university and the departments—he is also a professor of bioengineering—for fostering an inspiring research community. “I'm grateful for the environment here that made it possible.”  

Cunningham will be inducted to the National Academy of Inventors by Deputy US Commissioner for Patents Andy Faile, during the third annual conference for the academy, next March, at the headquarters of the US Patent and Trademarks Office. (To date, his inventions have resulted in 76 issued US patents with many still pending.) Fellows of The Optical Society will be officially recognized at societal conferences throughout 2014. 

But winding back from those conferences, before his research lab at the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, where he is also interim director, before the offices of SRU Biosensors or the labs of Draper and Raytheon and Sandia, Cunningham was once an undergraduate walking between classes on the engineering campus. And as many have discovered, the paths from there are rife with success. 

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