As major corporations continue to reduce their basic research operations and also acquire small companies that possess appealing products/services, research-ready colleges and universities continue to engage the broader scenario with innovative products created in collaboration with corporate partners or, separately, developed entirely from scratch on their campuses and then commercialized.
In an era when university graduates are often hired for their practical skillsets, the equation affords students near-endless research opportunities, as is the case at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT’s) New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), which houses some 70 entrepreneurial companies in its VentureLink program. These companies, in turn, benefit from enthusiastic and intelligent students.
The academia/industry cross-pollination for innovative commercialization may be additionally beneficial for colleges/universities since it can be lucrative for them at a time when higher education funding has not been especially robust and college enrollment has generally declined, in part due to both birth-rate trends and the popularity of cost-effective professional certification programs appealing to college-debt-shunning prospective students.
Corporations, for their part, can undertake R&D on lower budgets at colleges and universities, and the higher education institutions also have a “cadre of instrumentation that industry may not have on hand at their companies, or have access to,” explains Tabbetha Dobbins, PhD, interim vice president and dean of the graduate school at Glassboro-based Rowan University. Companies can obtain electron microscope images, for example, either by requesting that students undertake the task or by arriving and performing it themselves for an inexpensive usage fee.
Students, again, learn to use the advanced equipment overall, which may be the “price of a large house” or the “price of a very nice car,” Dobbins explains to them.
Universities may first approach an industry to learn if companies can commercialize the patents that they are developing, or, again, faculty may start their own companies on campuses and “bring products to market the way they envisioned,” Dobbins says.
She also says, “The university is trying to get its money back that it invested early in the patent process, and if it is [accomplished] by licensing to an existing company, then that’s great.” It’s all within a broader back-and-forth context between academia and industry, in which R&D communication lines are fluid and opportunities arrive in various iterations.
An Evolving Innovation Landscape
Commercialization-focused research on university campuses arguably thrives at an apt point in human history: While the 21st century has increasingly been marked by rapid supercomputer – and internet-collaborative research trends across areas ranging from biotechnology and artificial intelligence, to telecommunications and healthcare, NJII’s CEO Simon Nynens says, “One comment about where the startups are coming from: It is all coming from sustainability, digitization, and data, data, data. It is data analytics, keeping data secure [and] analyzing [data].”
Research can be conducted for practical reasons to address societal/marketplace needs, but it can also be undertaken at deeper levels – and not all research is umbilically connected to industry. As Nynens explains, “Every now and then you need a sea change, and for that you need fundamental research. That’s where the university plays a role.” While the Bell Labs of yesteryear undertook research in this realm at its famed Murray Hill campus, today’s universities may, at times, continue the tradition as Silicon Valley tech giants may also do likewise.
The University Pace
And although academia is arguably increasingly nimble and capable of quickly undertaking commercialization-related research, at times the university setting may not be fast enough. Rowan University’s Dobbins explains, “When [we] engage with industry, industry has deadlines and a timetable for getting things to the market; the university pace isn’t always rapid enough for that.”
She says corporations will sometimes keep their core commercialization projects and leave less time-sensitive matters to the university, with a mindset toward later recruiting students involved in such research matters.
Universities likewise have an eye on recruiting top-tier research professors to their campuses: Rowan University had only approximately $6 million in research income in the mid-2000s, but it has grown to some $60 million today along with earning a Carnegie R2 Research Classification.
“Having an R2 status institution helps us to recruit those types of faculty members who really want to carry on the lifelong learning that research offers; that research in the laboratory offers; that technology offers,” Dobbins says. “What that means for us is a recruitment of faculty who are going to be more innovative and who are going to be more inclined to carry out research and work with our students in the lab.”
Durin Technologies, founded in 2010, is a startup that is striving to commercialize an Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s related diagnostic test developed by Robert Nagele, professor of medicine and the director of the Biomarker Discovery Center at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. It’s among a host of other collaborations between industry and Rowan University.
Meanwhile, at NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute, the VentureLink @ NJIT facility “equips startups with the tools, connections and space to grow into successful businesses.” This includes co-working space, coaching and mentorship, as well as educational workshops on topics ranging from sales and marketing, to finances and human resources, for example.
The company Gylde – with its Gylde app designed for a contactless restaurant experience – is an example of a VentureLink startup. According to an NJIT video, the product is designed so that the ordering and payment process is automated via diners’ smartphones.
Nynens describes much of the work at the New Jersey Innovation Institute, overall: “What I like to tell everybody here is: We are the execution arm. We do not try to re-do research. So, a professor comes to us with an idea. I look at it from a market point of view, like, ‘Who is your competitor? What is your pricing point? How is your company set up?’ And that’s where I really think we can help the faculty and we can help startup companies, because that’s a lot of stuff that they might not be aware of.”
NJII has several divisions ranging from data and technology to defense, to healthcare and human capital, for example. Nynen says, “I have so many different ideas coming at me from the division leaders, who say: ‘We need to invest in this opportunity.’ ‘We have a data analytics opportunity.’ ‘It’s water filtration.’ ‘It’s this; it’s that.’ We have limited resources, and I can invest my dollar only once.”
The Future of New Jersey and Innovation
Nynens also refers to the “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” by the late Clayton Christensen, of which he says, “If you innovate, you get to a point where you can no longer [do] incremental innovation, and you have to add a whole new step. That is what I see. We need massive, [innovative] change.”
New Jersey might just be the place for such innovation, with companies reportedly leaving New York City’s coronavirus environment and the city’s $150-per-square foot rents to pay $25-per-square foot at NJIT.
Speaking more broadly about the recent exodus of people from Manhattan, Nynens says, “[Northern New Jersey] has Newark, Hoboken, Jersey City, Summit, and Montclair; they are all making their towns much better places to live and work. That’s a great turnaround. I think Northern New Jersey can be to New York what Silicon Valley is to San Francisco.”