Annual Princeton innovation conference highlighted University's initiative to transform research into societal benefit
Two-day program included focus on University’s commitment to grow the New Jersey innovation ecosystem
Honoring a legacy of innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and passion for collaboration, Princeton University hosted Engage 2021, its second annual innovation and entrepreneurship conference. The event was live-streamed online December 1-2, and included Celebrate Princeton Innovation, the University’s annual showcase of Princeton faculty research with the potential to benefit society. Hosted by Princeton Innovation and organized by Princeton’s Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations, the conference was free and open to all and attracted participants from the Princeton University community, government, industry, nonprofits, other higher ed institutions and the general public.
Over the course of twenty sessions, more than eighty conference speakers covered topics such as 5G/NextG wireless research, federal research support, net-zero decarbonization, quantum computing, cryptocurrency, biomedicine, academic entrepreneurship, startup accelerators and more.
The conference underlined Princeton’s support of the transformation of research into innovation, as well as the University’s key role and commitment to growing the New Jersey innovation ecosystem. In recorded remarks opening the conference, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy emphasized the state’s outreach to innovators, “There is a wealth of resources in New Jersey, both public and private, to ensure our brilliant, talented and creative innovators are successful. This conference will help build collaboration to maximize their impact.” Several sessions focused on local and regional topics, such as the University’s leadership of the National Science Foundation’s new I-Corps Northeast Hub.
In the conference’s opening session, Rodney Priestley, vice dean for innovation and the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, outlined the University’s current state of innovation; Tom Bergeron of ROI-NJ led the conversation. Priestley emphasized how the Office of the Dean for Research, through Princeton Innovation, has worked to synergize the efforts of various on-campus partner organizations and external collaborators to foster entrepreneurship. “When we think about Princeton, we think about its world-class reputation in the liberal arts and basic research, but certainly Princeton has been an enabler in innovation and entrepreneurship, and a huge supporter of the state’s innovation ecosystem, since the beginning,” he said.
The second session of the conference featured a conversation between Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Naveen Verma, director of Princeton’s Keller Center and professor of electrical and computer engineering. Dean Goldsmith, who founded two wireless companies, Plume WiFi and Quantenna, spoke on the beneficial interplay between the academic and entrepreneurial environments. Goldsmith noted that her entrepreneurial ventures in the real world gave her concrete experience, which she could then use in her teaching and academic research. Similarly, she underscored how many successful companies originally came out of fundamental research conducted at Princeton.
Noting that the entrepreneurial environment provides its own set of challenges, Goldsmith said, “Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, and especially not for all academics. You have to check your ego at the door, you have to expect to fail. You have to expect a level of turmoil and personalities that you would never encounter in the university. And yet, that is essential, that is the messy real world, that is the world of startups.”
The finale of the conference, the annual Celebrate Princeton Innovation showcase, also underscored the importance of entrepreneurship to the evolution of academic research into innovation. Hosted by the Office of Technology Licensing, CPI gave faculty innovators from Princeton eight minutes, plus a brief Q&A period, to discuss their latest transformational research. Highlights included an introductory keynote by Edward Felten, co-founder and CEO of Offchain Labs and the Robert E. Kahn Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs, Emeritus. Felten spoke on Offchain Labs’ production of the Arbitrum scaling solution for the Ethereum cryptocurrency and how it became one of the fastest-growing startup companies to spin out of Princeton. Other faculty presenters spoke on vital topics such as cancer therapeutics, pharmacogenomics, materials science in quantum computing, and sustainable battery recycling solutions.
Engage 2021 also featured the ceremony for the 2021 Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation. This year’s award, presented by Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, went to Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, professor of chemistry, for his creation of a new method for discovering new anti-infective therapeutics.
Seyedsayamdost outlined his innovation in an honorary lecture to Engage attendees, where he emphasized the new technology’s impact on the discovery of new natural products – small organic molecules synthesized by microbes and plants. These natural products account for over 60% of all therapies approved by the FDA, though they are no longer a major focus of the pharmaceutical industry. Seyedsayamdost hopes that his work with natural products will renew interest in their vast pharmaceutical potential, and he has co-founded the startup Cryptyx Bioscience to further develop his technology.
A panel on cancer research funding featured three founding members of the new Ludwig Cancer Research Princeton Branch: director Joshua Rabinowitz, professor of chemistry and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics; associate director Eileen White, the deputy director, chief scientific officer, and associate director of Basic Research at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey; and founding member and principal investigator Yibin Kang, the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology. The three encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit among young investigators and noted that foundations or venture capital investors may offer intellectual input and connections that are not normally presented by traditional funding routes.
Also making a highly anticipated appearance at Engage 2021 was Marian Croak, a vice president of engineering at Google and one of the first two Black women innovators to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Croak spoke with Jen Rexford, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering and the chair of the Department of Computer Science, about her work on influencing change in a large industry, her experience as a woman in STEM, and the importance of diverse perspectives in the development process.
Croak reflected on the necessity of risk-taking, stating that corporations must be willing to recreate themselves and their ways of doing business in order to stay afloat, even if their previous methodologies have proven beneficial. “There’s a huge resistance to changing business models that have been successful,” she said. “But yet, if you don’t remain flexible, you will ultimately fail.” Croak also encouraged young women entering the STEM fields to embrace their differences and not be afraid to run counter to the prevailing culture of their field.
One of the most popular segments of the conference reflected an overarching theme of the event, industry intersections with academic-based innovation. The session on academia-industry collaborations featured Princeton faculty, industry innovators and entrepreneurs in a conversation about how their respective collaborations have advanced research and innovation for the greater good. Andrew Houck, professor of electrical and computer engineering, commented on the contribution of these collaborations to society, saying, “We’ve always been interested in the intersection of what we study here and societally-relevant grand challenges. That goes beyond just engineering, to the sciences, humanities and social sciences as well. That’s a driving core mission of Princeton.”
Watch recordings of all sessions of Engage 2021.