Opinion: With an Emphasis on Diversity, Princeton-Led I-Corps Hub Will Energize the State’s Research-Based Startups

Princeton University recently made news for being selected as the leader of the Northeast Hub of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps).

Princeton proclaimed: “Aiming to accelerate the transformation of scientific discoveries into technologies that improve everyday lives, a Princeton University-led consortium of regional universities will form a new innovation network with a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).”

But this will involve more than a $15 million grant to be distributed among academic partners and associated colleges and universities over five years.

It will also provide an opportunity to disseminate I-Corps knowledge about commercialization and customer discovery to a multicultural group of researchers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. It will be a way to accelerate technology transfer beyond our universities, and to encourage company formation by women and minorities.

“Princeton is excited to lead this initiative to develop the talent and dynamism of our region’s researchers,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “I am especially pleased that the hub will assist those who historically have faced barriers to opportunity and expand the societal impact of new discoveries and innovations.”

Several of the institutions in the coalition have many diverse researchers. In New Jersey, we are blessed with a high degree of diversity at many of our schools, including affiliate university NJIT and Rutgers University, a partner institution. Delaware State University, another member, is a historically black college. Temple University, in Philadelphia, is also quite diverse.

The other members of the hub coalition are the University of Delaware, a partner institution, and affiliates Rowan University, in New Jersey, and Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania; 

A Commitment to Inclusivity

The announcement declared that through “a demonstrated commitment to inclusivity and diversity, the hub will contribute to America’s future prosperity and global competitiveness by training the next generation of innovators from all backgrounds.”

It continued, “Activities that promote diversity include building a mentor network of successful and diverse individuals throughout the startup lifecycle, ensuring that hub instructors and mentors reflect the diversity of the region, and enhancing efforts to recruit participants belonging to groups historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship.”

Delaware State University will co-lead the hub’s efforts to establish new partnerships with minority-serving institutions.

Added Michael Ehrlich, associate professor of finance at NJIT’s Martin Tuchman School of Management, who is on the I-Corps team,“The NSF Northeast Hub has a special focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and NJIT will help lead in that effort. Our DEI track record is very strong, as a prior NSF site with 75 percent of our teams having a woman or underrepresented minority as a leader. 

“As an affiliate member of the new NSF Northeast Hub, we will collaborate and leverage additional resources with some great partners. Our extended outreach efforts will support the commercialization of deep technology in the U.S.”

Rodney Priestley, Princeton University’s vice dean for innovation and the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith professor of chemical and biological engineering, will be the co-director of the hub.

Priestley is the cofounder of several startups based on research developed in his laboratory at Princeton, and he leads Princeton Innovation, an initiative to broaden entrepreneurial activities based on university discoveries.

“The convergence of different disciplines combined with the diversity of participants will lead to unbound possibilities in U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Priestley. “Furthermore, the U.S. will only maintain its global competitiveness by harnessing contributions from all members of society.”

“The convergence of different disciplines combined with the diversity of participants will lead to unbound possibilities in U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Rodney Priestly, Princeton University dean for innovation

Julius Korley, director of entrepreneurship and strategic partnerships at the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware, will co-direct the hub. Korley is an experienced entrepreneur and nationally certified National Institutes of Health I-Corps program instructor.

Christina Pellicane, the hub’s lead instructor, has been a nationally certified NSF I-Corps instructor for eight years. She previously managed the University of Delaware I-Corps Site as the first-ever director of commercialization at the university’s Horn Entrepreneurship Center, and earlier managed the New York City Regional Innovation Node. She is also the COO of a chemical tech startup spun out of the University of Delaware.

Princeton, Rutgers University and the University of Delaware will assemble entrepreneurial instructors for training programs, recruit mentors and offer entrepreneurial programming for teams of scientists who apply to participate, with the goal of transitioning a technology into the marketplace.

Added Lori B. Dars, director of the Rutgers I-Corps Site, which has been very successful in helping companies transition successfully towards commercialization, “The new hub model expands our I-Corps ecosystem by creating a formal partnership between Rutgers, Princeton, University of Delaware, Lehigh, NJIT, Temple and Delaware State.  Working together, we will be able to offer additional programs and resources to our innovators,” she said.

Overall, as NJTechWeekly.com sees it, this is a good thing for New Jersey and the region. All the statistics show that the more diverse a company is, the better it performs and the more innovative it is. This is because the leadership team considers many more points of view than do firms with largely homogeneous workforces.

With funding from NSF over five years, the Northeast Hub will provide entrepreneurial training, mentoring and resources to enable researchers to form startup companies that translate laboratory discoveries into breakthrough products and services.

The hub will use the NSF I-Corps entrepreneurship training approach, which focuses on understanding the needs of potential customers, first-hand exploration of industrial processes and practices and on confronting the challenges of creating successful ventures based on scientific discoveries.

The I-Corps program relies on the underlying principles of the “lean startup” methodology, in which innovators rapidly iterate on their products and business plans based on customer feedback and market needs. The new hubs will extend the capability of the NSF I-Corps program, which started a decade ago, to grow the societal and economic benefits arising from federally funded research in science and engineering.

According to a Princeton release, the new hub will make use of its proximity to “deep-tech industries” that revolve around fundamental discoveries in areas such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals, energy, the environment, earth- and water-friendly “green and blue” technologies, financial technologies, agriculture, communications and digital information.

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