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Annual Innovation Forum brings together inventors and investors

From the March 26, 2007, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

It's nearly dinnertime at the Friend Center, and Princeton University's newest inventors are serving up appetizers. Eleven teams of scientists and engineers are offering the community a taste of their potentially marketable creations, each in three minutes flat.

While that's not a great deal of time to unveil new ideas on defending computer networks or employing lasers in medicine, the quick presentations at this year's second annual Innovation Forum on Feb. 27 whet the appetites of the audience, which included several potential investors from Jumpstart New Jersey.

"For the most part, these ideas are not fundable yet -- they're pretty raw," said Ken Kay, the chairman of Jumpstart New Jersey, which sponsored the forum with the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the University's Office of Technology Licensing and Intellectual Property. "But on the other hand, a few of them are so powerful that a venture capital fund might want to invest some money now."

The forum is part of a larger effort on campus to match potential commercial products with outside funding. Each year the University files dozens of patent applications, and existing companies bring the majority of these inventions to market. But there also are many people on campus who are thinking about starting their own companies, and the Innovation Forum is largely for them.

"We see people from all disciplines wanting to participate, and at various levels of experience in terms of developing and commercializing their technologies," said John Ritter, director of the Office of Technology Licensing and Intellectual Property in the University's Office of Research and Project Administration. "Some of them are first-timers, while others are more experienced. A lot of them are looking for general assistance in setting up a company."

Initiating a dialogue between inventors and investors, Kay said, is an important part of developing an idea. Following the opening large-group presentations, the audience and inventors walk across the hall, where each of the teams can talk informally next to a poster outlining the details of their creations.

Following are brief descriptions of some of the projects presented during the Innovation Forum.

Cancer's hidden agenda

Yibin Kang has 20,000 possible answers to a question that could mean life or death for a cancer patient: Which gene in a cancer cell can determine whether a tumor is going to spread?

Though cancer is a scary word, only some tumors are of the deadly variety that spreads like wildfire; others remain confined and do not threaten a patient's life if treated early. Undergoing long and painful chemotherapy treatments may be unnecessary if scientists can find the genetic marker that indicates whether a tumor will eventually turn deadly. However, identifying such markers among the tumor's many active genes has proven challenging to medical science.

"Even though we can now look at the activity of all 20,000 human genes in tumors simultaneously, the answer doesn't just jump out at you," said Kang, an assistant professor of molecular biology. "Oftentimes, studies done by different research groups will come up with completely different sets of marker genes. Since there is often no or very little overlap among them, we figured the common culprits that drive the spread of cancer must lie on some hidden level."

Kang and his postdoctoral fellow Guohong Hu have developed sophisticated computer software to sift through the genetic information in breast cancer, which kills 40,000 women annually in the United States alone. The effort has identified a different group of genes than standard tests pick out. One of these genes seems to mediate the spread of breast cancer to lungs in both human patients and in laboratory mice.

As an added piece of good news, the gene is primarily responsible for creating an adhesive protein that appears on the surface of the cancer cell -- meaning that a drug that attacks the protein might be able to tell the cancer to stop in its tracks.

"We also might target the blood vessel in the lung that tumor cells adhere to," Kang said. "For the moment, we need to test the inhibitors that can do the job, and then find a company that can develop them into life-saving drugs."

Lasers and their 1,001 uses

Primis Technologies was born during a road trip to Boston last fall.

Engineering graduate students Anthony Hoffman and Scott Howard were driving up together for an academic conference when they came to the conclusion that their combined expertise and mutual respect was a firm basis for a start-up.

Upon returning, they recruited fellow graduate student Kale Franz and formed Primis in January to commercialize a new generation of low-cost, lightweight, exquisitely sensitive sensors made possible by advances in mid-infrared quantum cascade lasers.

The technology holds great promise because the same laser can be used for a wide range of applications, from detecting biological and chemical weapons to monitoring and diagnosing disease.

"There is this huge potential market and nobody is there to fill it -- yet," said Howard.

Last May, the National Science Foundation funded a new multimillion-dollar engineering research center at Princeton called MIRTHE, for Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment. The three graduate students are all affiliated with MIRTHE and also do laser research for Claire Gmachl, associate professor of electrical engineering and MIRTHE's director, as part of a separate Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant.

Each of the three partners brings complementary expertise to the company. Franz offers a broad engineering background, Hoffman functions as the chief scientist, and Howard brings software modeling expertise.

"We can design lasers holistically, looking at every aspect that affects performance," said Franz.

The graduate students have teamed up with a group of MBA students at Rutgers, who are fleshing out a business plan and marketing strategy for Primis.

Why are Franz, Hoffman and Howard starting the company now? "It would be hugely rewarding to get our technology out of the lab and into general use so that it makes an impact on society," said Franz. Besides, he adds, "We're young and we can and this is the time to do it."

Video by Web

When Donna Liu established the Woodrow Wilson School's University Channel -- a downloadable feed of lectures by distinguished speakers -- it became so popular that it quickly was using its maximum bandwidth.

So when she learned about a research project at Princeton called CoBlitz, which can handle the distribution of rich online content like video without overloading University servers, "it was a real life-saver."

As a research project, CoBlitz has been powering not only the University Channel but also the Mozart Museum's website, which allows users to download the composer's orchestral arrangements, as well as Fedora Core Linux software releases. Now CoBlitz is about to go commercial.

The CoBlitz team brings formidable expertise to the content-distribution table. Vivek Pai, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton, was a co-founder of iMimic Networking, for which he helped design the fastest Web proxy server in the world. Larry Peterson, chair of Princeton's computer science department, is the director of PlanetLab, a networked global testbed of computers, as well as chair of the planning group for GENI, a National Science Foundation-backed research initiative whose mission is to make the Internet more trustworthy. KyoungSoo Park just finished his dissertation at Princeton focusing largely on CoBlitz. And Marc Fiuczynski and Patrick Richardson are research computer scientists who work closely with Peterson on PlanetLab.

CoBlitz fills a different niche than Akamai, one of the giants in the world of content distribution which has as customers companies like Apple and IBM and which was co-founded by Princeton engineering graduate Tom Leighton.

According to Akamai’s financial statements, customers pay between $12,000 and $24,000 a month to Akamai for server capacity. CoBlitz is designed for customers who need to accommodate hard-to-predict bandwidth spikes but don't want, or can't afford, to pay for a huge amount of bandwidth.

"We're really looking at a new market of consumers who would never go to Akamai," said Fiuczynski. Peterson calls CoBlitz "bandwidth insurance."

Like BitTorrent, a popular peer-to-peer file sharing program, CoBlitz works by splitting files into pieces and sharing them across a network of machines. But CoBlitz is different in that its logic is implemented on the network itself, meaning that CoBlitz can operate seamlessly with a Web server or browser without requiring any special software modifications or installations.

Because of this, Pai said, CoBlitz is incredibly easy to use. "It's a five-minute, do-it-yourself operation," Pai said.

Pai contends that CoBlitz is poised to capture a large, as-yet untapped market just as the appetite for online video is ballooning. Liu suspects that he may well be right.

"There is an explosion of online video and a lot of institutions don't recognize what it is going to do to their bandwidth," said Liu. "They are going to need solutions like CoBlitz."

Fighting Alzheimer's

In a haystack of drug candidates, how do scientists find the needle that could help fight diseases like Alzheimer's? That's the problem Michael Hecht is trying to solve with a homemade "search engine" that might streamline the drug development process.

Hecht, a professor of chemistry, noticed that most drugs for Alzheimer's address the symptoms of the disease, but none attack its underlying cause: a brain protein called A-beta that, under certain circumstances, can fold the wrong way. It then accumulates into a fibrous mass that causes the brain to atrophy, resulting in Alzheimer's disease.

Hecht's research team has found a way to determine which candidate molecules might stop A-beta from misfolding in the first place. After attaching A-beta to green fluorescent protein -- the same substance that makes many sea creatures glow -- the team adds the combination to a test tube filled with a drug candidate. If the A-beta does not misfold in the candidate's presence, the fluorescent protein glows green, clearly indicating the drug candidate is a potential winner.

"We've applied this fluorescence-based screen to a collection of drug-like molecules, and have already discovered several potential 'hits,'" Hecht said. "That makes us optimistic that the approach will eventually identify a compound that can form the basis for future Alzheimer's therapy."

The next stage

Following the poster session, inventors and investors alike said the Innovation Forum had helped them plan for the future.

"This was a good opportunity to present our ideas and work in front of an audience that is distinct from what we usually encounter in our academic life," Kang said. "Since our research is geared toward clinical application, it's a good opportunity for us to find an interested party for future commercialization of our work."

Kang said a couple of local biotech companies have expressed interest in his work and are planning to follow up with more in-depth discussions. For the investors, building this sort of relationship is crucial because of the communication it can foster.


"A lot of inventors are working in the dark regarding the true potential of their ideas, and the dialogue is most important," Kay said. "In the best of all possible worlds, if they feel free to just pick up the phone and talk about their ideas with a member of the investment community, then we'll have succeeded."

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