Skip to Main Content
Professor Yu Zou (MSE) will be leveraging self-driving labs to accelerate his research focused on the development of improved materials for joint replacements. (Photo: Neil Ta)

Canada’s population is aging, and with that comes a host of new stressors on the health-care system — including an increasing number of hip and knee replacements. In a best-case scenario using current materials, a hip or knee replacement can last a maximum of 25 years. With average life expectancies trending upwards, the rate of subsequent surgeries to replace or fix hip and knee replacements is poised to grow as well — adding even more stress on the system. New materials are needed to help solve this problem.

Enter self-driving labs (SDLs). SDLs combine artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced computing to discover new materials and molecules for commercial, clinical and industrial use in a fraction of the usual time and cost.

Professor Yu Zou (MSE) will be using the tools SDLs offer in his quest to speed up the development of improved materials for hip and knee replacements. Zou and his team will leverage an SDL to rapidly test combinations of elements to find the alloys required for longer-lasting joint-replacements.

Zou’s work is but one example of the problems being tackled head-on by scientists who have received funding from the Acceleration Consortium’s (AC’s) Accelerate Grants. These 12 new research projects — including the one led by Zou — are either developing technologies that will support the development of SDLs or using SDL technologies to accelerate discovery. The AC is funding a diverse array of research efforts across nine departments in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, the Faculty of Arts & Science, the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and the University of Toronto Scarborough.

These research projects are made possible by the almost $200 million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) awarded to the AC last April, the largest federal research grant ever awarded to a Canadian university. The projects being enabled by the grant promise innovative advances in fields ranging from health care and climate change to sustainable materials design and food waste-management.

“Using AI and automation to carry out more laboratory experiments in a smarter way, we’ve supercharged the process of scientific discovery,” says Professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik¸ director of the Acceleration Consortium and professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “These 12 Accelerate Grants are not only an investment in science but are an investment in our future. The creativity and the diversity of thought shown by the researchers on these projects tells me that the materially different future that the Acceleration Consortium is striving for is achievable in our lifetime.”‍

The Acceleration Consortium awarded the 12 grants in three categories — Accelerate Seed, Accelerate Moonshot and Accelerate Translation:

  • Accelerate Seed grants build accelerated discovery capacity at U of T by helping faculty enter the field or collaborate with those already doing accelerated discovery.
  • Accelerate Moonshot grants support high-risk, high-reward grants that will make significant contributions to the development or use of SDLs.
  • Accelerate Translation grants support accelerated discovery projects with clear commercialization goals and justified/demonstrated market potential, as well as the implementation or scaling of knowledge mobilization activities, training, and community engagement.

Recipients of Accelerate Seed grants include:

  • Professor Eugenia Kumacheva, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Arts & Science
    “Self-Driving Lab for the Synthesis of Upconversion Nanoparticles for Bioanalytical Sensing”
  • Professor Jay Werber, Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Self-Driving Labs for the Development of Next-Generation Membranes for Pressure-Driven Separations”
  • Professor Leo Chou, Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “High throughput discovery of peptoid-DNA nanocarriers for antisense oligonucleotide therapies”
  • Professor Nandita Vijaykumar, Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough
    “An Efficient and Versatile Software Framework for AI-based Automation of Materials Discovery”
  • Professor Emily Moore, Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering Education & Practice (ISTEP), Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Integrating environmental, social and economic factors into SDL processes”
  • Professor Joseph Williams, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Arts & Science
    “Comparison of Traditional and Adaptive Experiment to Accelerate the Identification of MicroRNA in a High Through-put Acute Respiratory Disease Syndrome In Vitro Model”
  • Professor Kai Huang, Department of Materials Science & Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Automated and AI-driven Fluidic Synthesis of Lanthanide-Based Nanocrystals”

Accelerate Moonshot grants have been awarded to:

  • Professor Yu Zou, Department of Materials Science & Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Accelerated Discovery of Revolutionary Materials for Biomedical Implants”
  • Professor David Sinton, Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Enabling self-driving electrocatalyst discovery: From A3MDs high-throughput electrocatalysis to the inorganic SDL1”
  • Professor Milica Radisic, Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Self-driving platform technology for vascularized human organ mimicry”
  • Professor Christopher Lawson, Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
    “Accelerated design and assembly of synthetic microbial communities for sustainable chemicals manufacturing”

‍Professor Bowen Li, at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and cross-appointed to the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, is the recipient of an Accelerate Translation grant to support his project “Self-Driving LNP Discovery Lab: An AI and Robotics-Powered Platform Facilitating mRNA Therapy Delivery.”

“This suite of Acceleration Grants is an excellent example of how the Acceleration Consortium is advancing the globally recognized strategic research mission of the University of Toronto in a way that’s critical for Canada to remain competitive on the international stage,” says Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.

“By enabling the next generation of scientists to use self-driving labs and fostering research collaboration and partnerships between departments and institutions, these grants will enable the recipients to conduct high-impact, interdisciplinary accelerated research to discover materials that will improve our world.

“I congratulate the principal investigators and their teams who are leading these varied investigations, and I look forward to seeing their results in the accelerated timeline now made possible in part by CFREF and the remarkable demonstration of support for their work.”

While the CFREF funding will help to further advancements made by several researchers who are recognized as leaders in their fields, most support is going to early-career scientists who are pioneering new discoveries just as SDL technology is emerging as a revolutionary approach to knowledge. Projects dedicated to the continuous improvement of SDL technology are also being funded. As an example, Vijaykumar’s project will develop software that can better manage the fast-flowing data streams SDLs create as well as the resources required to run the experiments.

“The work our grant recipients are doing will help us ensure that the Greater Toronto Area and Canada remain world leaders in AI-frontier discovery,” says Aspuru-Guzik.

“And we’re doing so with innovative contributions from people at every stage of their career, with an eye to developing the next generation of groundbreaking researchers along the way. No one is resting on their laurels; each grant recipient and member of the AC is pushing the edge of what is possible and is working towards a materially better future.”

The Acceleration Consortium opens its next funding competition in summer 2024 to welcome proposals for new research projects.

Media Contact

Fahad Pinto
Communications & Media Relations Strategist