By Abigail Kor
A SUPERIOR cell-penetrating peptide (CPP) resistant to digestive enzymes, an inter-generational family entertainment system and a user-friendly computer interactions system that simulates the human touch.
These three inventions were showcased at the Technology Commercialisation Forum 2010 organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS), which took place over the weekend at the Pan Pacific Hotel.
Sathya Dev Unudurthi, a PhD student from NUS's Faculty of Science, has his lucky stars to thank for his discovery of Entritin, a superior CPP. Around mid-2009, the biological science student was working on an unrelated project in his laboratory with his supervisor Kim Chu Yong. They observed Entritin's needle-like structure and decided to test out its cell-penetrating properties on a hunch.
To their surprise, Entritin permeated cell membranes easily, and also demonstrated a resistance to digestive enzymes. It originates from a dietary plant, making it fit for human consumption. These unique features give Entritin immense commercial potential by allowing its use in human applications such as oral drug delivery and cosmetics formulation.
Typically, most drugs are targeted at biological membranes inside the cell, and thus are required to pass through the cell's outer membrane. Hence, promising drug candidates are often rejected by pharmaceutical companies due to their low cell permeability. Entritin offers such molecules a second life by acting as a vehicle to carry the cell-impermeable molecule across the cell membrane.
Another potential market for Entritin is the beauty industry. Many cosmetic products now contain biologically active ingredients, which must be absorbed through the skin to enter the cells. Due to the inefficiency of this process, some cosmetic companies have resorted to the use of nanoparticles for the delivery of active ingredients.
However, the safety of nanoparticles has yet to be fully established. Due to its dietary plant origin, Entritin has the potential to become a safer replacement for nanoparticles.
Another note-worthy exhibition came from Khoo Eng Tat, who is currently pursuing his PhD in electrical and computer engineering.
According to survey results in Japan, there is a high percentage of the elderly who own and play computer games. However, they rarely play the games with their family members. Based on the findings, Mr Khoo decided to design an intergenerational family entertainment system which focuses on physical and social interactions. Called Age Invaders, the floor-based interactive platform allows users to turn their living rooms into playgrounds.
Mr Khoo plans to develop this into a carpet-based entertainment platform that could revolutionise the way games are being played and not being restricted to an LCD screen, making full use instead of space for a social and physical gaming experience. It is hoped that the interaction during the games would provide an avenue for family bonding and also bridge the gap between the old and young.
Mr Khoo also showcased the Confucius Computer system, which aims to revive and model ancient Eastern and Confucian philosophies and teachings by presenting them in new contexts such as music and online chat.
One of the applications available on the Confucius Computer is the Confucius Chat application, which enables users to communicate online with a virtual Confucius. The chat system employs advanced information retrieval techniques and natural language processing to generate suitable replies.
For example, when the user states, 'I really do not understand the purpose of love in our life', the system finds synonyms for the words in the sentence and processes their emotions and order of importance. The system will then select several Analect quotations, from which a list of candidate words will be selected and filled into manually crafted sentence structures stored in the database.
The virtual Confucius then replies, 'Not delight to love, not love for virtuous aim' - a response intended to make the user think deeply about his question.
Confucius Chat was tested with success on MSN Messenger, and Mr Khoo is now working on making it available on Facebook and twitter. Confucius Chat is also accessible on the website confucius.mixedrealityweb.org.
Among the three exhibits, the one that received the most attention was arguably James Teh's human computer interactions system which aims to allow people to communicate remotely through touch and feel via the Internet.
Although not intended to replace actual touch, the system could offer a supplement to normal physical contact. This could allow for new interactions between a parent and child who are separated physically.
For example, with the aid of the system, a child can hug a parent who is in prison, or a parent can embrace a child who is quarantined in hospital. The system can also be customised into a haptic suit to allow gamers to feel knocks in a fighting game, providing a 'real' gaming experience.
It can also be applied to human-pet interactions, to allow owners to stroke their pets when they are away, in animal rescue missions in dangerous areas, or to enable people who are allergic to animals to interact with them.
Mr Sathya, Mr Khoo and Mr Teh will receive monthly stipends of $3,200 for up to six months to develop a commercialisation plan for their thesis inventions and discoveries.
They will be invited to join NUS Enterprise's incubation ecosystem, which includes participation in entrepreneurship workshops, an overseas market exposure study visit and numerous networking opportunities.
They will also be assigned an experienced mentor who will guide them throughout the development of their commercialisation plan.
At the end of six months, a panel will evaluate the plans to ensure that any commercial potential is fully exploited.
Possible actions could include providing assistance to apply for funding, or bringing the project under NUS Enterprise Centre for additional incubation.
This article was first published in The Business Times.