For the Route 1 technology investing community, one event last month was more important than the Super Bowl. On February 15 seven teams of Princeton University professors and graduate students came forward with projects they were working on, presenting them to a panel of judges in hopes of winning a share of a $30,000 prize pool. The technology ranged from a way for repairing severed nerves to a computer chip that prevents Internet-connected devices from being hacked. In the end, one invention rose above the rest in the eyes of the judges to take the top prize.
The Princeton Innovation Forum, held every February for the past 12 years, is one way in which the Keller Center encourages commercialization of technology developed in Princeton’s labs. This year’s event packed the auditorium at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, as technology investors, patent lawyers, and researchers gathered to network over hors d’oeuvres and catch a glimpse of the future of high-tech business.
Each contestant took the stage for three minutes to pitch their idea, explaining why each was worthy of further funding and development. While only three teams walked away with a piece of the $30,000 in prizes,they all had a chance to speak face-to-face with members of the business community and possible investors who could help bring their creations to the marketplace.
Some ideas had working prototypes, while others were in early stages with little to show but sketches. But all offered the tantalizing potential that they could one day grow into a multi-million dollar business or even make the world a better place.
“The Innovation Forum presentations were excellent,” said Jim Cohen, who was a judge at the event and is also managing director of Fitz Gate Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Houston and Princeton. “While you can only cover so much in a three-minute pitch, the ideas and value propositions presented by the seven different startups were extremely innovative, and each has real potential for viable commercialization. The event itself, from the introductory remarks to the competition to the keynote, was first-class all around.”
The other three judges were investors like Cohen, and they rated the presentations on how well they showed there was a market for the product, what the benefit was, how the invention would create revenue, what the risks were, and the overall quality of the presentations.
Some of the faculty members have already founded companies to commercialize their creations. Engineering professor Mung Chiang, who has been director of the Keller Center for Education, Innovation and Entrepreneurship since 2014, said there are two major options for taking a laboratory innovation and getting it to generate revenue. The first is to license the technology to an existing company.
This was the route taken by Princeton chemistry professor Edward C. Taylor when he created the compound that eventually became the cancer drug Alimta, which became a $2.5 billion blockbuster for Eli Lilly, earning more than $500 million for Princeton University in royalties. The other is to found a startup company. Chiang says more and more researchers are choosing the latter path, and that in 2015 the number of startups based on university-developed technology rose 11 percent, and that the number was even higher at Princeton.
Chiang, who is stepping down as Keller Center director in June, says the center has had a big impact in promoting such ventures since it was founded 12 years ago. In addition to events like the Innovation Forum, the Keller Center runs a summer eLab accelerator program for student projects and has several funds for student and faculty-run businesses. Last year it opened the Entrepreneurial Hub, an incubator space on Chambers Street for university-associated businesses.
And the Contestants Are
Smart, Secure, Energy-Efficient IOT Sensors. On October 21 last year, Internet users suddenly found it hard to connect to some of the most important websites in the digital economy: Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, GitHub, Etsy, Tumblr, Spotify, PayPal, Verizon, Comcast, and the Playstation network, plus countless lesser known websites, all experienced outages. The amount of business lost during this outage was in the billions.
The disruption was the result of what security experts call a distributed denial of service attack against Dyn, an important Internet DNS (Domain Name Server) provider that serves major websites. In a regular denial-of-service attack, a computer floods the target web service with bogus requests, blocking out legitimate traffic. A DDOS uses multiple devices that have been hijacked with viruses, vastly multiplying the power of the attack and making it harder to shut down.
October’s outage was not the first major DDOS attack, but it did use an ominous new tactic. In previous attacks, the fake traffic all came from “botnets” of computers that had been taken over by hackers. But in October’s attack, the hackers took over devices like cameras and digital video recorders, which are connected to the Internet but which often lack security features that would keep hackers out.
Niraj Jha, professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, has been working on a fix to this Achilles heel of Internet security. He pointed to the explosion of Internet-enabled devices over the past few years. There are currently about 50 billion machines connected to the Internet, a number that experts anticipate will double by 2020. Everything from refrigerators to medical devices in hospitals to children’s toys are becoming connected to the Internet, but many of these devices communicate out in the open with no security, meaning hackers can easily take control.
Jha says that device makers could add encryption to their signals, but that encryption increases the amount of energy required for the device to communicate, driving up costs. Most Internet of Things device makers therefore choose to use unencrypted signals, Jha says.
Jha says the computer chip he invented will provide a way out of this dilemma. The chip can be used in Internet-enabled IoT devices, and it uses inference and cryptography to encrypt signals while at the same time reducing the amount of energy needed to communicate. His method uses machine learning and compression. Each chip would only cost a few dollars, he says. He says his invention has already been validated for use with medical sensors, and that tests of other kinds of devices were planned.
Standardized NMR-Based Quantitative Metabolic Profiling of Equine Bio Fluids. “Horses are expensive,” says Gregory Kornhaber, a life science management consultant who is working with Princeton chemistry professor Istvan Pelczer to develop a new technology that could help veterinarians diagnose diseases in horses. Pelczer believes a technique he is developing could prove essential to the large (and expensive) horse veterinary business.
There are about 58 million horses in the world, according to some estimates, and of those, about 20 percent will develop some kind of metabolic disorder during their lifetimes, Kornhaber says. Diagnosing those disorders is a big business.
Veterinarians can detect many of these diseases by analyzing blood. If a vet thinks a horse may have one of a number of metabolic diseases, a lab can analyze metabolites that indicate a certain disease. Each tests costs about $50, Kornhaber says.
But Pelczer and Kornhaber say a method they are studying has the potential to look for a whole range of metabolic disease signatures at once, leading to improved diagnostics. Pelczer proposes a business model of setting up a lab with a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, and analyzing blood samples for diseases. The technology promises to leapfrog current methods by diagnosing many diseases with a single sample. Kornhaber says that with some marketing, this business could become a major player in the market, rapidly generating good returns on investment.
Real-Time Monitoring of Medical Injections. Every year 7,000 people die because they are administered an incorrect dose of medication, says the team behind Tendo Technologies (not to be confused with a Georgia marketing consultant of the same name). Tendo is led by Marcus Hultmark, an assistant in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and graduate students Yuyang Fan, Clayton Byers, and Matt Fu. They say their invention can save lives by accurately monitoring the flow of medication from IV bags.
The team’s sensor looks like a circle with two triangles jutting in, and the shape doubles as a stylized logo for Tendo. The triangles are silicon supports for an electrically conductive nanoscale ribbon. The sensor is called an elastic filament velocimeter, and Tendo says it has many advantages over existing methods of measuring the flow of liquids, which are surprisingly fallible. Tendo says it has the only sensor that can accurately and precisely measure resistance in real time and at a competitive cost. Tendo says its sensor is made using microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing techniques.
Tendo is already in talks with manufacturers and hopes to see IV machines and even individual injectors someday being made with their sensor built in. The company hopes to “revolutionize medical infusions” and save lives.
In situ bioprinting for image guided surgeries. If the method of nerve repair proposed by postdoctoral chemistry research associate Alexei Goun is complicated, its goal is easy to understand. “We could have saved Superman,” he says in his presentation. He’s referring to actor Christopher Reeve, who portrayed Superman on screen and who was paralyzed from neck down after he was thrown from a horse. The Princeton-raised actor lived on a ventilator for nine years after the accident, dying from complications from his condition at age 52 in 2004. No surgical technique, then or now, could restore the connection between the actor’s brain and his body.
Goun, along with professor Evgeny Ostroumov, physicist Jason L. Puchalla, and graduate student Daniel Oblinsky, propose using techniques called optical coherence tomography and two-photon activated polymerization to create a new kind of laser surgery system that would allow surgeons to “bioprint” tissue and repair severed nerves.
Goun believes that these tools could also be used to create high-density and adaptable neural interfaces and could be used with other kinds of tissue.
Multiplexed photoacoustic imaging for cancer treatment diagnosis. Every tumor is different, and each kind of tumor only responds to a specific set of drugs, according to the team that is developing a new kind of tumor imaging technology that could help doctors treat cancer more effectively. Robert K. Prud’Dhomme, professor of chemical and biological engineering, together with doctoral candidates Jack Hoang Lu and Leon Wang, are creating a way to image tumors.
Lu says current methods can only look for one disease marker at a time, making it useful only in certain situations. Prud’Homme’s new technique combines marker dyes, sound waves, and light to show which of five “phenotypes” a tumor represents. Unlike an MRI, the machine could be small enough to fit on a handcart. “We are going to bring the power of molecular imaging to your doctor’s office,” Lu says.
Sustained Delivery of Biologics with Inverted Flash NanoPrecipitation (INFP). Sometimes a new way to formulate drugs can be just as important as the drug itself. The second project by Prud’Homme’s students in the innovation forum is a way of producing microparticles used in drugs.
Graduate students Robert Pagels and Chester Markwalter are also on the team developing this technology.
Biologics are a class of medications derived from biological sources, as opposed to conventional drugs, which are synthesized via chemical processes. Biologics are often structurally complex. Vaccines, antibodies, and hormones are all examples of biologics, and Pagels says they make up a $200 billion market.
Pagels says many biologics require daily injections on the part of the patient, which can lead to patients not complying with the medication schedule. But what if those same drugs could be released slowly, over a long period of time? Those daily injections could be reduced to weekly or monthly or even twice a year, increasing patient compliance.
The technology created by Pagels’ team uses an advanced manufacturing technique to produce tiny particles of biologic drugs. Currently, pharmaceutical companies make some drugs in microparticle form, but the process is expensive and no one makes biologics in microparticles. But Pagels says INFP is a potential game-changing technology. “We’re trying to make the process cheaper and make the particles themselves better,” he says.
Pagels says this technology can be brought to market quickly because it can be applied to substances that the FDA generally considers safe already, thereby avoiding the regulatory hurdles that companies must overcome before introducing new drugs. He says the team is already working with Merck and Eli Lilly to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new way of formulating biologics.
Spherical Motion Average Radiant Temperature Sensor. Most people who work in an office know what it’s like to be freezing while a co-worker two desks over complains that it’s sweltering and wants to turn down the heat. This age-old argument isn’t necessarily due to individual preferences, but to the shortcomings of traditional thermostat technology.
Professor Forrest Meggers, director of the CHAOS lab at the school of architecture and the Andlinger Center, together with researcher Robert Read of the Waterloo School of Architecture in Ontario, and graduate student Eric Teitelbaum, have come up with a technological solution to this problem.
The team brought a working prototype of its invention to the Innovation Forum. A sensor mounted on a swiveling turret scanned the reception room, showing a three-dimensional map of the room, and the temperature at each location. Cool areas near the walls were blue, while humans showed up as bright red dots.
The SMART sensor is superior to a thermostat in several ways, Meggers says. First, a thermostat only takes air temperature at a certain location, whereas the SMART sensor can see which areas in a room are hot or cold.
Second, air temperature only tells half the story when it comes to whether you feel hot or cold. Thanks to thermal radiation, being next to a cold object can make you feel colder even if the air temperature around you is warm. For example, someone sitting next to a fire feels heat radiating from it even if the air is chilly. The SMART sensor can account for this effect because it scans the surface temperature of objects and can calculate the perceived temperature that nearby people would experience.
Last, the system’s ability to detect the presence of people would be useful for automatically turning the climate control system on when people enter a room. Current systems that do this use motion sensors, which are imperfect because they sometimes turn off when people in the room are still for a long time, such as when they are asleep. (Experienced hotel guests know to groggily wave a hand in the air to turn the heat or air back on.)
Overall, Meggers says, the SMART system would allow for buildings that are both more efficient and more comfortable. He is working with Siemens as well as the Department of Energy to further develop the technology.
And the winners are: After deliberating for about half an hour, the judges arrived at their results.
Third place went to team Tendo for its flow rate sensor.
Second place went to Jha for his smart device security chip.
First place went to Pagels’ presentation on manufacturing microparticles for delivering biologic drugs.
Cohen, one of the judges, said Pagels’ and Markwalter’s sustained delivery of biologics technology stood out above the rest. “While it was by no means an easy decision because all of the entrants were excellent, we chose the biologics/IFNP as the ultimate winner because the idea itself is an extremely innovative solution to a very real problem in the $200 billion biologics market,” he said. “The value proposition was clear, and the path to commercialization seems achievable while significantly improving the lives of patients worldwide.”
The microparticle project is Pagels’ doctoral thesis, which he plans to complete next year, and then hand off to Markwalter. The team plans to license the technology rather than founding a startup company. If a pharmaceutical manufacturer buys into it, the university would collect royalties on drug sales, and Pagels and Markwalter would see a small percentage. For winning the innovation forum, the team got $15,000 cash, which it is putting toward research and development costs.
Pagels grew up in Hampstead, Maryland, where his mother was a nurse and his father worked for the department of health and human services. With two parents working in medical fields, Pagels studied chemical engineering at the University of Delaware and is in his fifth year of Princeton’s chemical and biological engineering program. Pagels says that after he earns his doctorate, he may go into teaching or work for one of the pharmaceutical companies that he is currently partnering with. He says his research team worked well together to create the three-minute presentation that took first place in the forum.
He said the forum was a rewarding experience.
“This was my first time trying to talk to a non-technical audience about my research,” Pagels says. “Hopefully most people, even if they don’t understand it fully, can understand why it is important.”