Princeton IP Accelerator funding awarded to support seven promising new technologies

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
March 28, 2024

A sensor that detects planet-warming gasses, software to enhance the reliability of artificial intelligence, and a method to improve the nutrition and production of worldwide agriculture are among seven innovations awarded funding this year to help bring these technologies to the world.

The Intellectual Property (IP) Accelerator Fund, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, provides support to researchers who have made a discovery but need to conduct extra studies to demonstrate that the discovery can meet a societal need. This support can help advance technologies to the stage where they can attract investment and licensing by a startup or existing company, enabling them to make a meaningful real-world impact.

Each grant provides up to $100,000 for prototyping and research.

“Princeton researchers are at the forefront of solutions to challenges across sectors such as health and medicine, energy and the environment, agriculture and many other areas essential to society and our future,” said John Ritter, executive director of Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing. “Through these grants, Princeton University helps ensure that these discoveries can become the basis of tomorrow’s life-changing technologies and services.”

The Fund is one of several seed funding programs administered by the Office of the Dean for Research.

The seven projects awarded in 2024 are:

Bonnie Bassler
Bonnie L. Bassler. Photo courtesy of researcher

Long-term breast milk preservation 

Bonnie L. Bassler, Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

A quick-dissolving powder made of infant-safe ingredients that can be added to pumped breast milk to preserve it for long periods of time, coupled with test strips that measure the milk’s nutritional value and shelf life, aim to increase access to high-quality breast milk for parents, milk banks, and neonatal intensive care units. There are currently no at-home methods to prevent freezer-stored breast milk from becoming rancid and losing vital nutrients, and there are limited diagnostic tools available to assess the nutritional value of milk. These issues affect parents, especially those returning to work while their child is still breastfeeding. In fact, the inability to meet one’s breastfeeding goals is a primary reason women leave the workforce after childbirth, according to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action.

A team of researchers led by Bassler and Justin Silpe, a postdoctoral research associate who earned his Ph.D. working with Bassler, are addressing these gaps with two innovations. They’ve invented a multi-ingredient formulation that the user adds to pumped breast milk prior to freezing to retain the milk’s structural integrity, as well as color-changing test strips that assess the milk’s nutritional value after storage. The team will use the funding to refine the formulation, enhance the accuracy of the diagnostic tools, and prototype the technology in real-world scenarios.

Jonathan Conway

Jonathan Conway. Photo courtesy of researcher

Biotechnology to meet global agricultural challenges

Jonathan Conway, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering

A new technology aims to harness beneficial bacteria to enhance the growth and nutrition of widely grown food crops to help meet the challenges of a growing global population and warming climate. The approach is based on a natural phenomenon where disease-causing bacteria invade plants and force them to start producing molecules that serve as the bacteria’s food. A number of research groups have tried to adapt this phenomenon to benefit plants by replacing the harmful bacteria with more beneficial bacterial strains. This approach is challenging, however, as the good bacteria may not successfully colonize the plant due to competition from other soil bacteria, or may take up residence in the surrounding weeds instead of the intended plant. 

To tackle this, Princeton researchers led by Conway genetically engineered a model plant called Arabidopsis to secrete molecules, and engineered growth-promoting bacteria to consume these molecules and colonize the plant, ensuring success for this widely sought-after approach. With support from the IP Accelerator Fund, they plan to extend this technology to be used for corn and soybean plants to enhance agricultural health and productivity worldwide.

José Avalos

José Avalos. Photo by Adena Stevens

Sustainable method to create flavors and fragrances

José Avalos, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

A new method of producing the chemical compounds used in fragrances, flavors and pharmaceuticals could serve as a sustainable way to meet rising global demand for these products. The current industrial production of chemical compounds called monoterpenes relies on extraction from plant sources and chemical synthesis. These methods have become increasingly unsustainable because they generate significant amounts of chemical waste and consume large amounts of land, water and fertilizer. An alternative approach that uses genetically engineered microorganisms to create monoterpenes could meet the rising demand, but to date it has been difficult to synthesize the desired outcome. This is because the key enzyme that is responsible for creating “GPP,”  the monoterpene precursor, can also catalyze an alternative reaction that creates “FPP,” an enzyme that promotes cell growth but doesn’t enable monoterpene production on its own. 

Princeton researchers led by Avalos are tackling this challenge by editing the genes of the key enzyme to favor production of GPP while still producing enough FPP to promote cell growth and result in a high yield of monoterpenes. The technology may enable cost effective and sustainable production of highly valued monoterpenes, and could immediately enter the $30 billion global market of flavors and fragrances.

Howard Stone and Maksim Mezhericher headshots.

Howard Stone and Maksim Mezhericher. Photos courtesy of researchers

Shelf-stable biomedical therapeutics

Maksim Mezhericher, research scholar in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Howard Stone, Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

A system for dehydrating liquid biological medicines and vaccines to make shelf-stable pharmaceuticals could eliminate the need for expensive refrigeration during transportation and storage of vital drugs. Many of today’s therapeutics require refrigeration from the point of manufacture to the time of injection or delivery to the patient. This escalates costs and amplifies the risk of spoilage, potentially jeopardizing public health. Lack of proper temperature control can lead to a 20% loss or $10 billion in wasted pharmaceuticals per year, according to industry estimates. Existing lyophilization and spray drying systems do not perform well at preserving today’s liquid biopharmaceuticals.

The Princeton team has invented a room-temperature aerosol dehydration process that provides gentle, rapid and scalable continuous dehydration of biologics through a proprietary mechanism. The team has validated the technology in a blind study with a leading pharmaceutical company. The IP Accelerator funding will enable the researchers to improve the process and evaluate the biological activity of the final product to ensure that no loss of the medicine’s function occurs during drying and subsequent storage at room temperature. The team will also explore the dehydration of new types of medicines and the potential for production of inhalable therapeutics. Over the next year, the team will build new advanced prototypes that can demonstrate the capabilities and competitive advantages of the novel process.

Mark Zondlo

Mark Zondlo. Photo courtesy of researcher

Laser-based system to track emissions of planet-warming gas from farm fields

Mark Zondlo, professor of civil and environmental engineering 

A sensor that detects the planet-warming gas nitrous oxide could help farmers reduce agricultural contribution to climate change. Farms rely on nitrogen-based fertilizers to aid plant growth, but much of this nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. Existing methods for tracking nitrous oxide farm emissions require finicky gadgets and computer models that create estimates rather than hard data that farmers can use to adjust fertilizer application to lower emissions.

With support from the IP Accelerator Fund, Zondlo and his team will build a laser-based nitrogen-detection system that takes a virtual "CAT scan" of emissions coming off the farm field.  As the eye-safe laser scans around the field, inexpensive reflectors will return the laser light back to the sensor. The web of measurements will provide maps of nitrogen hotspots to farmers on a daily basis. The system, developed by the Zondlo group as part of a U.S. Department of Energy-funded ARPA-E SMARTFARM project, costs as little as $10 per acre per year at scale. The resulting data will allow farmers to adjust practices to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals and take advantage of climate-smart agricultural practices through a verifiable accounting system.

Niraj Jha

Niraj Jha. Photo courtesy of researcher

Enhancing the reliability of AI-driven medical diagnoses

Niraj Jha, professor of electrical and computer engineering

A new artificial intelligence (AI)  software package could dramatically enhance the reliability of AI for medical diagnosis and other applications in business, cybersecurity, law and other areas where accuracy is essential. With such a system, a doctor could feed a patient’s symptoms and test results into an AI-driven smartphone app to come up with a diagnosis and treatment plan. However, today’s AI software products fall short because they often do not provide the source of information, and can provide wrong answers entirely, making doctors and other clinicians unlikely to trust the results.

Jha and his team are developing an AI software package that provides authoritative and verifiable answers for medical professionals. Rather than sourcing information from the Web, the software draws on peer-reviewed medical information provided in databases at the National Institutes of Health. The team’s approach combines AI language models with “knowledge graphs” that organize words and facts by how they relate to each other. The AI model learns from the inputs and discovers connections between the information in ways that allow it to answer new questions. The resulting software uses fewer computational resources than other AI-driven medical software, so it can be used on smartphones and in remote patient settings.

Reza Moini, Forrest Meggers and Lara Tomholt

Reza Moini, Forrest Meggers and Lara Tomholt. Photos courtesy of researchers

Laser-engraved tiles for evaporative cooling of building façades

Reza Moini, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, Forrest Meggers, associate professor of architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and Lara Tomholt, distinguished postdoctoral fellow, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

A new technology aims to enable buildings to shed their excess heat by evaporating water from their surfaces in a mechanism similar to how humans cool the body — by sweating. Buildings consume significant amounts of energy to heat and cool their interiors. This new approach reduces overall energy consumption devoted to cooling building interiors by evaporating water from the exterior walls. Until now, however, similar ideas have failed due to the challenge of evenly spreading a thin layer of water on a vertical surface.

To overcome this challenge, the team created cement-based tiles etched with tiny channels that rapidly wick fluid into a thin layer on the surface of the material so that the liquid can evaporate, providing significant cooling. The team used lasers to engrave the channels onto the tiles, producing capillary pathways in branched networks. With IP Accelerator funding, the team will explore the energy benefits for buildings in various climates, taking into consideration factors such as temperature, humidity, wind conditions and amount of sunlight. The team estimates that significant reductions in surface temperature could be achieved in warm and dry climates.