Chi Hwan Lee, Master Collaborator in wearable devices research

Although Chi Hwan Lee works with flexible electronics technologies at the cellular and tissue scales, the collaborations he marshals to help advance and translate his innovative technologies operate on an international scale. The assistant professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at Purdue University is a master collaborator. His partnerships span the globe, from South Korea, across the US, to the faculty member next door. He finds partners in industry, clinics, academia, the governments of two countries, and, serendipitously, while standing in line at Starbucks.
Chi Hwan Lee, assistant professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at Purdue University

Lee is not only a magnet who attracts collaborators at just the right time and with just the right expertise, he is a master at leveraging them into partnerships that are mutually beneficial, that are designed to move innovative technologies from the lab to the clinic where they can help people in need.

“I love to collaborate with others,” said Lee. It is a mindset that is pervasive throughout the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering where the entrepreneurial spirit of faculty has resulted in 100+ U.S. patents, with over half licensed to company partners, resulting in over three million patients worldwide directly helped. While innovative biomedical engineering has been going on at Purdue for over 40 years, in just the past decade, the translation of Weldon School innovations has resulted in $20M+ licensing royalties.

This was the perfect milieu for Lee who by all measures has had a prolific start to his career since joining the Purdue faculty only four years ago. He has published more than 47 peer-reviewed articles. His work has been highlighted in multiple high impact journals, he holds two US patents and one Japanese patent along with twelve more US patents pending, has co-founded three start-ups, and has received several research grants—including over $1M in new funding in the past year, from Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Eli Lilly and Company, NIH, and NSF —all the while cultivating a cadre of international, multidisciplinary collaborators.

Lee’s research interests focus on flexible, wearable biosensors that are capable of non-invasively interfacing with the human body. Under that umbrella, he is currently focusing on five main applications—including smart healthcare systems, personalized tele-rehabilitation systems and controls for prosthetics, while also exploring the fundamentals at the interface of wearable electronics and biology.     

Sticker-like thin film electronics (sticktronics)

In one of those “stranger than fiction” happenstances, Lee was in Dayton, Ohio, for a project meeting at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) when he ducked into a Starbucks. An AFRL researcher by the name of Zahyun Ku happened to be there as well. The two struck up a conversation and soon discovered a potential crossover in research interests. That chance meeting turned into a long-term AFRL-supported collaborative research project that culminated in Lee developing light-manipulating devices that can be integrated onto peelable films that can stick to any surface. AFRL wanted Lee to affix the devices to hybrid pixel detectors, which he successfully did, but according to Lee, the devices can stick to any surface and can be developed for biological sensing applications, such as for protein detection in clinical diagnostics. Using this technology, Lee has collaborated with researchers at the University of Virginia to create similar devices that enable ordinary objects to wirelessly connect to a network, and he has co-founded the startup Omniply Tech to explore the market potential of these devices. 

Electronic nanoneedle bio-patch (e-nanoneedle patch)

In an international collaboration, Lee and partners from South Korea’s Hanyang University and Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and School of Mechanical Engineering are developing a flexible, translucent base for silicon nanoneedle patches that can be used to both deliver drugs and to take measurements. The collaborators received support from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Korean Ministry of Science and ICT to complete this study. Two years into this four-year study, there have already been multiple deliverables. The team developed a method that enables physical transfer of nanoneedles from a silicon wafer to a bio-patch that can be used to deliver drugs into cells or tissues with minimal invasiveness and observing in real time the interactions between the cells and the nanoneedles. In addition, they have transformed the drug delivery platform into an electrical sensor platform to collect signals at the cellular level. Lee and his team have been working with Sherry Harbin, a professor in Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, to test the device in stem cell therapies with potential applications in the regenerative treatment of diseases.

In newer applications of this technology, Lee is working with Yoon Yeo, a professor of industrial and physical pharmacy and biomedical engineering, to use the platform to deliver cancer drugs to treat melanoma in mouse models. In addition, he is partnering with researchers in Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as Brain Boudouris, associate professor of chemical engineering, and Craig Goergen, Leslie A. Geddes Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, to develop an ultra-thin stretchable, flexible cardio patch to provide real-time sensing in myocardial infarction studies.

Skin-mountable sensor patch (e-patch)

In a collaboration with Georgia Malandraki, associate professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Purdue, Lee is working on a home-based tele-rehabilitation system that will help patients with swallowing difficulties do therapies at home. Lee has developed a wearable, flexible sensor patch tailored for the area under the chin. The patient wears the patch while performing rehabilitation exercises at home, and the sensors measure multiple biosignals that help clinicians evaluate the effectiveness of the rehabilitation. Lee and Malandraki, who have been in partnership for three years and are working on the 6th generation of the device, have co-founded Curasis, a startup company, to explore the market potential of the system. 

Electronic glove (e-glove)

With the aim of helping people with hand amputations, Lee has teamed up with researchers at the University of Georgia and the University of Texas and Byung-Cheol Min, an assistant professor in computer and information technology in Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute. The team has developed an electronic glove that can be worn over a prosthetic hand to provide humanlike softness, warmth, appearance, and sensory perception. The e-glove uses thin, flexible electronic sensors and miniaturized silicon-based chips on a commercially available glove. The e-glove is connected to a wristwatch that contains a real-time display of sensory data. Lee has patented the technology and is currently searching for clinical collaborators.

Electronic soft contact lens (e-lens)

In a collaboration that includes Pete Kollbaum at the Indiana University School of Optometry, Boudouris, and Pedro Irazoqui, Reilly Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering, Lee has developed a technology to apply sensors to commercially available soft contact lenses. The sensors are designed to monitor glucose, medical conditions and deliver medications. Lee’s team is continuing to test the mechanical and electrical properties of the lens technology, but it is also patented and available for licensing.

Seeking collaborators

With all his successes, it’s no wonder that Lee was awarded the 2019 Korean-American Scientists and Engineers Association Young Investigator Grant and the 2019 NIH Trailblazer Award for New and Early Stage Investigators. These grants recognize outstanding early career development in science, engineering, and technology.

But, this is just the beginning for Lee. “I still need more collaborators,” Lee said, noting that he co-organized and hosted the 1st Mi-Bio Summit on Flexible and Stretchable Bioelectronics in July 2019 at Purdue for the purpose of fostering more collaborations. The conference was attended by some 100 attendees. “We made really good connections with clinicians and researchers from all over the world,” he said, but he is already looking ahead.

Lee hopes to host a similar conference with a more bio-focus in the next few years. He has more grant proposals out, manuscripts being drafted, manuscripts under review, a laboratory that is growing with the acquisition of new equipment, a 10-member lab group, and a perpetual advertisement on his lab’s news page that advertises open research assistant positions. And, of course, he is looking for new partners who are equally dedicated to developing and translating innovative new technologies and wearable devices out of the lab and into the lives of the people who need them.