Catalyzing the Innovation Ecosystem

March 6, 2019

Published in the March 6, 2019 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Many people around the world think of Princeton as “Albert Einstein’s university.” Though the great physicist’s actual appointment was at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study, he was a prominent figure at the University, too. The association is flattering and in many ways apt: Princeton, like Einstein, is renowned not only for scholarly excellence but also for a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Princeton today remains faithful to the distinctive virtues of “Einstein’s university,” and I hope that it will be forever so. At the same time, some of our scholars are carrying forward this grand tradition in new ways, recognizing that cutting edge research now sometimes depends upon path-breaking collaborations with the private sector.

Gov. Phil Murphy, center, visited PIC BioLabs in July 2018 to announce two initiatives designed to support New Jersey’s innovation economy. Denise Applewhite

Governor Phil Murphy at Press Conference
Gov. Phil Murphy, center, visited PIC BioLabs in July 2018 to announce two initiatives designed to support New Jersey’s innovation economy. Denise Applewhite
Over the course of the past semester, we have announced three new ventures with Google, Celgene, and Microsoft. In January, Google opened an artificial intelligence lab in Palmer Square. Princeton professors of computer science Elad Hazan and Yoram Singer lead the research conducted at the new facility. Google’s computing and storage infrastructure will enable them to build on their pioneering efforts in optimizing machine learning to improve the speed and accuracy of the state-of-the-art algorithms. These fundamental insights could contribute to a variety of practical applications, from improved speech recognition to self-driving cars.

Last fall, the Princeton Catalysis Initiative announced a 10-year, $6 million collaboration with the Celgene Corporation. Founded by Dave MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, and Abby Doyle, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Chemistry, the Princeton Catalysis Initiative brings together researchers across disciplines to spark new discoveries in the field of catalysis. The project with Celgene will support a field that has the potential to advance alternative energies, new pharmaceuticals, and sustainable agriculture.

The University also established a collaboration with Microsoft that will open new avenues of research for leading Princeton scientists. Bonnie Bassler, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology, and Ned Wingreen, the Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences and professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, will use the computational power of Microsoft’s cloud-based technology to study biofilms, the leading cause of microbial infection worldwide.

This dynamic slate of collaborations with the private sector represents a new and vibrant strand within our teaching and research mission. The scientists and engineers leading these initiatives are among Princeton’s best basic researchers and most engaged teachers. They have multiple reasons for seeking relationships with corporate researchers. They believe, for example, that such interactions can help them identify areas of basic research likely to have downstream impact on urgent problems. They also recognize that collaborations can put them in touch with top-notch researchers, give them access to vast data sets and computational power, and enable them to attack problems on a larger scale than would be possible in their own laboratories.

When people hear about these relationships, they sometimes mistakenly suppose that their purpose is to generate revenue. In fact, our budget projections treat them as largely revenue-neutral. The collaborations are missiondriven: we believe they will make our research and teaching better. If over the long term they generate revenue that funds further research, that result would be an added benefit but not an essential one.

A number of established programs provide successful models for the new collaborations. For nearly a decade, the Andlinger Center’s Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership has forged relationships across academia, industry, and government in order to generate transformational innovations in energy and the environment. The BP Carbon Mitigation Initiative is a 20-year partnership with BP that has yielded important advances in research about climate change.

Collaborations of this kind are certain to grow in importance in the years ahead, and we are accordingly working to strengthen the innovation ecosystem around the University. The launch in May 2018 of Princeton Innovation Center Biolabs, an incubator for technology and life science start-ups, was an important milestone in these efforts. The facility has met with an enthusiastic reception. This past summer, Governor Murphy chose PIC Biolabs as the venue for a press conference where he announced two initiatives to catalyze NJ’s innovation economy.

Though Google found space for its AI laboratory right on Nassau Street, we anticipate future ventures will demand larger footprints. For that reason, thoughtful planning for the new Lake Campus on lands south of Lake Carnegie will be crucial. The initial vision for the Lake Campus, described in our campus plan, proposes space to accommodate joint ventures along with graduate student housing, athletic facilities, and other priorities.

Will these ventures change the image of “Einstein’s University?” I do not know the answer to that question. I do know, however, that the new collaborations germinating on our campus today are fundamentally consistent with the values that Einstein so beautifully represents: the quest for knowledge that can help us to understand our world, and the commitment to teaching undergraduates and graduates so that they can address the most urgent and profound questions facing our society.

- C.L.E.