In the nation's service: Princeton joins with Department of Defense program to support innovation

University collaboration offers opportunities for faculty, students, postdocs, and startup companies in engineering, entrepreneurship, and other areas.

Ned Potter

Every few hours, a Capella satellite flies silently over embattled Ukraine, scanning the Earth 300 miles below with a powerful technology called synthetic aperture radar. Through darkness, clouds, or smoke, it can make out details from orbit that are less than two feet across. Capella's radar has enough resolution to see whether houses have been damaged, identify a submarine from the configuration of its rudders, or tell whether a line of Russian tanks has retreated since the last satellite pass. In applications away from the battlefield, this technology can track things like urban traffic patterns, the movement of ships, the advance of wildfires, the retreat of glaciers, and the health of crops and forests.

Why is Capella Space relevant to Princeton? Because its founders started the company after they worked with the military as students in an engineering design course at Stanford that was sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network—NSIN for short. Princeton is NSIN's newest member.

NSIN (the name is pronounced "ensign," like the military rank) was created in 2016 by the Department of Defense to tap into the talents of non-traditional problem solvers to address national security challenges in new ways. NSIN runs various programs to encourage ideas and transition technologies from academia, ventures, and the military that might be useful to the Department of Defense. Universities, including Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Duke, Georgia Tech, Georgetown, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia, to name a few, all host NSIN programs. Capella Space got its start at Stanford, but similar opportunities could develop at Princeton as well.

At Princeton and most other universities, NSIN programs can involve undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and postdocs. At some schools, NSIN organizes courses to give students opportunities to solve actual, real-world challenges for the U.S. military. (The course at Stanford was called Hacking for Defense). NSIN hosts technical challenges—where faculty submit proposals to address specific engineering and science problems faced in defense. It also offers internships and coordinates capstone projects, where teams of students prototype a device or a computer program at the request of a military unit or office.

In the venture community, NSIN identifies startups with emerging technologies that can innovatively address DoD and commercial problems.

"Together," according to NSIN, "the communities of defense, academia, and venture will drive the innovations that help us realize the better, safer, stronger world we want to build."

NSIN at Princeton

Spencer Reynolds '92 serves as NSIN's Regional Engagement Principal at Princeton, connecting with faculty, students, and startup companies and developing opportunities for them.

Reynolds underlines that all work done through NSIN on the Princeton campus will be unclassified. Students around the country have been helping NSIN find answers for real-life problems the military faces. In one case, several schools collaborated on a data system that would reduce—by a third—the weight Marines must carry in their backpacks on patrol before being resupplied. In another, students developed an aircraft-repair technology for the Air Force called cold spray 3D printing—essentially, bonding metal particles into worn-out joints on B-1B bombers instead of replacing them, saving about $500,000 in repair costs per plane. Many of the questions presented by DOD don't only serve military needs: Many produce solutions with far wider application in the civilian world.

The Princeton-NSIN partnership came together under the aegis of Pablo G. Debenedetti, Princeton's Dean for Research. He is also the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. 

"Partnering with NSIN is a natural step for the University to take as we advance Princeton's culture of innovation," said Debenedetti. "I think our Princeton entrepreneurs can benefit greatly from the support of NSIN. And our students can apply their education and research experience to problems presented by those in service to our country."

Where, in practical terms, might Princeton's new relationship with NSIN lead? As organizers point out, there's no single answer—which is the idea. Reynolds says he can imagine NSIN involving people from various departments and programs: computer science, mechanical and aerospace engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and the natural sciences, as well as entrepreneurship, public policy, and other areas.

"NSIN is, by design, working at the very early stages of innovation and problem-solving, which fits well with Princeton's research," Reynolds says. "It's the Department of Defense connecting with the talents of the university and venture communities."

Princeton research connects with DOD in other ways too. Princeton faculty receive about $30 million in research funding in a given year from the Defense Department to work on a wide range of unclassified projects involving topics as diverse as climate change, breast cancer, and exotic states of matter. This year Princeton has also become part of an Air Force Research Laboratory hub coordinated by Cornell. In addition to universities, the hub includes Brookhaven National Laboratory and companies such as G.E. Research, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Corning, and Amazon. Like NSIN, the hub offers exposure to defense issues for students who might, after graduation, be interested in related careers.

NSIN's Engagement Principal Spencer Reynolds '92

Reynolds knows both Princeton and the U.S. Army firsthand. He grew up just a few blocks from the university campus and, as an undergraduate at Princeton, rose to the position of cadet commander in ROTC, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. After graduation in 1992, he spent four years on active duty in the Army as an armor officer, serving in Germany and Bosnia. He returned to the United States to get an MBA from Yale and went into pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Spencer Reynolds, smiling, dressed in fatigues in front of military equipment while loading up for patrol
Spencer Reynolds '92, current NSIN Engagement Principal at Princeton, has been part of the military community since his time as a University ROTC member. Spencer has served in the Army and Army National Guard and continues to serve on the boards of the Princeton Alumni Veterans Association and Alumni and Friends of Princeton ROTC, and as president of the Princeton Officers Society.. Photo courtesy of Spencer Reynolds.

Then came the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and, as Reynolds put it, "I felt I had more to contribute." He joined the Army National Guard, spending the better part of a year directing operations for a unit of 600 armored reconnaissance soldiers in Baghdad, and continued on reserve status during weekends and summers until 2020.

In the meantime, he came back to Princeton. In 2013 he joined the University's Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations, working with campus partners to build university research relationships with industry in the physical sciences and engineering. He is also on the boards of the Princeton Alumni Veterans Association and Alumni and Friends of Princeton ROTC, and he is president of the Princeton Officers Society.

Spencer now works for NSIN, though he will continue to be based on the Princeton campus. He spends a lot of time talking to defense leaders about their needs and to Princeton faculty and administrators about how defense and academe can collaborate. He cites one final story as emblematic of what education and defense can do together.

One day, he says, NSIN got a question from an Air Force base in Hawaii: How do we best protect our fighter jets from hurricanes? Standard practice has been to fly them to other bases out of the storm's path, but that can cost millions of dollars. Can we instead pack more planes into hangars? It would save a lot, but the space is tight.

"It's an interesting case," says Reynolds. "It's a geometric problem, but you also have to move them—you can't just pick them up and put them in there," says Reynolds, who heard about the project after joining NSIN.

The problem was solved by students at Berkeley, who shared it with students and faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. They created a computer application that would automatically create a best-fit algorithm for aircraft with the click of a few buttons. They have since applied for a small business innovation loan through the Defense Department.

"So, it started as a problem in a design-thinking class, provided a prototype to save a lot of time and money, and will likely lead to a startup company with a commercial product," says Reynolds. "That's just what NSIN was created to do, and NSIN is now an opportunity for Princeton as well."

University community members interested in NSIN should contact Spencer Reynolds at [email protected].

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