A genetically encoded and ecologically safe sunscreen and a center to enable cross-sector research collaboration were the two ideas winning top prizes in the University’s 16th Annual Innovation Forum.
Post-doctoral researcher Micah Nelp earned first place for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Track for Soliome, the novel sunscreen based on peptide molecules found in plants. Jacob Shapiro, professor of Politics and International Affairs, School of Public and International Affairs, took the top spot for the Humanities and Social Sciences Track for pitching the Multi-Stakeholder Research Development Center for a Digital Age, a proposal for combining expertise internationally to understand and combat disinformation. Each won $15,000 awards.
The annual competition, which was presented online this year, spotlights Princeton research with commercialization, cultural or societal potential. The Innovation Forum is hosted by the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education and co-sponsored by the Office of Technology Licensing and the Humanities Council at Princeton.
Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said the humanities track was added last year to celebrate innovation across campus.
“Many of the great needs in society that require innovation are not just about engineering, but really about the broader community and social impact for which our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences are so well positioned to help,” said Goldsmith.
During the contest on Oct. 7, each presenter had three minutes to discuss their innovation, followed by a five-minute question-and-answer period with a panel of judges. The 12 teams consisted of Princeton faculty, research staff, post-doctoral candidates and graduate students. They vied for a pool of $60,000 in prize money that was divided among the top three entries for each track.
In her opening remarks, Goldsmith noted Princeton is very well known for its faculty as experts in research and exceptional teachers. “But perhaps it is less well known how much our faculty are actually engaged in innovation that goes beyond the research lab and into the technologies and products that can really have a huge impact on consumers and on companies, on the country and on the world,” Goldsmith said. “So today what we want to celebrate is the commercialization, whether it’s cultural or societal potential, of taking these ideas into practice.”
She added that the Innovation Forum and related programs of the Keller Center exemplify the kinds of initiatives she seeks to grow within and beyond the engineering school "to make Princeton a catalyst for creating a diverse and inclusive high-tech hub throughout the entire tri-state region."
In a keynote address, Manish Bhardwaj, CEO and co-founder of Innovators in Health, said social entrepreneurship and a humanist approach are needed to deliver social justice, and that enterprises designed to promote justice often fail to make clear moral statements about what they are trying to achieve. He said, for example, a program might talk about the practical approaches and benefits of fighting hunger but not the fundamental moral imperative to do so.
”This is not semantics. This has very real consequences in how we achieve justice,” said Bhardwaj, the James Wei visiting professor in entrepreneurship 2021-2022. “We need to understand more deeply why something is right or wrong.”
He noted scientists and engineers succeed when they understand the world as it is, while those in the humanities contemplate what the world ought to be. Bhardwaj argued social enterprise should strengthen government, not replace it, and must be governed by principles of justice. Calling himself “an idealist of the worst kind,” Bhardwaj said we should journey, literally and figuratively, with the marginalized until justice is done. “Don’t administer from safe havens,” he said.
Finally, Bhardwaj encouraged attendees to design and run just organizations. “Remember, justice is hard not because we are not intelligent enough to figure out the jigsaw puzzle. It is hard because someone has to see an advantage,” he said.
Esther "Starry" Schor, chair of the Princeton University Humanities Council also emphasized the critical role of humanists as "innovators, pioneers and pathfinders" and thanked the Keller Center for recognizing that role.
"Innovation – what the philosopher Ernst Bloch called 'building into the blue' – is one of the central missions of the humanities council," Schor said. Despite their wide range of topics, the humanities and social science projects at the Innovation Forum reflect themes of access, interaction and communication.
"They remind me that many of us are emerging from the pandemic with a new sense of the power of innovative technology to inform, connect, console and delight," Schor said.
In closing comments, Naveen Verma, director of the Keller Center, called the pitches inspirational and energizing, for a blending of two things that seem opposed to each other.
“On the one hand, it is the messiness of the real world, and we heard a lot about that in every project. On the other hand, it’s a vision for what the world ideally could be, and it’s not a blind-eyed vision. It’s one that really attempts to integrate with that messiness," Verma said. "And what you find when you integrate with that messiness, in the ways that I’ve seen in the projects today, is that these are extremely deep problems, and they’re problems that are really rich, intellectually, and they’re really rich, spiritually, for all of us. They’re problems that require inspiration, and they’re problems that require perspiration to pursue.”
Other speakers at the event included Rod Priestley, vice dean for Innovation and Cornelia Huellstrunk, executive director of the Keller Center.
The judges for the STEM track were: Phil Inagaki, operating partner, The Engine; Serge Loncar, digital health entrepreneur and angel investor; Khalid Mahmood, executive in residence at the Princeton University Office of Technology Licensing; Divya Raghavan, venture capital investor at NGP Capital; and Virginia Tusher, a trustee of the California Academy of Sciences. Judging the Humanities pitches were: Majora Carter, lecturer; John Danner, entrepreneurship specialist and lecturer at the Keller Center; Archana Shah, COO and co-founder of Impact Hub New York Metropolitan Area; and Rob Van Varick, lecturer.
The other pitches for the STEM track were:
Second place, with $10,000 prize: Alex Place, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, for Tantalum Superconducting Qubits, an invention that speeds fabrication and extends coherence times to quickly innovate quantum devices, with the potential to revolutionize fields ranging from drug discovery to artificial intelligence.
Third place, with $5,000 prize: Xiaohui Xu, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, for Solar Absorber Gel, a technology that purifies polluted water using only natural sunlight.
Nathaniel Banks, who earned his master's in architecture earlier this year, for Project Plastic, a floating bio-filter platform treatment that removes microplastics from rivers and active water systems.
Yue Ma, Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering, for Reconfigurable Antenna for IoT/5G Wireless Systems, which uses large-area electronics to enable wireless systems with high spatial resolution and enhanced scalability.
Robert Shi, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student, for Mechanical Multiplexer, a device using a single driving motor to control multiple outputs and improving the weight, size, and cost of existing systems.
The other presenters for the Humanities and Social Sciences Track were:
Second place, with $10,000 prize: Elena Araoz, lecturer in theater, for Innovations in Social Distant Performance, which takes lessons learned from modifications made to performance art during the pandemic to modernize and reimagine theater and performance beyond traditional models.
Third place, with $5,000 prize: Sarah Rivett, professor of English and American studies, for Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton, which seeks to increase awareness and understanding of the cultural traditions and experiences of Indigenous people in the Western hemisphere and globally.
Gissoo Doroudian, user experience designer at the Center for Digital Humanities, and Rebecca Koeser, lead developer, for Startwords, an experimental, conversational play-space for humanities scholarship.
Natalia Ermolaev, associate director of the Center for Digital Humanities, and Andrew Janco, digital scholarship librarian at Haverford College, for New Languages for Natural Language Processing, a tool that addresses the lack of linguistic diversity in digital technology.
Xiaoxiao Shen, graduate student in the Department of Politics, for ReChat, an interactive platform to promote deliberative democracy that allows researchers to administer, monitor and analyze live conversations in online survey experiments.