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Innovation that gets into the skin

Photo by Christopher Huang.

Northeastern is one of 21 universities nationwide to receive an innovation award through a new National Science Foundation (NSF) program that will fund the development of a new device that can measure skin tone accurately by determining the amount of melanin in the skin.

The highly competitive award was made through the NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. I-Corps aims to highlight how universities can spin off their research into companies that address real-world problems — such as the new technology Northeastern researchers envision for the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry.

The Keck 3D Fusion Microscope at Northeastern’s Gordon-CenSSIS NSF Engineering Research Center — directed by professor Michael Silevitch — was initially used to discover a fluorescence-based method for detecting melanin, or pigmentation, in the skin. Melanin provides protection against harmful ultraviolet radiation, while its density defines skin color.

Silevitch’s team was previously able to excite the melanin fluorescence and distinguish it from everything in the background — a method that would ultimately improve the speed and accuracy with which dermatologists and oncologists manage and treat skin cancer. However, researchers later discovered the new, noninvasive and low-cost technology also had great potential for a novel use in the cosmetics industry.

The team’s goal for the project, known as MySkinTone, is to ultimately develop a handheld device that measures a person’s melanin levels. They say these readings could remove the guesswork from matching that person with the appropriate skincare products, and provide useful information for a variety of applications, such as modulating the settings in tanning beds. The team has estimated the total potential market for their solution at $1.5 billion worldwide.

“A can-do attitude is what has made our country great,” Silevitch said. “The I-Corps program is the next spark that will help enable a national innovation engine, and we are excited that MySkinTone was selected for this flagship award.”

The winning I-Corps teams receive $50,000 to begin assessing the commercial readiness of their technology concepts, as well as guidance from private- and public-sector experts.

In addition to Silevitch, the Northeastern team is comprised of Josef Kerimo, manager of the Keck microscope facility; David Orecchio, a Northeastern alumnus, entrepreneur and mentor on the project; and Emel Bulat, the Gordon-CenSSIS industrial liaison.