Chemical and biological engineering professor Rodney Priestley began his work as the University’s first vice dean for innovation in February 2020, and when COVID disrupted that semester, he had plenty to keep him busy, including a proposal for Princeton to take a key role in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps), which aims to bring discoveries from federally funded research into the marketplace. That work bore fruit in August 2021 when Princeton was selected to lead one of five regional I-Corps hubs. Priestley spoke with PAW about the program.
Why was Princeton interested in leading an I-Corps hub, and what made the University a good candidate?
I think Princeton has, rightfully so, a world-class reputation for basic, foundational, and translational research, and the next step, one may argue, is helping to translate that work into benefits for society. The fastest way to do that is through the creation of new ventures. We receive quite a bit of government funding for our research, whether it’s from the National Science Foundation or other entities, and so participating in I-Corps just made a lot of sense for us.
What are the strengths of the Northeast region, in terms of university partners and potential industry partners?
The institutions that we have in our hub are leaders in conducting research that has the potential to improve everyday lives — including Princeton, Rutgers University, the University of Delaware, and the rest of our affiliates. That, combined with the fact that three of the hub institutions were already strong participants in I-Corps, gave us a solid foundation for how we would put together our hub and how we would operate it.
The Northeast region is a stronghold for companies in the life sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, fintech, and the energy sector. We felt that the presence of those industries, combined with the support from regional and state governments for innovation and entrepreneurship, allowed us to put together a really strong argument for centering the I-Corps hub at Princeton. And I’d endeavor to say that for Princeton in particular, the pieces are really starting to come together. For us, it just felt like the time was right to be more involved in this space.
Among the primary aims for the I-Corps hubs is to provide opportunities to diverse communities of innovators. How does that resonate with your work?
It’s a huge component of the work that we’re already doing in the Office of the Dean for Research. We’ve announced a slate of new programs to support more inclusive research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. (Read more at bit.ly/dean-for-research.)
In terms of the hub in particular, I am pleased that we are one of the two hubs that have an HBCU as an affiliate member, Delaware State University. We have identified what we believe to be several unique components for how we will partner with Delaware State University to effectively become a catalyst for further engagement of HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. I think diversity comes through in the leadership of the team as well as the makeup of the hub’s instructional and mentorship teams. We are leading by example.
You split your time between the innovation vice dean’s role and your other job as a professor. Has your administrative work influenced the way you view the research in your lab?
There is certainly overlap and connection. My research group, like many on campus, is rooted in basic questions that have potential implications in various technologies. And when we see an opportunity to translate our discoveries into technologies for wider use, we try to participate in the entire pipeline. I view this as a natural extension of my research. I wake up every morning thinking about research and innovation in my own group, and then think about how I can help the campus research, innovation, and entrepreneurship community grow.
Do students feel a connection to that as well?
I think so. All students want to make an impact in the world. We recruit extremely talented graduate students each year. They come to Princeton and they’re thinking about their research adviser, their project, and what they are going to do over the next five years. At the end of their graduate school career, when they earn their Ph.D.s, they’re hoping that whatever they have done has the opportunity to have a real impact, to make real change in society. And so when you can present additional opportunities for graduate students or researchers to get training in translating their research while they are doing it — I think the students have responded extremely positively to that.
Interview conducted and condensed by Brett Tomlinson