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Professor Branko Glisic Wins Top Prize at Innovation Forum

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After impressing a panel of judges with a three-minute pitch about paper-thin sensors that could revolutionize the safety of large structures, Princeton engineer Branko Glisic won the top prize at this year’s Innovation Forum, a competition that showcases University research with  potential to succeed in the marketplace.

Glisic, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, told the event's six judges that his nanotechnology sensing sheets may one day provide high-resolution monitoring of large structures to reveal problems before disaster strikes. The sheets could be applied “like wallpaper” to everything from bridges to oil pipelines, Glisic said. The aim is to detect and locate early indicators of structural damage like concrete cracks and steel buckles that may eventually lead to serious malfunction and even collapse.

“When the Minneapolis river bridge collapsed [in 2007] I wondered what technology could have detected the early damage and possibly prevented the disaster,” said Glisic, whose research team includes electrical engineering professors Naveen Verma, James Sturm and Sigurd Wagner. “There was no answer to that question. You could attach a lot of small sensors, but with the technology currently being used there will always be spots on the structure that are missed.”

Glisic, who was awarded $25,000 in funding, was one of eight teams that pitched the commercial potential of research ranging from advances in cancer treatment to innovations in MRI, a medical imaging technology. The seventh annual event, sponsored by Princeton's Keller Center, took place Feb. 29 in the Friend Center Auditorium.

In addition to the Keller Center, the event was sponsored by the Jumpstart Angel Network and the law firm Drinker, Biddle and Reath in conjunction with Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing.

“This forum is really important in fostering the overall entrepreneurial climate here at Princeton,” said Cornelia Huellstrunk, the Keller Center’s associate director for external affairs. “It sheds light on technology-centered development and research that is not only groundbreaking but also has market potential.”

Kef Kasdin, one the event judges and a founding partner of Battelle Ventures, a New Jersey-based investing firm that focuses on early-stage technology companies, said the forum is particularly important in the way it forces academically-minded innovators to begin thinking about the entrepreneurial possibilities of their work.

“It’s a different set of questions and a whole different mindset than what professors and students typically spend their days thinking about,” said Kasdin, who earned her undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Princeton in 1985. “How do you get this to the market? How much money is it going to take? How long will it take? It’s important to consider those questions even in an academic environment because many innovations can come out of Princeton, but you have to think about how you will get those innovations to the market.”

This was certainly the case for Glisic, who joined Princeton’s faculty in 2009 after spending eight years working for a company that specializes in fiber optic sensors used to monitor infrastructures.

“It’s a really exceptional opportunity and a very difficult exercise,” said Glisic. “The fact that you have to present in three minutes and fit into those three minutes everything that is important about your innovation, it really gave me and my team a better sense of how to one day bring this to market.”

Glisic said his team will use the prize money to scale up its current millimeter prototype to a meter prototype. With the help of future grant funding, Glisic said he expects his sensing sheets could be ready for real-world field studies on large structures in as little as two years.

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