Innovation Forum

Posted Mar 15, 2013 by Steven Schultz

Innovation Forum 2013

Postdoctoral research Lei Tao with graduate student Kang Sun of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. (Photos by Frank Wojciechowski)

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.

Innovation Forum winners, from left, Lei Tao, Eric First and Arvind Ravikumar

The winning team received $15,000 while the second and third finishers receive $10,000 and $5,000 from the Keller Center.

Second-place winner Eric First, a graduate student in the chemical and biological engineering, said the process was eye-opening. “I never thought of myself as being business oriented,” said First, who presented a technology that would allow operators of coal-fired power plants to remove carbon dioxide from their smokestack emissions far more cheaply and efficiently than currently possible.

First’s perspective started to shift a couple months ago when he worked with the University’s Office of Technology Licensing to obtain patent protection for his group’s work. However, even when he entered the Innovation Forum his pitch was focused more heavily on the technological innovation than the business need. The judges coached him to give more attention to the market potential and the risks that an investor would face if they chose to backing his effort. Frist said he also benefited from advice by visiting professor of entrepreneurship Derek Lidow and the Keller Center’s social entrepreneur in residence Brian Trelstad, who encouraged him to make his pitch more personal.

First changed his opening slide from a general overview to a photo of a 900-megawatt power plant in his hometown of Orlando, Florida, which produces 17,000 tons of carbon dioxide a day. “The problem is that if this pollution trend continues, my hometown may soon find itself facing destruction by increasingly severe hurricanes or drowning by rising sea levels,” Frist told the audience. His technology, which was developed in the lab of lab of Christodoulos Floudas, the Stephen Macaleer Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, could save $54 million a year for the Orlando plant alone, while helping stabilize levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

As the teams mixed with audience members during a reception while waiting for the judges’ decisions, First said he is now considering a career in business after finishing his Ph.D.

Third place went to Arvind Ravikumar, a graduate student in electrical engineering, who presented a new type of chemical sensor for use in military, environmental and other fields. The sensor, which emerged from the work of Princeton’s Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment Center, offers the possibility of replacing multiple expensive devices with a single modestly priced unit, Ravikumar said.

Judges said all six presenters received high marks for demonstrating novel ideas that addressed real market needs. (For a full list of presenters, see the Innovation Forum website.) The judges also praised the Keller Center, which sponsored the event, for building a vibrant entrepreneurial culture at Princeton, bridging world-class research with the skills needed to bring a technology to market.

Nicolas Pégard (left), a graduate student in electrical engineering, discusses his research during at a reception during the Innovation Forum.

“As someone who has been in business my whole career – with big companies and small ones – I think that it is extremely helpful to have some mentors who help make these young folks aware of the business realities they are going to face as they bring these concepts to potential investors or even if they try to pursue the venture themselves,” said forum judge Frank Galuppo, chief executive of DAX Technologies based in Matawan, New Jersey.

In addition to the Keller Center and the Office of Technology Licensing, the event was sponsored by the law firm of Drinker, Biddle and Reath and the accounting consulting firm Wiss & Co. Both firms are participants in the Keller Center’s Venture Sponsors Program, a network of investors, lawyers and consultants who collaborate with Princeton faculty and students in an effort to build a regional “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Judges said they particularly appreciated the level of risk analysis and market research that Tao brought to his presentation, titled “Fingerprinting the air with portable gas sensors.”

Tao said that the device he and Zondlo developed could tap into the $2.2 billion market that industry and government spend on sensing gases for safety, health and environmental monitoring. Tao and his collaborators plan to market their invention as a portable, battery-powered sensor that can replace the expensive and bulky laser-based sensors that are currently used. However, he added that a significant challenge is to package their technology into an easy-to-use, attractive product, which is something he said he would use the prize money to pursue.

“Lei was really tackling something that was big and messy and really needed the miniaturization and portability that he could bring to the problem,” said judge Lorraine Marchand, principal at life sciences consulting firm BioSpark and member of Mid Atlantic Bio Angels, a group of investors who fund early-stage life sciences companies.

Tao said his presentation benefited from his previous experience with the NSF-funded program, called iCorps, a kind of business boot camp for researchers. A key part of the iCorps method was to require participants to talk to as many potential customers as possible.

That legwork impressed Marchand. “Lei qualified and quantified his problem by seeking customer input,” she said. “A really good sign for an investor and strategic partner is that he went out to 100 customers and quantified that there really is a need.”

For his part, Tao is now confident about where he wants to take his career. “I am going to try to push it as far as I can,” Tao said of his new business. “The feedback is very positive, so I think I can make it happen.”

Innovation Forum 2012


L-R: Michal Nikodem, Electrical Engineering; Branko Glisic, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Danna Hargett, Molecular Biology (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Eight teams pitched their innovations to a panel of VCs, industry experts and angel investors at the sixth annual Innovation Forum held on February 29 in the Friend Center Auditorium 101.  The event drew a sizeable audience of students, faculty, and members of the entrepreneurial community who came to listen to teams and the keynote speaker Christian Theriault. Christian, who won first place in the 2011 Innovation Forum, shared his experiences commercializing a university technology and creating a revenue-positive company since inception. Read the full story 

First Place:
 Sensing Sheet for High-resolution Structural Health Monitoring Over Large Structures
Presenter: Branko Glišić
Department: Civil & Environmental Engineering
Team Members: Naveen Verma, James Sturm & Sigurd Wagner (Electrical Engineering)

Second Place:
 Chirped Laser Dispersion Spectroscopy, a New Method for Gas Sensing
Presenter: Michal Nikodem
Department: Electrical Engineering
Team Members: Gerard Wysocki (Electrical Engineering)

Third Place:
 Better Cancer Therapeutics through Better Biological Modeling
Presenter: Danna Hargett
Department: Molecular Biology
Team Members: Stephen St. Jeor, Lisa Keyes & Marianna Bego (University of Nevada Reno)

Innovation Forum 2011

Read the article on the 2011 Forum.

Eight teams pitched their innovations to a panel of VCs, industry experts and angel investors at the sixth annual Innovation Forum held April 7th in the Friend Center Auditorium 101.  The event drew a sizeable audience of students, faculty, and members of the entrepreneurial community who came to listen to teams and the keynote speaker Vivek Pai.   Associate Professor of Computer Science, Vivek Pai, talked about his experience of spinning out three technologies from Princeton.  During the keynote, the judges deliberated and selected the winners.  The winners were announced at the poster session and reception in the Friend Center’s Dean’s Convocation Room.

Bentley Drezner_609-558-9610_023






First Place:

Tunable Acoustic Gradient Technology
Christian Theriault ’07 *08
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering/TAG Optics Inc.
Team Members: 
Craig Arnold (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Second Place:
Yifei Huang
Electrical Engineering
Team Members: 
Sushobhan Avasthi (Electrical Engineering); James C. Sturm (Electrical
Engineering, PRISM)

Third Place:
Multifunctional Targeted Imaging Nanoparticles
Vikram Pansare
Chemical and Biological Engineering
Team Members: 
Robert K. Prud’homme (Chemical and Biological Engineering)

Innovation Forum 2010
Forum drives University innovations toward marketplace
Posted Apr 19, 2010
By Chris Emery

In just three minutes, John Groves explained how his innovation could save time.

Groves, a chemistry professor at Princeton University, told a panel of business leaders gathered on campus April 8 that a new technology he helped develop could catch dangerous side effects of drugs in the earliest stages of development, long before they would be tested in humans. Compared to existing technology, he assured the panel, “we can do it faster and cheaper.”

Click to watch videos of the presenters at the 2010 Innovation Forum.

Groves was among 16 presenters at the Keller Center’s fifth annual Innovation Forum, which showcased Princeton research that has the potential to be commercialized. The scientists and engineers extolled their innovations to an audience of investors, members of the University community and a panel of judges that, after hearing the quick presentations, allotted more than $40,000 to the top three entries.

“World-class research is performed in the labs here at Princeton, and we will get a glimpse of some of this research tonight,” Pablo Debenedetti, vice dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, told the audience. “There are many ways that this research can be deployed to benefit society and improve our world. One way is to encourage faculty to share their research with interested observers such as you and create opportunities for scientists and engineers to talk with investors and community members about the real-world applications of their work.”

This year’s forum was sponsored by the University’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, the Jumpstart New Jersey Angel Network and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in conjunction with Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing. Jumpstart Chairman Mario Casabona said his organization participates in the forum as a way of supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. “Programs like this continue to foster the culture of innovation that we have worked so hard to achieve and maintain here in New Jersey,” he said.

The presentations, in fields including health, optics, computing and transportation, were followed by a poster session and reception in the Friend Center Convocation Room.

From left, John Groves, Hahn Kim and Niraj Jha were selected as the top presenters at Princeton’s fifth annual Innovation Forum. (Photo: Frank Wojciechowski)

The winning entry, presented by Hahn Kim, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry, also involved speeding the process of drug development. Called OrgCast, it is a method for quickly generating large numbers of molecules and testing whether they are reactive in the human body. Using the technique, Kim and his collaborators have identified about 4 million molecules that hold potential as new drugs.

Second place went to HepatoChem, the technology developed by Groves and Marc Bazin, a visiting associate professional specialist in chemistry. The technique mimics the way the liver works, enabling the automated and rapid biochemical analysis of drug compounds to speed the scientific discovery of new drugs and drug metabolites.

Third place went to Niraj Jha, a professor of electrical engineering, who developed a technology called NATURE for use in general-purpose computer chips called field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA). NATURE provides a more efficient way of storing data on FPGA chips, leveraging advances in nanotechnology and potentially enabling FPGA chips to increase their currently small share of the market.

Two of the entries addressed health and infrastructure problems in remote regions of Africa. Ismaiel Yakub, a graduate student in mechanical and aerospace engineering, presented a system for using inexpensive clay filters to remove parasites from drinking water, and Tiffany Tong, an electrical engineering graduate student, proposed a method for manufacturing and distributing solar-powered lanterns to areas with no access to the electrical grid.

“People don’t realize how big of an issue this is,” Tong said during the poster session. “Many people rely on traditional, nonrenewable resources that are expensive and produce a lot of smoke. As a result, children can’t study at night, and many people suffer respiratory problems. We propose using cheap LED lights and housing them in bodies made of wood or other natural materials instead of plastic. There’s a huge potential market.”

To see the full list of the 5th annual innovation forum presenters and their innovations, click here. Read full 2010 Innovation Forum article and view video presentations here.

To read about the fourth annual innovation forum held in April 2009, click here.