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Monday, March 26, 2007

Annual Innovation Forum brings together inventors and investors

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.

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."

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