The college experience often involves at least one road trip, but most students do not bring along their faculty adviser. But last spring, two graduate students crammed into a rented Chevy Impala with Professor Mark Zondlo and a postdoctoral researcher to drive eight hours a day across California’s Central Valley, testing their new air-quality sensors, which were strapped to a rooftop ski rack.
The sensors are an example of technologies being developed at Princeton that have the potential to improve quality of life as commercial products or services. Although teaching and research are Princeton’s core missions, the campus is home to a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, one that can be found among faculty members who are making discoveries that could lead to better medicines as well as students working to turn a dorm-room dream into the next big startup.
“Princeton has a number of initiatives aimed at supporting innovation and technology transfer,” said John Ritter, director of Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing, which works with University researchers to file invention disclosures and patent applications, and with businesses and investment capitalists to find partners for commercialization. “Our goal is to accelerate the transfer and development of Princeton’s basic research so that society can benefit from these innovations,” he said.
Crossing the valley
One of the ways that Princeton supports this transfer is with programs that help bridge the gap between research and commercialization, a gap that some call the Valley of Death because many promising technologies never make it to the product stage. One such program is the Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund, which provides financial resources for building a prototype or conducting additional testing with the goal of attracting corporate interest or investor financing.
Zondlo, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is one of the researchers using the fund to cross the valley — in this case literally as well as figuratively. Earlier this year, Zondlo and his research team, which consisted of graduate students Kang Sun and David Miller and postdoctoral researcher Lei Tao, tested their air-quality sensor in California’s Central Valley, a major agricultural center that is home to some of the worst air pollution in the nation.
Their goal was to compare the new portable sensors to existing stationary sensors as well as to measurements taken by plane and satellite as part of a larger NASA-funded air-quality monitoring project, DISCOVER-AQ.
One of the new sensors measures nitrous oxide, the worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. Nitrous oxide escapes into the air when fertilizers are spread on farm fields. Currently, to measure this gas, workers must collect samples of air in bottles and then take them to a lab for analysis using equipment the size of refrigerators.
Zondlo’s sensor, which is bundled with two others that measure ammonia and carbon monoxide, is portable and can be held in one hand, or strapped to a car roof. “The portability allows measurements to be taken quickly and frequently, which could greatly expand the understanding of how nitrous oxide and other gases are released and how their release can be controlled,” Zondlo said.
The sensors involve firing a type of battery-powered laser, called a quantum cascade laser, through a sample of air, while a detector measures the light absorption to deduce the amount of gas in the air. The researchers replaced bulky calibration equipment, necessary to ensure accurate measurements in the field, with a finger-sized chamber of reference gas against which the sensor’s accuracy can be routinely tested.
The decision to commercialize the sensor arose from the desire to make the device available to air-quality regulators and researchers, Zondlo said. “Our sensor has precision and stability similar to the best sensors on the market today, but at a fraction of the size and power requirements,” said Zondlo, a member of the Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE) center, a multi-institution center funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and headquartered at Princeton. “We are already getting phone calls from people who want to buy it.”
Lighting up the brain — with help from a synthetic liver
Far from the dusty farm roads of California, Princeton faculty member John (Jay) Groves sits in his office in the glass-enclosed Frick Chemistry Laboratory, thinking about the potential uses for a new synthetic enzyme. Modeled on an enzyme isolated from the liver, the synthetic version can carry out reactions that human chemists find difficult to pull off.
One of these reactions involves attaching radioactive fluorine tags to drugs to make them visible using a brain-imaging method known as positron emission tomography (PET) scanning.
PET scans of the radiolabeled drugs could help investigators track experimental medicines in the brain, to see if they are reaching their targets, and could aid in the development of drugs to treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, according to Groves, Princeton’s Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry. The synthetic enzyme adds fluorine tags without the toxic and corrosive agents used with radioactive fluorine today.
Groves’ initial work was supported by the NSF, but to develop the technology for use in pharmaceutical research, the Groves team, which includes graduate students Wei Liu and Xiongyi Huang, is receiving funding from a Princeton program aimed at supporting concepts that are risky but have potential for broad impact. The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund was created with a $25 million endowment from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, a 1976 alumnus and former trustee, and his wife, Wendy.
“The Schmidt funding is enabling us to explore ways to optimize the chemical reaction and create a prototype of an automated system,” Groves said. “This will allow us to create a rapid and noninvasive way to evaluate drug candidates and observe important metabolites within the human brain.”
Aiding the search for planets
Inspired by the search for planets outside our solar system, Princeton postdoctoral researcher Tyler Groff conceived of a technology that could enhance the quality of images from telescopes. Groff received Schmidt funding to develop a device for controlling the mirrors that telescopes use to correct blurring and distortion caused by atmospheric turbulence, heat and vibrations.
This technology, known as adaptive optics, involves measuring disturbances in the light coming into the telescope and making small deformations to the surface of a mirror in precise ways to correct the image. These deformations are made using an array of mechanical devices, known as actuators, each capable of moving a small area of the flexible reflective surface up or down. But existing actuators are limited in the amount of correction they can provide, and the spaces between the actuators create dimples in the mirror, producing a visible pattern in the resulting images that astronomers call “quilting.”
Groff envisioned replacing the array of rigidly attached actuators with flexible ones made from packets containing iron particles suspended in a liquid, or ferrofluid. Just as iron filings can be moved by waving a magnet over them, applying varying magnetic fields to the ferrofluid changes the shape of the fluid in ways that deform the mirror.
The ferrofluid mirror enables highquality images while being more resistant to vibrations and potentially more power efficient, which will be important for future satellite-based telescopes, said Groff, who works in the laboratory of Jeremy Kasdin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. A ferrofluid mirror can also achieve something that a rigid actuator mirror cannot: it can assume a concave or bowl-like shape that aids the focusing of the telescope on objects in space. “A telescope that uses ferrofluid mirrors would be able to see dim objects better,” Groff said, “which would greatly enhance our ability to probe other solar systems.”
From drug discovery to space exploration, Princeton’s dedication to supporting technology transfer and potentially disruptive but high-risk research ideas is yielding tremendous benefits for the advancement of science and the improvement of people’s lives.
Box: From student project to startup
In 2009 when Princeton undergraduate Carlee Joe-Wong started working on the technology that would become the DataMi company, she didn’t even own a smartphone. Today, the startup company co-founded by Joe-Wong provides mobile traffic management solutions to wireless Internet providers, and also helps consumers manage their data usage through an app, DataWiz, that has been downloaded by more than 200,000 Apple and Android users.
Joe-Wong became involved in the study of mobile data usage in the spring of her junior year when Professor Mung Chiang challenged her to explore ways that wireless providers could reduce congestion by adjusting their prices based on the variations in network supply and demand. “I mostly just worked on the project in my dorm room,” Joe-Wong said. “I thought it would be cool if it was adopted but I didn’t think that I would be the one helping to make that happen.” After graduation, Joe-Wong became a graduate student working with Chiang on mathematical algorithms that predict the most effective methods for balancing network use across “peak” minutes and “valley” minutes.
“With companies charging $10 per gigabyte, mobile consumers today need to intelligently manage their data,” said Chiang, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering. “What the DataWiz app does is tell you when, where and what app used how much of your quota.”
In May 2013 the team, under the engineering leadership of associate research scholar Sangtae Ha, opened an office for DataMi one block off campus. Needless to say, Joe-Wong now has a smartphone.
Taking it to the streets with help from Princeton’s eLab
A love of motorcycles brought them together: three Princeton undergraduates decided to explore building and marketing an electric motorcycle to provide a superior riding experience at significantly lower emissions than gasoline powered models.
The team was one of nine groups selected to participate in the 10-week eLab Summer Accelerator Program, an initiative of the Keller Center in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which teaches entrepreneurship by offering resources, mentoring and working space.
Throughout the summer, the team members worked on ways to market the bike while simultaneously building a prototype. “We geared the product toward people who enjoy taking weekend trips,” said Nathan Haley, Class of 2014, an economics major.
Haley was joined by Luke Amber, Class of 2015, and Christine Odabashian, Class of 2014, both majors in mechanical and aerospace engineering. The team also included Luke’s older brother, Leif Amber, a graduate student in electrical engineering at Clarkson University.
-By Catherine Zandonella