Expanding an innovation ecosystem: Princeton leads the way in 2018

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Princeton University
Dec. 26, 2018

The year 2018 represented a pivotal point in the development of an innovation ecosystem in the heart of New Jersey as Princeton University established significant new collaborations with pioneering members of industry — all with the aim of bolstering the resources available to researchers and scientists in their quest to make new discoveries in the service of society.

As President Christopher L. Eisgruber noted in July, standing alongside New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy at Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs, “We believe that these cross-sector partnerships will foster a vibrant innovation ecosystem with the potential to generate transformative ideas, benefit the regional economy and attract top talent — outcomes that will make central New Jersey an increasingly attractive place for all who live, learn and work here.”

The year kicked off with the opening of the Biolabs facility in Plainsboro at the Princeton Forrestal Center, and closed with Google and the University announcing that a new artificial intelligence laboratory would open in the town of Princeton in January. In between were other developments such as an agreement between the Princeton Catalysis Initiative (PCI) and Celgene Corp., and a Princeton-Microsoft agreement to research biofilms.

Murphy came to the Biolabs site to announce two initiatives to jumpstart the state’s innovation ecosystem.

“It’s right here in places like this across our state where the innovation economy will be reborn and once again dominate in New Jersey,” Murphy said. “These are the spaces where the next great leaps in technology and the life sciences will be made by new companies doing leading-edge research and development.”

These new relationships are described below, drawing from University announcements and related stories.

Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs

BioLabs opened in May, taking a major leap in connecting the talent and resources at Princeton to the larger New Jersey entrepreneurial network. 

The 31,000-square-foot-facility includes wet labs, dry labs and co-working spaces for Princeton-related tech and life science startups and for companies throughout the region.  

“Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs is one of several initiatives designed to strengthen the innovation ecosystem in central New Jersey and thereby expand the impact of Princeton’s teaching and research,” President Eisgruber said at the ceremonial ribbon-cutting.

The facility is designed to encourage collaboration, with shared work areas and many types of meeting spaces where scientists and entrepreneurs can share techniques and spark new ideas.

Eleven companies are tenants of the incubator space, spanning biotechnology, medical devices, battery technology and clean technology. Two of the companies have been spun out of the University by faculty, based on work in their labs: HIT Nano, which focuses on low-cost and high-performance lithium-ion batteries and led by Yiguang Ju, the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Program in Sustainable Energy; and Optimeos, which focuses on building nanoparticles for pharmaceutical use and co-founded by Robert Prud’homme, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Shahram Hejazi, venture capitalist and professional specialist in electrical engineering and the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.

Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs won Innovator of the Year from the Regional Chamber of Commerce during their gala awards ceremony in late November. 


At the start of 2018, the Princeton Catalysis Initiative launched with the goal of accelerating interdisciplinary collaboration on catalysis across the University and with industry. On Nov. 1, PCI established its first industrial collaboration, a 10-year, $6 million commitment from Celgene Corp. 

Catalysis is a key technological driver for solutions to many outstanding problems of increasing social concern, including the development of alternative energy technologies, environmental remediation strategies, access to novel pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, sustainable agriculture, and renewable soft materials. 

“PCI will be an academic incubator for new fields of research that will have significant benefit for society,” said David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and director of PCI. “Princeton is uniquely positioned to be the leader in this movement, and in collaboration with Celgene we expect to make discoveries that will significantly impact human health over the next 10 years and beyond. Celgene brings much more than funding — collaborators, ideas, and new opportunities for innovation and cross-pollination.”

“We are incredibly excited to enter into this collaboration with the Princeton Catalysis Initiative, said Lawrence Hamann, vice president for chemistry at Celgene. “The opportunity to engage with absolutely world-class investigators in such a diverse range of scientific fields aligned with Celgene’s broad research interests represents a unique and powerful means to advance some cutting-edge basic science.”

Princeton chemistry professors Abigail Doyle and David MacMillan explain catalysis in this video

As a global research university and leader in innovation, Princeton cultivates mutually beneficial relationships with companies to support the University’s educational, scientific and scholarly mission. The University is guided by the principle that initiatives to fortify and connect with the innovation ecosystem will advance Princeton’s role as an internationally renowned institution of higher education and accelerate its ability to have greater impact in the world. 


The University’s relationship with Microsoft is one of its most extensive with industry, spanning collaborations in computer science, cybersecurity and biomedical research.

On Nov. 29, Princeton and Microsoft announced they are teaming up on the leading edge of microbiology and computational research modeling research. 

Microsoft is helping Princeton to better understand the mechanisms of biofilm formation by providing advanced technology that will greatly extend the type of research analysis capable today. Biofilms — surface-associated communities of bacteria — are the leading cause of microbial infection worldwide and kill as many people as cancer does. They are also a leading cause of antibiotic resistance, a problem highlighted by the World Health Organization as “a global crisis that we cannot ignore.” Understanding how biofilms form could enable new strategies to disrupt them. 

To support Princeton, a Microsoft team led by Dr. Andrew Phillips, head of the Biological Computation group at Microsoft Research, will be working closely with Bonnie Bassler, a global pioneer in microbiology who is the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and with Ned Wingreen, the Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences and professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

Using the power of Microsoft’s cloud and advanced machine learning, Princeton will be able to study different strains of biofilms in new ways to better understand how they work. Microsoft is contributing a cloud-based prototype that can be used for biological modeling and experimentation that will be deployed at Princeton.

“This collaboration enables us to bring together advances in computing and microbiology in powerful new ways,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft. “This partnership can help us unlock answers that we hope someday may help save millions of people around the world.”

“By combining our distinctive strengths, Princeton and Microsoft will increase our ability to make the discoveries needed to improve lives and serve society,” said Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University. “Technology is creating new possibilities for collaboration, and we hope this venture will inspire other innovative partnerships in the years ahead.”

During a visit to campus earlier in the year, Smith, a Princeton alumnus, gave a talk about the growing role of artificial intelligence and its implications for society. He called for people with varied backgrounds and expertise in humanities and public policy to join in discussions to ensure the fair and ethical use of the new technologies.  


Google and the University announced Dec. 18 that the company will open an artificial intelligence lab in the town of Princeton in January. Computer science professors Elad Hazan and Yoram Singer will lead the effort, splitting their time working for Google and Princeton.

The lab at 1 Palmer Square will begin with a small number of faculty members, graduate and undergraduate student researchers, recent graduates and software engineers.

Work in the lab will focus on a discipline within artificial intelligence known as machine learning, in which computers learn from existing information and develop the ability to draw conclusions and make decisions in new situations that were not in the original data.

In congratulating the University and Google on the new venture, Gov. Murphy said it’s another great step in the innovation economy here in New Jersey.” The governor said he looks forward to “a great collaboration in artificial intelligence for years to come.”

Citing Princeton’s long and groundbreaking involvement in computing, Emily Carter, the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said, “This collaboration is another excellent example of how fundamental insights in mathematics and theoretical computer science drive new technologies with benefits far beyond the original domain of the work.”

Jennifer Rexford, chair of the Department of Computer Science, said the new venture comes at a time of significant growth in computer science and related areas of data science at the University. “It’s an exciting opportunity to work with a leading company while also maintaining the strong academic independence and freedom that is essential to Princeton,” she said.


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