Report highlights role of Princeton's federally funded research in driving innovation and economic growth

Nov. 7, 2013

Three Princeton University spin-off companies are among those highlighted in a new national report calling attention to the importance of federally funded university research in driving economic growth. The report, published today by the Science Coalition, a nonprofit group of more than 50 of the nation's leading public and private research universities, identified 100 companies that trace their roots to federally funded university research.

These companies provide a significant boost to the nation's economy, providing needed products, services and jobs, according to the report, "Sparking Economic Growth 2.0: Companies Created from Federally Funded Research, Fueling American Innovation and Economic Growth."

The Princeton companies included in the report are:

* Liquid Light Inc., based in Monmouth, N.J.; Product: A process for converting waste carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals

* TAG Optics Inc., based in Princeton, N.J.; Product: A new type of microscope that focuses in response to sound waves

* Aculon, based in San Diego; Product: Nanotechnology-based coatings for glass and metal surfaces

The scientific research that serves as the basis for companies such as these, however, is jeopardized by the current funding environment, according to the report. Sequestration, the across-the-board cuts to discretionary federal spending that began in March, could carve $95 billion from federal research budgets over the next eight years, according to an analysis by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Science Coalition.

"Federal funding for basic science is the fuel that has made possible the extraordinary record of fundamental discovery, technological innovation and prosperity creation that has characterized our country's research enterprise since the end of the Second World War," said Pablo Debenedetti, Princeton's dean for research and the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science. "It is a fuel whose supply is under threat, and with it the health of one of this nation's best engines for the creation of new knowledge and new jobs."

Liquid Light is an example of a company that is creating knowledge and jobs in New Jersey. The company is developing technologies to turn waste carbon dioxide into usable products such as fuels and industrial chemicals. The company grew out of laboratory work by Princeton chemistry professor Andrew Bocarsly and graduate student Emily Cole, who co-founded the company in 2009 with CEO Kyle Teamey. Today, Liquid Light has 22 full-time employees.

Yet without federal funding, the project wouldn't have gotten off the ground, according to Bocarsly. "Our original discovery at Princeton that it is possible to efficiently convert carbon dioxide to methanol was made possible by National Science Foundation (NSF) funding in the late 1990s," he said. "This finding was based on pure fundamental discovery work that could not have gone forward without the NSF's long-standing support." The project later received additional funding for the development of the process from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Federal funding enabled the basic research at Princeton on methods for converting carbon dioxide, a waste product, into valuable chemicals and fuels," said Teamey. "Without such funding, companies such as Liquid Light would not exist."

Universities serve as cradles for new ideas and inventions, said Princeton's Director of Technology Licensing John Ritter. "The ongoing projects at Princeton have the potential to make a difference in daily life, in areas including energy, transportation and health," Ritter said. "The innovations that result from original University research are leading to new products and services, and potentially to entirely new industries."

Christian Theriault, co-founder of TAG Optics with Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Craig Arnold, said that federal funding of early-stage university research is essential because few companies conduct basic research. "Although private funding does exist, it is often reserved for later-stage projects and rarely goes to basic research and discovery-stage projects," he said. "Funding for these projects is of critical importance if the United States is to keep its status as a world innovator."

The Science Coalition is dedicated to sustaining the federal government's investment in basic scientific research as a means to stimulate the economy, spur innovation and drive America's global competitiveness.

The report is available online. An accompanying database provides access to company profiles and allows users to sort companies by federal funding agency, university affiliation, type of innovation and other criteria.