From lab to everyday life: Princeton accelerator fund supports promising innovations

March 5, 2021 9:21 a.m.

Seven technologies that address some of society’s biggest challenges — from foolproof antibiotics to low-cost water purification — will receive support for research and development through Princeton’s Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund

colored shapes as seen in microscopy

A technology for illuminating targets for new drugs against cancer and viruses is one of several selected to receive support from the Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund to help develop Princeton discoveries to the stage where they can have broader societal impact.

The program gives discoveries an extra push through the development pipeline to bring technologies to the stage where they are ready for further investment, from either a startup or a larger company. 

“Princeton researchers work at the leading edge of discovery, forging new directions by pursuing original ideas,” said John Ritter, director of the Office of Technology Licensing, a division of Princeton University's Office of the Dean for Research. “When our researchers make a discovery with the potential to benefit society, they don’t always have the funding or research staff to show that the discovery can become a viable product or service – that is where this fund can help.”

Faculty researchers may use the funding to fuel the construction of a prototype, the collection of extra performance data, or the exploration of materials, durability, scalability or other aspects of the technology. The competitive application process involves review by members of the Princeton faculty and experienced venture capital investors. The winning projects are ones with a combination of scientific or technical merit, feasibility, and the potential to benefit the public. 

The seven selected projects are:

“Poisoned-arrow” antibiotics and drug discovery platforms

Zemer Gitai

Zemer Gitai

Zemer Gitai, Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology, professor of molecular biology

A new method for discovering compounds with antibiotic activity aims to address the looming crisis posed by drug-resistant bacteria. Zemer Gitai and his team have developed a process for identifying new antibiotics, including ones that work against Gram-negative bacteria, which are hard to kill due to their protective coating. The team created a series of steps that allow them to identify new classes of antibiotics, and used this drug-discovery pipeline to identify a new compound called Irrestistin-16. Like a poisoned arrow, the drug pokes holes in bacterial membranes and disrupts an essential metabolic pathway. The team has shown that the new compound cures mice infected with a resistance-prone Gram-negative pathogen. The IP Accelerator funding will go to support studies that demonstrate the superiority of Irresistin-16 to existing antibiotics against multi-drug resistant strains, and to screen additional compounds.

Development of fluorescent probes for protein mapping

David MacMillan, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry

A new technique that illuminates the identities of specific proteins in and around cells will soon become more widely available to academic and pharmaceutical scientists. Pioneered in the lab of David MacMillan, the technique known as Micromapping can identify protein targets inside and on the surface of tumor cells and viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. To make it easier for researchers around the world to adopt the method, MacMillan and colleagues started Dexterity Pharma LLC, a company that makes kits containing the necessary ingredients. With IP Accelerator funding, the team will develop photocatalysts that are switched on by blue LED lights to enable the Micromapping technique. Dexterity Pharma have developed a range of these new biologically tolerant photocatalysts that can be activated by different light sources that can penetrate organs and tissues, making this new technique versatile and readily implemented.

Dave MacMillan in lab

David MacMillan

Highly transparent perovskite solar cells for energy savings in buildings

Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo

Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo

Lynn Loo, Theodora D. '78 and William H. Walton III '74 Professor in Engineering, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Director, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Smart windows that darken or lighten to adjust to heating and lighting conditions are a promising energy-saving technology. Now Lynn Loo and her group are working to improve smart window technology by incorporating new materials called perovskites into solar cells that harvest energy from sunlight to drive the windows’ color change. Researchers in the Loo group recently developed durable perovskite solar cells that can provide the needed power output while also being highly transparent – the most transparent of any published solar cell to date. The manufacture of the materials allows low cost and high reproducibility. With IP Accelerator funding, the team plans to fabricate the cells, assess the device lifetime in a controlled laboratory environment, and optimize device structures to improve stability to roughly eight years of operational life outdoors. This effort complements ongoing work at startup Andluca Technologies of organic solar cells for similar applications.

Machine-learning approach for tropical cyclone risk analysis

Ning Lin

Ning Lin

Ning Lin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering

To forecast risk to life and property from hurricanes under future climate scenarios, Ning Lin and her colleagues are creating synthetic storms using little more than computer code and an ordinary personal computer. The model combines storm-generation with future projections of how the climate is likely to change over the next several decades. The model creates realistic storms that compare well to real-life observations in terms of the number of storms, intensity, landfall frequency, and other factors. The IP Accelerator funding will enable the researchers to extend the model, developed for the Atlantic Ocean basin, to the other ocean basins, as well as to connect to a range of climate models, develop a user-friendly interface, and produce sample datasets to be made freely available to research communities. 

A better way to recycle lithium-ion batteries

Bruce Koel

Bruce Koel

Bruce Koel, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Chao Yan, postdoctoral research associate in mechanical and aerospace engineering

A new method for recycling lithium-ion batteries could help solve the looming shortage of critical metals, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, while reducing waste. The demand for lithium-ion batteries is likely to increase as auto manufacturers boost production of electric and hybrid vehicles. Yet recycling of lithium-ion batteries requires high amounts of energy and produces significant chemical waste. The team invented an acid-free process consisting of steps for recovering the lithium-bearing oxide materials from the batteries, starting by detaching these with water-based solutions, physically separating the positive and negative electrode materials, and further separation of intact and damaged particles. The next step is exposure to low-temperature plasmas, which are charged clouds of gas, to purify the materials, followed by recovery of the particle shape and crystalline structure. This approach for regenerating electrode materials without completely breaking down the chemical compounds offers advantages in cost-savings, energy efficiency and environmental protection. 

Cleaner water through a new filtration technology

Rodney Priestley

Rodney Priestley

Rodney Priestley, Vice Dean for Innovation, Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

A new water filter powered by sunlight could bring low-cost water purification to millions lacking clean drinking water. At the heart of the technology is gel-like substance, developed in the laboratory of Rodney Priestley, that absorbs and releases water in response to temperature. At cooler temperatures, when placed in contaminated water, the gel soaks up only the water, leaving the contaminants behind. Upon warming by sunlight, the gel releases the clean water. The process requires no electricity or added energy, and provides the fastest water purification rate compared to other passive solar technologies. Priestley and his team have built a prototype water filter and shown that it can eliminate small toxic molecules, lead, oil and biological pathogens, and bring polluted lake water to drinking level standards. The materials needed to make the gel are low-cost and environmentally friendly. Funding from the IP Accelerator program will enable characterization of the gel’s lifecycle and reusability. 

A smartphone application for neurobehavioral research

Sam Wang

Sam Wang

Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience and Henk-Jan Boele, visiting research scholar, Princeton Neuroscience Institute

An app that turns an ordinary mobile phone into a device for conducting neurobehavioral evaluations could make it easier and more cost-effective to study how the brain functions. The app trains people to blink when they hear a tone by pairing a blink-inducing stimulus – such as a flash of light – with an unrelated stimulus such as an audible tone. Over time, people learn to blink when they hear the tone whether or not the flash appears. Eye-blink conditioning can reveal how subjects learn to associate events, respond to stimuli, and learn automatic skills. Eyelid motor responses can yield information on conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). The app replaces expensive laboratory equipment, substantially reducing the costs of the studies and lessening the need for in-person interactions.