2021 Nobel laureate David MacMillan brings attention to the power of academic collaboration, with industry and across disciplines, to catalyze new ideas

Written by
Jonathan Garaffa, Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations
Oct. 11, 2021

On October 6, Professor David MacMillan became the first Princeton faculty member to be awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry. In that whirlwind of a day, MacMillan brought focus to one of the strategies he sees as critical to advancing fundamental science: Collaboration. Not just with scientists in one’s own field. But with scientists from other disciplines and with industry.

Academic-Industry Collaboration

At the Princeton news conference celebrating his Nobel, MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, spoke about the crucial role of academic collaboration with industry in advancing fundamental science.

Remarking that industry collaborations are how fundamental discoveries can advance to the point where they are beneficial and widely available to society, MacMillan highlighted the interplay between the two communities of campus research and industry research. “When you have these two tremendous research communities that exist side-by-side,” he said, “it’s almost nonsensical not to build bridges between the two, taking what we are developing here and moving it towards really important applications, whether that’s medicine, materials—you name it.”

MacMillan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.” Asymmetric organocatalysis is a tool used to construct molecules. It is cheaper, safer and more sustainable than its alternatives and it allows for the creation of new drugs and materials, with a vast potential for applications in industry, health, and everyday products like clothing or shampoo. MacMillan noted how common it is for chemistry graduate students and faculty to find that their lab research can be translated into real-world applications, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s incredibly exciting when you see a company making a drug using technologies that were developed in a little fume hood in the back end of a lab in Princeton. It’s pretty neat,” MacMillan said.

Princeton Catalysis Initiative

At the campus news conference, MacMillan also discussed what inspired him to help found the Princeton Catalysis Initiative (PCI). PCI was created in 2017 by a core group of faculty from the Department of Chemistry. The group believed that providing a forum for Princeton researchers to share their work across campus with those outside their own departments could spark cross-disciplinary collaborations and help catalyze new ideas. MacMillan recalled that in its earliest stages, PCI hosted a “speed dating for scientists” symposium, where faculty from departments all over campus gave a five-minute talk on their research, looking for opportunities to collaborate with faculty in other fields.

Today, the annual PCI Symposium also acts as a matchmaker between companies and campus faculty looking to advance their research. According to MacMillan, the PCI team initially planned to fund fifty research collaborations. Now, there are 15 departments, 70 faculty members, and 6 industry partners involved with PCI, allowing the Initiative to support over 600 collaborations across 10 years with $75 million in committed funding. Regarding the success and growth of PCI and its role in linking industry with faculty, MacMillan remarked, “We don’t think this has been done anywhere else in the U.S. or in the world, and we are beginning to see all these new types of research coming out of it that previously people had not conceived of.”

Paul Chirik and David MacMillan stand at a podium and field questions from researchers

Chemists Paul Chirik and David MacMillan (from left at podium), two of the four members of the Princeton Catalysis Initiative faculty committee, field questions from researchers at the 2019 PCI Symposium. Photo by C. Todd Reichart, Department of Chemistry

Upcoming Symposium

The upcoming 2021 Princeton Catalysis Initiative Symposium will be held in Taylor Auditorium at the Frick Chemistry Laboratory of Princeton University on October 20, 2021.

More than 20 faculty members from eight departments across campus will present at the symposium.

If you are an industry, government, or association representative interested in further information about the PCI and the PCI symposium, please contact Dean Edelman. For more information on both the symposium and PCI, visit the Initiative’s new website.

To learn more about MacMillan’s Nobel Prize, read the article on his win from University News and watch the full Princeton University news conference for MacMillan on Princeton Media Central.