When Michael Morehead entered West Virginia University’s master’s program in computer science in 2011, his main goal was “survival.” The Bridgeport native’s main motivation was obtaining health insurance to cover medical bills from chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s all he wanted, he admits. But he wound up with much more. 

man with long hair, sunglasses on head

Not only did he get the support he sought for medical expenses, Morehead jump-started a virtual reality and scientific visualization company called IstoVisio. “To go from that state to the CEO and co-founder of a successful startup has been absolutely unbelievable and dreamlike,” he said. His story is just one example of how WVU sparks innovation and entrepreneurship among the campus community and beyond.

As an R1 institution since 2016, WVU has maintained its status as one of the top research universities in the nation, sharing the same designation with the likes of Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins. With the territory has come increased research funding and resources and opportunities for new ideas, new methods, and new devices for discoveries. “When you think about what R1 status means in terms of innovation, there’s been more opportunities for innovation and new research pathways,” said Erienne Olesh, executive director of the Office of Student and Faculty Innovation in the WVU Research Office.

To go from that state to the CEO and co-founder of a successful startup has been absolutely unbelievable and dreamlike.

— Michael Morehead

Morehead began his WVU journey as a biology major before switching to chemistry and earning his bachelor’s degree. He then embarked on medical school but dropped out after a year-and-a-half. That’s when computer science came calling. All the while, Morehead was trying to ward off cancer. “My main goal was survival,” he said. “And I figured a reasonable salary post-graduation would just be the cherry on top.”

Illustration showing virtual reality and scientific vizualization

In graduate school, Morehead met Gianfranco Doretto, computer science professor, and then neuroscience faculty member George Spirou. They landed a grant to program a three-dimensional computer-assisted virtual environment that analyzed neurons. Morehead began utilizing virtual reality and conducting scientific visualization of brain neurons. This work could prove useful in treating brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, and schizophrenia, Morehead said. 

“The Spirou and Doretto labs were already working together to build advanced 3D visualization systems to explore super-high-resolution image stacks from electron microscopy,” he said. “In general, the data was all three dimensional, but we could only explore it on two-dimensional computer monitors, which was very frustrating. We hypothesized that seeing this data in 3D would unlock the inherent capabilities of the human mind to understand relationships in structure, and we’re validated years later with many of our customers reporting that they found or noticed something unseen on their computer monitors.”

Out of that research sprouted IstoVisio, a startup that offers syGlass, a software system that enables scientists to visualize and explore data in 3D by using virtual reality head-mounted displays. Before this technology, scientists could only see “image slices of the data.” SyGlass is used in more than 100 labs across the world and by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, University College London, and universities in France and Australia, to name a few. “WVU provided critical guidance in technology transfer and forming the company,” Morehead said. “WVU computing resources were critical in developing the technology, but it was really fostered by cross-campus collaborative spirit between the departments of computer science and neurosciences.”

Morehead would win a Student Innovator Award for his work. In the past two years, IstoVisio has deployed syGlass into high school classrooms.

“One of the biggest changes here at syGlass is our new focus on science education,” Morehead said. “Since our software is already used by hundreds of research scientists to view their advanced 3D images, we’re uniquely positioned to bring these datasets into the classroom to inform and inspire the next generation of scientists.

“Students absolutely love seeing the real data in VR, and they report that they can finally focus on their lessons when isolated in the headsets. During a time when student engagement is at an all-time low, I’m very excited to bring these wonderful datasets into classrooms and to nurture the spark of curiosity.”

Innovating till the cows come home

In early 2022, WVU Vice President for Research Fred King envisioned ramping up innovation efforts and resources on campus. The Research Office tapped Olesh to serve as its new student and faculty innovation director. The position would aim to advance the development of small businesses commercializing innovations from research and technology generated by faculty and graduate students at the University.

Since then, Olesh has helped guide individuals throughout the commercialization and small business development process. “Part of the rationale for creating this new office was to help align the resources and create a group that could help shepherd people through the process,” Olesh said. “My goal is to bring together the resources around innovation at the University to create more seamless pathways, whether it be working with students and faculty at the early stages of their ideas or getting them on the right track to grow a sustainable startup company.”

One of those resources is the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Program. This is essentially an “entrepreneurial boot camp” that guides innovators to take their products to the commercial market. And the program isn’t limited to the WVU community; it’s open to anyone in the state.

Matt Wilson, professor of animal sciences, has benefited from the I-Corps Program. High tech may not necessarily come to mind when thinking about farming, but Wilson has developed a tool that can improve the sustainability of livestock production.   smiling man in flying WV shirt Wilson has crafted technology that measures a cow’s water intake whenever it drinks and weighs it when it comes to water. He pairs that data and climate data with feed bunks that measure how much animals eat. The technology then uses the known feed intake to build predictive algorithms with the other data.

“Today there is no way to measure individual animal intake on pasture,” Wilson said.

Through this tool, Wilson said farmers would be able to manage livestock in a more efficient manner. The data shows them how much water and food are consumed by cattle. This could help them determine which cattle to breed. For instance, if an animal doesn’t eat much it may pass those traits to any offspring.

Wilson has tested the technology on University farms.

“We relied on data collected from a group of consignor bulls and research steers to use the system to build the initial tool,” he said. “We have continued to collect data and refine our big data/machine learning/data science approach. We have also continued to collect data and now have records on more than 2,500 animals of various breeds and all four classes (bulls, cows, steers, and heifers).”

Closeup of cows eating hay in a farm setting

Wilson credited Olesh and the Research Office for accommodating his innovations.

“We had filed the provisional patent on our technology, and I had heard Erienne Olesh talk about the I-Corps Program several times over the years,” Wilson said. “We applied to participate in a regional course and it was eye-opening. It made me think that our work might actually have commercial value.”

Olesh believes WVU can serve as a model for other universities in the nation when it comes to spurring innovation, particularly for rural areas.

“One thing we’ve been getting recognition for, especially with the National Science Foundation, is our focus on rural innovation and entrepreneurship,” she said. “We are taking national programs and modifying them to better serve our population.

“I love seeing the opportunities being presented for people to create products and technologies that can impact the world. It is really fulfilling when you can see research and discoveries translate into something that actually improves somebody’s life. For me, that's the most rewarding part of my job.”