Princeton Full Steam Ahead in Quest to Contribute to NJ Tech Entrepreneurship Ecosystem, Priestley Says

Last year, Princeton University declared its intention to play a more active role in the New Jersey tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

During Princeton University’s Engage 2021 conference, in early December, the university further elaborated on its plans to both encourage entrepreneurship at the university and provide space to enable the university’s academic spinouts to stay within the state.

Videos from the conference can be found here.

During a conversation at the conference between Rodney Priestley, vice dean for innovation, and Tom Bergeron, cofounder and editor of ROI-NJ (Cedar Knolls), the two discussed many of the different entrepreneurial opportunities for faculty and researchers at the university.

“We really are focused on spinouts that are somehow connected to academic research, academic scholarship. And so, the start always takes place here on the university’s campus,” Priestley told Bergeron.

When Priestley first came to Princeton, the university was already a “vibrant” institution supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, he added. His office’s work has been “to drive synergy between the various organizations on campus that were already involved” in driving entrepreneurship, he said, as well as highlighting the “amazing” work that is being done all over the university.

Confronting Barriers to Entrepreneurship

He acknowledged that there are some challenges for faculty and students seeking to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions as they spin out their research, and he outlined how Princeton is addressing them. A primary barrier for research-based startups is funding, as these young research-based companies often require a lot of money to get off the ground.

“We really are focused on spinouts that are somehow connected to academic research.”

Rodney Priestley, Princeton University

He said that there are several innovation funds that can be accessed via the Office of the Dean of Research, to help faculty who want to engage more in innovation. For example, there is an innovation fund called the Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund. “This is effectively access to gap funding that faculty can have once they’ve already disclosed intellectual property to the university,” to be used for undertaking additional translational research on that technology. If faculty members decide to pursue an idea towards entrepreneurship and licensing the technology, they can apply to the Faculty New Ventures Fund through the Office of Technology and Licensing, “which provides critical early financial support to startups in their formation phase.”

Besides monetary help, Princeton offers opportunities for faculty to find mentors and educational opportunities through the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council (PEC). For undergrads, there are programs and education  to be accessed through the Keller Center, as well as the PEC. A program established recently at the graduate school called “GradFUTURES” has a major focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, he said.

In answer to another question from Bergeron, Priestley talked about collaborations outside the university that will help New Jersey and the entire region. Priestley said this was very important for Princeton’s success. “We can’t be engaged in the innovation ecosystem alone. We need collaborators and we need partners.”

Collaborations with Other Institutions

He said he was extremely excited about Princeton’s selection by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to be one of the first five lead institutions in what will be, in the end, a network of 10 I-Corps innovation hubs across the United States.

“We can’t be engaged in the innovation ecosystem alone. We need collaborators and we need partners.”

Rodney Priestley, Princeton University

 “I find a lot of people view the National Science Foundation as a hallmark of providing financial support for basic research and academic institutions. But what people may not realize is that the National Science Foundation is also extremely interested in seeing that basic research has an impact in society for good.” He added that innovation and entrepreneurship are taking center stage as the NSF doubles down on investments in basic research that can have an impact on society.

The I-Corps program is one of the chief ways in which the NSF is achieving that goal. The program effectively trains university faculty and researchers in the principles of entrepreneurship, in this case focusing on deep-tech or high-tech entrepreneurship. The I-Corps program provides an educational structure in which faculty and researchers who are engaged in federally funded basic research can learn about the process of transferring their research into commercial products for the good of society.

Princeton has eight collaborators in I-Corps, but in New Jersey the primary collaborators are Rutgers University and Rowan University. There are also affiliate universities. “We are extremely excited to be expanding our partnerships with institutions within the state of New Jersey around innovation and entrepreneurship and look forward to the impact that the hub has not only on the education of our students and faculty here at Princeton, but also on regional innovation.”

[The first session of the I-Corps four-part program kicks off on Feb. 28, and continues on March 2, 9 and 23, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. EST online. Applications are due Jan. 31. Researchers are invited to attend an info session Friday, Jan. 14 at 2 p.m. EST online. Learn more and apply for the program at icorpsnortheasthub.org.]

Bergeron asked about The Hub, which is being built in New Brunswick, and will offer an opportunity for many different types of companies and global institutions to come together in one innovation space. Princeton was the first institution to commit to becoming a tenant there. Priestley mentioned that he and Pablo G. Debenedetti, dean for research, recently conferred with their colleagues at Rutgers University about ideas on how to use that space at the Hub collaboratively.

Priestley also mentioned other off-campus initiatives. Earlier, Princeton formed the Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs, a 30,000-square-foot space with both wet and dry labs. It houses startups connected to the university, as well as some that are not.

He noted that the university has space in downtown Princeton called the “Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub” (eHub), which is home to the Keller Center and the PEC. Princeton is expanding, he noted, and in the future some of the Lake Campus, a new area being planned, could be devoted to entrepreneurship and innovation.

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