For those of us uninitiated in the protocol of scientific presentations, the scene looked rather like a high school science fair. Only the stakes were much higher. The April 7 event was the sixth annual Innovation Forum, sponsored the Keller Center at Princeton University, a competition and poster session designed to showcase technological ideas that could be turned into viable businesses.

The event is open to individuals and teams consisting of Princeton faculty, post doctoral candidates, and graduate students. Eight finalists compete for $40,000 and a chance to take their ideas from the academic drawing board to the commercialization and development phase.

First prize is $25,000, second prize is $10,000, and third place is $5,000. The winners receive the money via a funds transfer from the Keller Center to the winners’ home department. The funds must be used for purchases and activities directly related to the research.

If an invention gets commercialized, the university gets a share of any income, based on the percentage of rights Princeton owns. The university claims all rights to inventions by faculty, students, and staff who use its money or facilities.

Princeton pays inventors half of the first $100,000 made, 40 percent of the next $400,000, and 30 percent on anything above $500,000. Or, it can release all rights to the inventor.

Past winners have taken advantage of the break the Innovation Forum offers. It was a similar Princeton competition in 2002 that gave Tom Szaky, then a Princeton freshman, his start at TerraCycle. Szaky has made an international success of his Trenton-based recycled products business, which started with the most humble of ideas, turning worm poop into salable fertilizer.

This year’s Innovation Forum was sponsored by the Keller Center, the Jumpstart New Jersey Angel Network, and the College Road-based law firm, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, in conjunction with Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing.

This year’s first-place winner was Tunable Acoustic Gradient Technology by Christian Theriault and Craig Arnold of the university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department. Based on a technology developed in 2007 by Arnold’s laboratory, the technology uses sound to change the properties of light. This, according to the team’s presentation, gives the lens the ability to rapidly change focal lengths and resolution. The technology fills the need for an ultra-high speed, variable-focus lens relevant to health, energy, security and environmental applications and, according to Theriault and Arnold, could find its way onto portable computers.

Formally the company is known as TAG Optics Inc. and can be reached at 609-356-2142 or at www.tagoptics.com.

Second place went to SuryaTech, a solar technology company founded by Princeton Ph.D. candidates Yifei Huang and Sushobhan Avasthi and James Sturm, director of PRISM, the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (see story on page 37).

Third place went to Vikram Pansare, a third year graduate student in the university’s chemical and biological engineering department, and Robert K. Prud’homme a professor in that department, for their presentation, “Targeted Multifunctional Imaging Nanoparticles.” That technology looks to develop disease treatments using nanotechnology and could be applied to cancer treatments.

“There are many applications for this technology in diagnostics and drug targeting as well as in basic biological research,” said Pansare.

The university and medical research market size is estimated at $50 million and the clinical market size: $3 billion. The technology is patented, as well as being a flexible, personalized, cost-effective way to produce nanoparticles that can be targeted to specific diseases.

Other presenters were Soumya Sen of the electrical engineering department, who presented “TUBE: Pricing (Mobile Data) by Timing;” Yunlai Zha from the electrical engineering department, who presented “Contact-Printing of Integrated Infrared Waveguides,” Edgar Choueiri of the mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) department, who presented “3D Audio,” Howard Stone of the MAE department, who presented “Paradigm Shift in the Laboratory: IT-Enhanced Lab Management and Safety,” and Peter Liu of the electrical engineering department, who presented “Low-Cost Single-Mode Quantum Cascade Lasers with Monolitihic Coupled Cavities.”

The evening began with three-minute oral presentations by each presenter on their projects to the audience and panel of judges including angel investors, venture capitalists, students, faculty, staff, and members of the Princeton area entrepreneurial community.

Judging was based on several criteria, including the novelty and innovativeness of the idea, its competitive advantage, and IP status. Judges were also asked to look at the potential market size and need for the idea, the possible mechanisms to generate revenue as well as to provide social good, and the key risks and challenges that still needed to be overcome to bring the idea to market.

Following the oral presentations, the eight contestants met informally with the audience during the “poster presentation” portion of the event, giving them an opportunity to continue their pitches to friends, family, faculty, and (most importantly) angel investors and venture capitalists. While only three of the eight could win university prize money, the opportunity to impress an investor during the presentations meant that each competitor had the chance to walk away with money in his pocket.

Cornelia Huellstrunk, associate director of the Heller Center, discussed the changing role of the university in technological innovation. “The entrepreneurial route is increasingly the vehicle for engineering to help society,” she said. Programs such as the Innovation Forum are often the best way for a university to showcase its newest technology to the business community.

The evening’s keynote address was delivered by Vivek Pai, associate professor of computer science at Princeton, who reminded the audience how a successful technology has to be more than a good idea. “The real world is not like the world of the university,” he said. And he speaks from experience. Pai joined the faculty of Princeton University in 2000 (U.S. 1, February 10, 2010). He was a winner of the 2009 Innovation Forum and is currently on leave from the university while working on a new start-up idea.

A university is an excellent starting point for developing the research needed for a new, commercially viable technology, Pai says, but “it is easier to publish than to pitch and prune.” While a university career demands that both graduate students and faculty publish their work on a regular basis, as soon as it is published, the research becomes available for others to see and to use in their own work.

Students and faculty must learn the difference between what is important in “the real world” and what is important in the university. “In the university you are constantly trying to save money,” he said. “If spending an afternoon cleaning glassware will save $100, then that is what you do. In the real world you need to be spending that time much differently.”

Pai has successfully launched three technologies in the past decade; two of those were commercially successful. But, he cautioned his audience, those are only two of about a half dozen total projects he has worked on. All have been in the area of network server software, not traditionally a staple of research in New Jersey, nor necessarily a research focus known for start-up activity.

Pai has worked in numerous areas of server design and performance, including operating systems, applications, and distributed systems. He co-founded iMimic Networking, where he helped architect and develop the fastest Web proxy server in the world. iMimic was acquired by IronPort Systems, which was then acquired by Cisco. He also co-founded CoBlitz LLC, which focused on improving the home video experience while managing the cost of the necessary infrastructure. CoBlitz, one of the winners of the 2009 Innovation Forum, was acquired by Verivue in last fall.

As an inexperienced entrepreneur, he found that not knowing how to spend time and resources hurt. At his first contract negotiation with a global-sized company, “we sent one person,” he said. “They had 15. They had a team of lawyers. Our guy was chatting by instant message with our lawyer.”

Other speakers were Vince Poor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, John Ritter, director of the Office of Technology and Licensing, Mario Casabona, chairman of Jumpstart New Jersey Angel Network, and Cornelia Huellstrunk, associate director for external affairs at Keller Center.

As the crowd of about 100 people mingled in the auditorium, many speculated on the outcome of the contest. The crowd favorite was the first presenter, 3D Audio. Choueiri is a professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department, but his invention has little to do with that.

“I’m a frustrated musician,” he said. “I cannot play, but I have been recording music for years and I have always been disappointed by the fact that while the quality was excellent, recording devices could never capture the special reality of sound.”

His poster presentation included an audio example of his new sound technology, making it easy to hear the difference. While listening to the recording, one could hear voices speaking from all directions — and they seemed to be simultaneously close and far away.

Choueiri is further along in his technology than some of the other presenters. He has a working model of his invention and is also starting to receive attention from investors and from the media. NPR will produce a segment on 3D Audio in the next few weeks.

Another presenter who left his specialty was Howard Stone. Stone moved to Princeton University last year after spending 20 years at Harvard. His move, he said, was made for personal reasons. “We have family in this area and I think we’ve already seen them more this year than we did in the 10 previous years,” he says.

The move to the new laboratory was what sparked Stone’s idea for IT-enhanced lab safety measures. “When we got here, my people and I went to the standard two-hour safety training session,” he said. “At the end of it we were in information overload. What type of gloves do you wear when? How do handle this procedure or that one? We walked out and none of us could really remember anything.”

The experience started him thinking that while most scientists are working on developing the latest in technology, they are often still using 20th century technology in the ways they work. “They are either taking notes on a notepad or a laptop computer,” Stone said. “Inventory management is handled on a different computer system, security and safety procedures may be in a written manual. There is no integrated software that allows information sharing for chemical safety, lab safety, inventory, project management, and all of the other lab procedures.”

One member of the audience was disappointed in the presentations because there were no women finalists. Lloyd J. Baroody is managing director of Golden Seeds, an angel investment group that specializes in companies that have been started or are run by women. “A diverse organization, one with both women and men involved, tends to make more money,” Baroody said. “After tonight, I think Princeton University needs to support women in entrepreneurship.”

Prud’homme said the forum has changed over the six years it has been in existence. “When it began it was a student-only event. A few years ago the rules changed to allow faculty involvement and that has really changed the entire event,” he said. “It is now more like a pro-am tournament. You have the graduate students competing against faculty who have a couple of decades of experience.”

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