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After a rigorous evaluation of the five newest finalists and the four previous SURPASS teams, WSE and APL have selected this cycle’s awardees of the SURPASS initiative. Chosen from a field of strong contenders, these teams’ proposals have answered the challenge to go beyond possible to seek ambitious and innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing societal problems.

To view an archive of all past teams selected for the SURPASS program, click here.

CEREBRO: Enabling the Next Step of Human Evolution

Amy Foster, PhD
Nicholas G. Povlopoulos, PhD

PIs: Amy Foster, PhD (WSE) and Nicholas G. Pavlopoulos, PhD

WSE Contributing Faculty: Mark Foster, PhD; Jacob Khurgin, PhD; and Elisabeth Marsh, MD, PhD (SOM)

APL Contributing Staff: J.J. Wathen, PhD; Griffin Milsap, PhD; Alex New, PhD; Nathan Rafisiman; Jackson Pittman; and Konstantinos Gerasopoulos, PhD (PM)

2023 – 2024

2024 – 2025

The CEREBRO team is at the forefront of a technological revolution that aims to transform the landscape of neuroimaging and human-computer interaction. By pioneering a cutting-edge, portable, and non-invasive brain imaging technology, CEREBRO’s mission encompasses the early detection and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia, deciphering the complexities of autism spectrum disorder, advancing prosthetic control through thought alone, and more. The team’s innovative approach also extends to real time cognitive performance monitoring, and opens the door to science fiction concepts such as remote operation of robots on extraterrestrial landscapes – expanding human capabilities and exploration to new frontiers. While these concepts may seem out of reach – they are, in fact, within the realm of known possibility, barring one limitation. To date, there is no fully non- invasive method for monitoring brain activity with the combination of wearability, portability, sensitivity, and spatio-temporal resolution needed for decoding the subtle cognitive information transmitted by neurons firing in the cerebral mantle during normal everyday human activities. The CEREBRO team seeks to address this critical technological and market need for cost effective, wearable/portable, and non- invasive neuroimaging, unlocking the power of the brain to enable the next step of human evolution. Through support from the SURPASS program at the Johns Hopkins University, the CEREBRO team is not just envisioning a future where the mysteries of the brain are unlocked, but is actively working to make this future a reality, promising a profound impact on medicine, technology, and our understanding of the human condition.

Photoacoustic Retinal Prosthesis

Emad Boctor, PhD
Seth Billings, PhD

PIs: Emad Boctor, PhD (WSE) and Seth Billings, PhD (APL)

WSE Contributing Faculty: Maomao Chen; Peter Gehlbach, MD, PhD (SOM); Jeeun Kang, PhD; Jin Kang, PhD; Casey Keuthan, PhD; Dominique Meyer; Alexandra Patterson; Yannis Paulus, MD; Wayne Rodgers; Hyunwoo Song; James Spicer, PhD; Ji Yi. PhD; and Don Zack, MD, PhD

APL Contributing Staff: David Shrekenhamer, PhD (PM); Chad Weiler, PhD; Erika Rashka; Luke Currano, PhD; Jackie Sharp; Christopher Stiles, PhD; George Coles; Francesco Tenore, PhD; and Bree Christie, PhD

2023 – 2024

2024 – 2025

Approximately 3 million Americans today suffer from debilitating degenerative retinal disorders of the photoreceptors, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa (RP), with no hope of restored visual function. This figure is projected to double by the year 2050. Our objective is to change this reality and provide a viable treatment option for individuals suffering from blindness and severe vision loss due to incurable disorders of the outer retina. By harnessing the power of photoacoustics to synthetically stimulate residual inner layers of the diseased retina, our patented photoacoustic retinal stimulation (PARS) approach represents a new paradigm for prosthetic vision to safely restore form vision and overcome challenges where prior technology has failed. This approach follows a multi-step energy conversion pathway whereby light from a highly focused nanosecond pulsed laser irradiates an energy absorbing implant material thereby generating thermoelastic expansion within the material and producing a localized source of ultrasound. These ultrasound waveforms then stimulate activity within the residual neurons of the inner retina that produce vision. Having completed an initial phase of research under the SURPASS program, our research team has developed a prototype test device and completed proof-of-concept experiments demonstrating the ability of optoacoustics to successfully stimulate action potentials in retinal ganglion cells. Our continuing work focuses on maturing our technology to improve performance in key areas for restoring functional form vision and to provide broad applicability across the full domain of retinal disorders that could potentially be treated using this approach. Our continuing work also focuses on expanding our biological studies to further characterize the efficacy and safety of our techniques while optimizing our approach through experiments with retinal explants and live animal models. By leveraging this foundational research, our team aims to spur external investment in a new research program that will ultimately change the hope and reality of many who suffer from the debilitating impacts of incurable blindness.

ADD-H2: AI-Driven Discovery of High-Entropy H2 Generators

Avi Bregman, PhD
Corey Oses, PhD

PIs: Corey Oses, PhD (WSE) and Avi Bregman, PhD (APL)

WSE Contributing Faculty: Anthony Hall, PhD

APL Contributing Staff: Kenneth Kane, PhD; Karun Kumar Rao, PhD; Victor Leon, PhD; Leslie Hamilton, PhD (aPM); and Morgan Trexler, PhD (PM)

2024 – 2025

Hydrogen (H2) is the premier zero-emissions energy carrier of the post-fossil-fuel era, not only capable of powering our increasingly electrified technology, but also providing sustenance for the rising population. However, its clean generation stands as one of the major obstacles to an H2– powered future. Through unique chemistry and innovative chemical engineering, ADD-H2 offers a pathway to making it accessible from two of the most abundant resources on Earth, water and heat. Despite the hundreds of solutions that have been explored, thermochemical water splitting has yet to be commercialized because of the excess temperatures required to provide appreciable H2 yield. The ADD-H2 team looks to design a new type of reactor employing the principles of high entropy materials.

Organoid Intelligence: Synthetic Biological AI

Erik Johnson, PhD
Thomas Hartung, PhD, MD

PIs: Thomas Hartung, PhD, MD (WSE) and Erik Johnson, PhD (APL)

WSE Contributing Faculty: Lena Smirnova, PhD (WSE/BSPH); David Gracias, PhD; Tim Harris, PhD; Brian Caffo, PhD (BSPH); Lomax Boyd, PhD (BSPH); and Jeffrey Kahn, PhD (BSPH)

APL Contributing Staff: Francesco Tenore, PhD; Erin Hahn, JD; Bart Paulhamus, D.Eng.; and Brock Wester, PhD (PM)

2023 – 2024

2024 – 2025

Integrating our understanding of biological and artificial intelligence is a grand challenge requiring deeper insights into the foundations of natural and engineered cognition. To address this grand challenge, we pioneer organoid intelligence (OI) – interfacing and analyzing in vitro models of the brain (Brain Organoids) to gain insights into emergence of intelligence in biological neural networks. Our interdisciplinary team, led by PIs Thomas Hartung (The Johns Hopkins University Department of Environmental Health and Engineering) and Erik Johnson (The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics lab), specializes in deriving, maturing, and interfacing human brain organoids and applying insights by fusing cultures with AI and robotics.

In Year 1, we demonstrated the ability to conduct foundational open and closed-loop sensing/control experiments with brain organoids. In Year 2, we will focus on neuromodulation of learning and embodiment, as well as formalizing protocols to ensure ethical oversight. Through biologically grounded research, we believe OI holds promise for transformational advances in understanding lifelike intelligence to benefit society.

Our central goal is demonstrating the promise of OI systems for adaptive, lifelong learning. By engineering, analyzing, and applying brain organoids to problems in AI/robotics, this project aims to uncover the complex dynamics underlying biological intelligence. Success could enable breakthroughs from disease models to efficient biocomputing through hybrid approaches. We also address ethical challenges introduced by these brain-based platforms.

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