Princeton University is stepping up its efforts to take technology developed by its professors out of the lab and into the marketplace. Last month its IP Accelerator Fund gave up to $100,000 each to six new technologies, including a method of enhancing X-ray images that could give doctors a clearer look into the human body than they have ever had before.
“Our aim is to help faculty members and their research teams accomplish the goal of seeing their discoveries reach the public where they can have a real-world effect, either through improving people’s health, providing technological capabilities that boost our productivity and experiences, or through innovations that can improve our lives in ways that we haven’t anticipated,” said John Ritter, director of Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing, in a statement. “That is what is exciting about university research.”
The projects include a battery tester that uses sound waves to find flaws, a cybersecurity sentry that guards against hacking attacks, a laser-based system that can measure the temperature of an entire room, a way of measuring glucose without drawing blood, and a potential cure for certain cancers.
One of the projects that received funding was professor Jason Fleischer’s X-ray enhancement technology. Fleischer, an associate professor of electrical engineering, has spent much of his career working in the field of image processing, and saw X-ray images as an ideal area where he could put some of his research to work.
“Essentially, it’s fancy Photoshop,” he says. “We take an X-ray image, and we do a lot of digital processing on it.”
Fleischer’s image processing technique improves the quality of the picture by enhancing contrast and removing “noise” from the picture. The end result is that doctors can make out much better detail, with much better accuracy, than they could using standard techniques. The software can run on a standard desktop computer.
Fleischer said the technology arose from work he had been doing on digital photography. “We started off doing optics,” he said. “It turned out that the techniques we were using to make normal pictures better could be applied to other forms of biomedical imaging, such as ultrasounds and X-rays.”
Image processing is nothing new. Cell phone cameras rely on advanced image processing techniques in order to get a good picture out of a minuscule camera with a small lens. Fleischer says he has tried image enhancement on MRIs and PET scans also, but that it works best on X-rays and CAT scans (which use X-rays). “This technique works well if you give us a single picture, and it works even better if you give us multiple pictures, which is what a CAT scan does,” Fleischer says.
The technique relies on comparing the image with multiple other images of the same body parts. Using advanced mathematical techniques, the sample images are compared with the picture being processed, to help filter out the “noise.” What remains is a clearer picture that could help doctors identify features that are hard to find in blurry X-rays, such as hairline fractures in bones or small tumors.
Fleischer grew up in Virginia and went to college at the University of Chicago. He earned a doctorate at UC San Diego, where he worked on nuclear fusion. But by the time he graduated, he says, the bottom had fallen out of funding in fusion research, so he settled on optics. “Working on the physics of optics, and how optical waves got through things got me into imaging,” he says.
Fleisher has founded a company, Ultrasonics, to perfect and commercialize the ultrasound and X-ray image processing techniques he has invented. Practical applications have always been on his mind. “In the engineering department, they ask you, ‘what is it good for?’ and when people ask you enough, you start thinking about it,” he says.
Aerospace and engineering professor Dan Steingart’s sonic battery testing company, Feasible Inc., is another recipient of the funding. Currently, batteries are tested by charging and discharging them, a process that can take days. Steingart has invented a way of using sound waves to probe a battery looking for imperfections, and to see how much charge it carries. He invented the technique after seeing a YouTube video that showed dead batteries bouncing, while fully charged ones land with a thud. (U.S. 1, May 11, 2016.)
Steingart discovered that the secret to the battery’s bounce lay in its chemical core. Batteries produce an electrical current by a reaction between zinc and manganese oxide. In a fully charged battery, the zinc is a powdery substance that flows easily, damping any potential bounces. But as the battery is used, the zinc oxidizes, forming hard, springy zinc oxide: the same compound that gives a golf ball its bouncy core.
Further experimentation led Steingart to realize the properties of batteries could be determined by measuring how high they bounced, and even more precisely by probing them with sound waves. His company is an outgrowth of that research.
Steingart hopes his work can contribute to a change in America’s energy infrastructure.
Steingart, a Long Island native, is a Berkeley graduate. A drive across the country in 2000 made him realize how much America relied on fossil fuels. To Steingart, improving battery technology provides a way out of fossil fuel dependence both for transportation and the energy grid. His research has focused on ways of making batteries better.
Steingart is currently working towards putting his acoustic technology to use in battery manufacturing plants. The technology could help improve manufacturing methods, driving the cost of batteries down, and also help prevent batteries from exploding. A recent spate of battery combustion incidents involving hoverboards, vape pens, and Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones has highlighted the hazards of using lithium-ion batteries.
Computer science professor David August created a system called TrustGuard that functions as a sentry against cybersecurity breaches. The system monitors all communications coming from a computer before they are sent out. August says the system can be protected from being compromised by hackers from the time it is manufactured to when it is installed and used. “With TrustGuard, users are assured of their privacy even when any component of the system is untrusted,” he said in a statement.
A new kind of sensor created by architecture professor Forrest Meggers could provide a way to improve the efficiency of climate control systems in buildings, as well as end office disputes over where to set the thermostat. Conventional thermostats only monitor one spot in a room, but the Spherical Motion Average Radiant Temperature (SMART) sensor and 3-D thermal renderer can measure the radiant temperature of a solid object at a given location and also measure an entire room in three dimensions. The smart sensor could allow a system to know, for example, that a spot near a cold wall was colder than the rest of a room, and needed more heat.
Currently, diabetics are burdened with the requirement to take frequent blood samples to measure their glucose levels. Electrical engineering professor Claire Gmachl has developed a laser system that replace a pinprick with the scan of a quantum cascade laser beam on the wrist or finger. The laser has showed promising results when tested on patients, and the funding will help build a new prototype. A desktop-sized version worked in the lab, but Gmachl wants to make a smaller version.
The laser works by shining a through a patient’s skin cells and reflecting it back to a sensor. The amount of light absorbed by the sugar molecules in the patient’s bloodstream allows the device to accurately measure blood glucose level.
Another professor hopes to use his technology spinoff to do nothing less than cure cancer. Joshua Rabinowitz, professor of chemistry, has identified small molecules that could serve as a new class of anti-cancer drugs. These chemicals target certain genes in cancer cells that create the enzymes needed for “one-carbon metabolism.” By using small molecules to delete these genes, tumor growth can be halted. Rabinowitz’s team will use the funds to improve the molecules.