Every year, the lines between academe and the business world get a little blurrier, thanks to things like Princeton University’s technology transfer and licensing programs, which let the university and its faculty benefit from licensing professors’ inventions. Those programs netted Princeton more than $100 million in 2011, and smart money is that the trend will continue. Nowhere will the links between industry and university be more apparent than at the annual poster session sponsored by the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network,
The event takes place Wednesday, February 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Friend Center at Princeton University. Rochelle Hendricks, the state secretary of higher education, will speak. The event is $30. For more information, visit www.njen.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the session business people will have the chance to network with faculty and students from Princeton and Rutgers, as well as venture capitalists and angel investors who will be there in search of the next hot startup to fund. Each company will have the chance to pitch investors, and also to display their company’s technology on a foamcore poster. The format is probably familiar to academics, but if it’s not, think a school science fair, but all grown up.
To Joe Montemarano, director of industrial enterprise at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM), and co-organizer of the event, the poster session, which started about five years ago, represents a change in the career path of high-tech researchers. “It used to be everybody was geared towards being a professor, or working for large companies. The trend out there is that the kinds of R & D support from large companies is not as robust as what we saw 20 years ago. What has picked up are the small companies who are very agile and aggressive.”
More and more, these companies come from recent graduates or even students who are launching their businesses while still in school. Many of those “agile” businesses will be at the poster session.
Sentinel Photonics is one such company that came out of university research. The company makes highly precise sensors that can detect trace amounts of gases. It was founded by researchers from Princeton and Rice universities, and has recently expanded and moved from Deer Park Drive to Wall Street.
NJEN president Louis Wagman says another company that benefited from exposure at the poster session is Pervasive Group, a Clifton-based software company that was started in the NJIT incubator. The company, a maker of the MMGuardian parental control program, received angel investment from Delaware Trust shortly after it won the “best investment” prize at the poster session last year. (There are three prizes at the session: one “people’s choice” determined by the audience, best investment, determined by expert judges, and “investor’s choice.” Each winner gets a free patent application, worth about $5,000.)
Montemarano says every company that presents at the session must have some basis in technology — although, that doesn’t mean everyone has to be a maker of high-tech gizmos. Last year, one of the presenters was a cane manufacturer. “It provides a technical advantage beyond a normal cane,” Montemarano says. “It doesn’t scream high tech but there’s materials science that goes into making it.”
Montemarano was involved in conceiving the idea of the poster session as a way to get businesses together with researchers, in a format that would be familiar to academics. The business community was slower to catch on to the concept of a poster session, he says. “Ten years ago companies didn’t know what we were talking about when we said `poster session,’” he recalls.
The poster session isn’t just an advertising opportunity, he says. It’s not all about marketing. Rather, companies are expected to provide some insight into the technology behind their products. The sessions are usually well attended, with anywhere from 20 to 40 companies making posters, spanning a wide variety of industries, from around New Jersey and the surrounding states. Many of the presenters are biotech companies. The students and professors come from Princeton, Rutgers, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Montemarano himself has enjoyed a long career spanning both academia and private industry. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father worked for Time Inc., and his mother was a statistical typist. “I was a latchkey kid before people knew what that was,” he says. After graduating from a highly disciplined Catholic high school, he went on to study biology at Hopkins, and earn a graduate degree in computer science.
Montemarano, an early believer in the power of computers to do science, went on to work as a researcher for Bendix, then at PA Technologies, which used to have its headquarters on Princeton-Hightstown Road. In 1994 he came to Princeton and became investment liaison to the university’s tech center.
Now, in his post at PRISM, he is focused on bringing the business world and the academic world together to mutual advantage. “Businesses and universities are making a very specific effort to reach out to each other and find where they can leverage each other’s capabilities and expertise,” he says.
The idea is to convert technology into technology business. “People don’t invest in technology, they invest in technology businesses,” Montemarano says. “If we can sew the seeds, if our young companies and faculty and students can succeed, we’re delighted to do that,” he says.