New regional Princeton-led innovation hub to accelerate tech, enhance diversity in entrepreneurship

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
Aug. 25, 2021

The NSF-funded Innovation Corps (I-Corps) hub, formed with partner institutions Rutgers and the University of Delaware plus affiliate universities throughout the region, will broaden diversity in entrepreneurship and cultivate startups in health care, energy and the environment, computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials and more.

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).

Map of universities in hub

Credit: Mapbox Studio and Princeton University

The NSF Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM) Northeast Hub is one of five new hubs announced this week in a nationwide NSF-funded network of universities formed to accelerate the economic impact of federally funded research – delivering benefits in health care, energy and the environment, computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials and other areas – while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds, including those historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship.

Princeton will be the principal institution in the new hub, with the University of Delaware and Rutgers University as partner institutions. The hub will include five initial affiliates: New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and Rowan University in New Jersey, Lehigh University and Temple University in Pennsylvania, and Delaware State University, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). The hub will expand by adding new affiliates each year.

"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.”

“Rutgers is excited to partner in forming this hub, which speaks both to our region’s excellence in scientific research focused on our nation’s most urgent challenges and to its incredible diversity,” said Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway. “This will help us provide opportunity to a new generation of researchers and spur growth in our innovation ecosystem.” 

“The University of Delaware has a deep commitment to groundbreaking research and a successful history of moving those discoveries out of our labs to fuel the creation of businesses and other ventures, so we are thrilled to be a partner in the NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub,” said University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis. “This initiative will open doors of opportunity for underrepresented populations and connect our diverse community of innovators with others throughout the region to benefit our entire economy and society.”

Entrepreneurial Focus

With funding from NSF over five years, the 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 employ 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 confronting the challenges of creating successful ventures based on scientific discoveries.

The I-Corps program is based on 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.

Regional and Global Impact

Located in the heart of the U.S. Northeast, the new hub will make use of its proximity to “deep-tech industries” that revolve around fundamental discoveries in areas such as health care and pharmaceuticals, energy, the environment, earth- and water-friendly “green and blue” technologies, financial technologies, agriculture, communications and digital information.

The hub will build on the robust industrial and government relationships of its academic institutions to develop a network of cross-sector partnerships that will leverage the investment of federal research dollars in the region’s universities.

“Federal support for innovation provides a dynamic infusion of resources to energize economic growth, grow employment opportunities, and inspire new generations of entrepreneurial researchers to find solutions to societal challenges,” said U.S. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, who represents New Jersey’s 12th district, which includes Princeton University. “New Jersey’s institutes of higher learning have always been on the cutting edge. The National Science Foundation I-Corps Northeast Hub will invigorate the capacity for federally funded research to improve people’s everyday lives.”

People in lab

Rutgers University student Sherifat Alaka illuminates fingerprint samples with a special light, while observed by Kimberlee Sue Moran, associate teaching professor and director of forensics. Photo copyright Rutgers University

Princeton and the partner and affiliate universities are home to numerous industry-funded research centers and entrepreneurial business accelerators and incubators. Three of the hub universities (Rutgers, University of Delaware and NJIT) were funded previously by NSF as I-Corps sites providing training to hundreds of teams of entrepreneurs.

“Universities working together – Princeton, University of Delaware, Delaware State University, and others – to share resources and to support our next generation of entrepreneurs is exactly why Innovation Corps was founded, and why I was an early supporter of I-Corps,” said U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. “I'm thrilled that two of Delaware's universities are part of the Northeast I-Corps hub. The first ten years of the I-Corps program have already helped a number of promising entrepreneurs translate ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace, and with the announcement of these new hubs, I look forward to seeing the gains our universities and students, especially those traditionally underrepresented in entrepreneurship, make toward commercializing new breakthrough technologies as a result of this important partnership.”

Diverse Participation in Entrepreneurship

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.

People looking at a 3-D printer.

A faculty member and two students work with a 3D printer in the University’s Maker Space lab, and innovation lab for students. Delaware State University is one of five affiliate institutions in the new Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) Northeast Hub. Photo credit: Delaware State University

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.

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

Hub Leadership

Four hub leaders

Co-director Rodney Priestley of Princeton, Lead Instructor Christina Pellicane, Co-director Julius Korley of the U. of Delaware, and Research Lead Jeffrey Robinson of Rutgers.

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 co-founder of several startups based on research developed in his laboratory at Princeton, and 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, co-founder of several startups based on research developed in his laboratory at Princeton. “Furthermore, the U.S. will only maintain its global competitiveness by harnessing contributions from all members of society.”

Julius Korley, director of entrepreneurship and strategic partnerships in 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.

“Our commitment to diversity is evidenced in the composition of our leadership team,” Korley said. “We’re going to leverage our network to draw in more diverse candidates for all of these roles important to entrepreneurship — whether to become an I-Corps instructor, which can be a meaningful career, or a mentor who serves as that critical sounding board, or as a trainee who goes on to launch a successful company. We’re very excited to get started.”

Christina Pellicane, the hub’s lead instructor, has been a nationally certified NSF I-Corps instructor for eight years, previously managed the University of Delaware I-Corps Site as the founding director of commercialization, and earlier managed the NYC Regional I-Corps Node. She is the chief operating officer of a chemical tech startup spun out of the University of Delaware.

Princeton and the two partner institutions, 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.

Faculty leadership at the principal and partner institutes will include:

  • Jannette Carey, associate professor of chemistry at Princeton
  • Dunbar Birnie, professor and the Corning/Saint Gobain/Malcolm G. McLaren Chair of Materials Science and Engineering at Rutgers
  • Daniel Freeman, associate professor of marketing and director of the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware
  • Jeffrey Robinson, an associate professor at Rutgers Business School and academic director of The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development, will serve as the research lead for the hub

As the lead institution, Princeton will provide overall governance of the hub under the guidance of Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering.

A Network of Affiliates

The affiliate universities, including inaugural members NJIT, Rowan University, Temple University, Lehigh University and Delaware State University will advertise opportunities for their researchers to form teams and attend trainings located at the lead and partner institutions.

Affiliate faculty leads:

  • Michael Ehrlich, associate professor of finance at the MT School of Management and director of the Leir Institute for Business, Technology and Society at the New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Nidhal Bouaynaya, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Rowan University
  • John Coulter, professor of mechanical engineering, senior associate dean for research for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, and faculty lead for the I-Corps hub at Lehigh University
  • Michael Casson, dean of the College of Business, director of the University Center for Economic Development and International Trade, and director of the Economic Development and Leadership Institute at Delaware State University
  • Temple University’s faculty lead is to be determined

Quotes from University Leaders at Affiliates

  • “Translating research and innovation that will benefit society into market successes through the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems has been a long-term priority in NJIT’s strategic planning,” said Atam Dhawan, senior vice provost for research and executive director of Undergraduate Research and Innovation at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “NJIT’s well-established participation in NSF vehicles such as I-Corps and Research Experiences for Undergraduates, as well as the creation of our own intensive innovation programs, such as the URI seed grant and undergraduate summer research programs, among many others, will make NJIT a vital partner in this hub. I look forward to the expanding opportunities to come as an integral part of this prestigious group.”
  • “This new partnership exactly fits where we want to go as a research university,” said Dr. Tabbetha Dobbins, interim vice president for research at Rowan University. “Rowan is already an economic engine in the region and we’re excited by the possibilities for our innovators.”  
  • “We are pleased to partner with Princeton University and the other institutions on this new NSF I-Corps Hub,” said Michele Masucci, vice president for research at Temple University. “Adding this program to our existing ecosystem will serve to accelerate Temple’s support of our faculty and students as they move their emerging technologies towards commercialization.”
  • “Lehigh’s inspired innovation culture spans a broad range of technical areas and application fields. Our interdisciplinary emphasis on materials, devices, data science, intelligent systems, infrastructure, energy, and health is likely to foster innovation based team formation in these areas,” said John Coulter, professor of mechanical engineering, senior associate dean for research for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, and faculty lead for the I-Corps hub at Lehigh University.
  • “Delaware State University is excited to become an affiliate of the I-Corps Northeast Hub, and to participate in growing this partnership of eight universities into a genuine Northeast Corridor Hub over the coming years,” said Delaware State University President Tony Allen. “The future of higher education in America depends heavily on our ability to become centers of innovation that not only conduct significant research, but transform that research into deep technology ventures that have lasting impact on the nation’s most critical challenges. As one of the first Historically Black Colleges or Universities within I-Corps, we are especially gratified to be able to use this opportunity to open up more opportunities for students of color across the region.”

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