subseaimageTech Start-Up Runs Afoul of Grant Process From National Science Foundation

MASNFIELD: Founded by researchers from UConn, Aquatic Sensor Network Technology [AquaSeNT] is a “marine sensor and communication” technology company and was recognized as a Connecticut Technology CouncilTech Company to Watch” in 2010 and 2011.

The company and five of its employees  [three UConn faculty] entered into a settlement in May with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Connecticut and the National Science Foundation [NSF].  

While the company had to pay $400,000 to the government as part of the civil settlement, officials denied the government’s allegations and did not admit guilt, nor did the government retract their claims that the company misused federal grant funds and misrepresented itself on applications for funding. 

AquaSeNT has received more than $1 million in NSF funding since 2008.

The settlement agreement said, “the AquaSeNT parties expressly deny each and every one of the government’s allegations set forth herein, and they expressly deny they engaged in any wrongful conduct whatsoever. This settlement agreement is made in compromise of disputed claims and is neither an admission of wrongdoing or liability by the AquaSeNT parties, nor a concession by the United States that its contentions and claims are not well founded.”

According to the company, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has deployed the company’s acoustic telemetry system in the Chesapeake Bay since 2012.

The five employees that are party to the settlement are Dr. Jun-Hong Cui[CEO], Dr. Yong Ma, Dr. Shengli Zhou, Dr. Zhijie Shi, and Juanjuan Liao. Cui, Zhou and Shi are UConn faculty.

June-Hong (June) Cui, President of AquaSeNT, responded to the settlement with the government, saying, “AquaSeNT is on the forefront of new and exciting advances in underwater wireless communication. With this settlement in place, the company is moving forward to write the next new chapter.  We believe our research and development in underwater communication technology is unmatched in the industry.”

Jeff Seemann, Vice President for Research at UConn, told the campus newspaper The Daily Campus, “during their research at UConn, the professors filled out a sole source disclosure stating that the only people that had the right equipment they needed for their research at UConn was AquaSeNT. They didn’t tell us that they owned it (AquaSeNT),” adding “they also signed a form saying they had no knowledge or interest in the company they were buying the equipment from, which was false.” The $400,000 that the company paid to the NSF was part of a total of $2 million in NSF grants lost by the company.  The Campus reports NSF currently has 239 active awards at UConn totaling $98.4 million.