Taking top honors at Princeton University’s eighth annual Innovation Forum on the evening of March 12 was part of a whirlwind transformation for Lei Tao.
Just a year ago, the postdoctoral scholar considered himself a pure researcher, working with his adviser, Assistant Professor Mark Zondlo, to solve technical problems associated with understanding the behavior of greenhouse gases. But then colleagues around the world started asking if he and Zondlo had plans to sell the sensors they created.
Tao and Zondlo won a spot in a National Science Foundation program to provide intensive hands-on training in starting a business. Then they entered the Innovation Forum, an annual event organized by Princeton’s Keller Center to showcase research with commercial potential. Representing one of six teams that delivered rapid-fire pitches to an audience of more than 100 at Princeton’s Carl Fields Center, Tao impressed a panel of business leaders with his plan to break into the growing market for environmental sensors with a powerful, portable and inexpensive device.
“I was thinking I would be in academics,” Tao said. “Princeton opened up the opportunity for me to go into a whole new area.”
Broadening an academic focus to include a business perspective was a common story line at the gathering. The Innovation Forum brings together teams of faculty members, postdocs and graduate students to pitch ideas for commercializing early-stage research to a panel of judges. After signing up to participate, the teams submit brief descriptions of their ideas and videotaped pitches. The judges ask questions and offer feedback before the researchers make final three-minute pitches at the event.
The winning team received $15,000 while the second and third finishers receive $10,000 and $5,000 from the Keller Center.
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