Six technologies awarded Princeton accelerator funding

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
March 16, 2023

Six new innovations with potential to benefit society will receive university funding to aid in the transition from early-stage research into real-world products and services.

The Intellectual Property (IP) Accelerator Fund, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, 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. Such studies drive the research forward and can be essential for attracting outside investment and funding from government small-business programs.

Through the Fund, University researchers can receive up to $100,000 for prototyping, experiments and other efforts that advance the state of the technology and demonstrate the value of a discovery. 

Projects are selected following a competitive application process that includes peer review and evaluation based on scientific and technical merit, innovation and novelty, the ability of the technology to meet a market or societal need, and the potential for public benefit.

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

The six projects awarded in 2022 are:

Curing chronic hepatitis B virus infection with small molecule therapeutics

Alexander Ploss, professor of molecular biology, and his team are developing a therapeutic approach for curing hepatitis B virus (HBV), a common human pathogen that results in close to one million deaths annually. Current treatments for HBV suppress levels of the virus in the blood, but do not cure chronic infection. One of the challenges is the persistent nature of the HBV genome, which forms a structure known as covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA). Using high-throughput screening, Ploss and his team established a shortlist of candidate compounds that can inhibit cccDNA transcription. A successful drug derived from these compounds would rid cells of the virus within a matter of weeks to months, resulting in a therapeutic cure for HBV infection. The IP Accelerator award will enable the team to continue their research aiming to identify a compound that can suppress HBV infection in the human body.

Revolutionizing heating and cooling systems with new radiant technology

Forrest Meggers, associate professor of architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and co-director of the program in Architecture and Engineering, and his team have developed a cooling system that is more efficient and cost-effective than traditional air conditioning. Rather than cooling the air in a room, the system cools people by managing the heat emitted by human bodies and the exchange of heat between people and surfaces in a room. Previous systems have used cooling panels to reduce radiant heat transfer, but these panels attract water from the air, creating condensation and causing walls and ceilings to be wet. The new innovation solves this problem by building cooling panels with a material that forms an air barrier that prevents humid air from touching surfaces and maintains dryness behind the panels. The system is more cost effective and sustainable than traditional cooling systems because it enables outdoor heating and cooling of people without having to heat or cool the outdoor air.  The team will use the IP Accelerator award to build a large-scale demonstration facility to further explore the efficacy of the design.

Extracting lithium using solar power

Z. Jason Ren, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate director for research at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, along with Sunxiang “Sean” Zheng, professional specialist and Princeton START Fellow, and their team have developed a new, sustainable way to extract lithium, a mineral in high demand due to its range of applications. The new technology uses solar power to extract lithium from brine, or water with high salt concentrations, where the majority of lithium on Earth is found. The system extracts lithium from brine at a rate of more than ten times that of the standard method. The new approach is particularly advantageous for use in the United States, which mines and processes less than 1% of the global lithium supply, yet is the largest consumer of the mineral. The IP Accelerator Fund will facilitate prototype testing and technology translation.

Hybrid package delivery robot for the ‘last 50 feet’

Jaime Fernández Fisac, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, along with Robert Shi, who earned his master’s in electrical and computer engineering in 2022, and their team are developing a new robotic system to deliver packages from delivery vehicles to customers’ doorsteps, aiming to double the package-delivery efficiency of human drivers by 2030. The design combines two commonly used modes of robot mobility, legs and wheels, allowing robots to strategically navigate both flat terrain and stairs. Numerous organizations are working to address the “last-mile delivery problem,” which involves transporting goods from a distribution hub to the final destination, considered the most expensive and time-consuming step. The team tackles the problem by focusing on the transportation of goods from the sidewalk to the customer’s doorstep. The robots are designed to work with delivery vans that will transport, dispatch and retrieve delivery robots along a route, increasing delivery efficiency. The design is composed of two identical, separable pieces with removable wheels and legs. The device’s adjustable dimensions make it adaptable for environmental conditions, and the ease of disassembly decreases maintenance cost and complexity. The IP Accelerator award will enable the researchers to build prototypes that demonstrate the devices’ potential to optimize delivery.

Assessing microbiome-derived drug metabolism for drug development and personalized medicine

Mohamed Abou Donia, associate professor of molecular biology, and his team developed the first quantitative, standardized approach to mapping how individuals’ gut microbiomes impact response to medications. Because medications are designed with the broad population in mind, individuals experience a wide range of responses to commonly prescribed medications. The human digestive track’s community of microorganisms, composed mainly of bacteria and fungi, play an important role in how drugs are metabolized. The new screening method uses cultures of human gut microbiomes to assess individual variability in the metabolic response to different drugs, and the team has used their method to measure this variability in hundreds of orally administered medications. The team’s goal is to incorporate knowledge of microbiome-derived drug metabolism into standard, widely used mathematical models of how drugs and physical systems interact, known as physiologically based pharmacokinetic models. The IP Accelerator award will enable the researchers to assess the usefulness of their screening method for drug development and personalized medicine.

Accelerating the sorting of viral and drug-delivery nanoparticles by DNA barcoding

Haw Yang, professor of chemistry, along with former Princeton postdoctoral associate Nyssa Emerson,  and their team developed a new method for sorting nanoparticles that could enable a more efficient approach for virologists and pharmaceutical companies to formulate vaccines and medications. The approach sorts the number of molecules on a nanoparticle’s surface using “DNA barcoding,” which involves labeling molecules with short sequences of DNA in a manner analogous to barcodes on grocery store items. The new method has the potential to allow scientists to better understand the specific mechanisms at play that cause certain formulations of drugs to be more potent than others. This is typically only understood through processes of time-consuming trial and error. With support from the IP Accelerator Fund, the new method may accelerate the drug discovery process by reducing the time it takes to develop effective medications and vaccines.