Rodney Priestley, Princeton's inaugural vice dean for innovation, discusses transformation of research into solutions for society

Wednesday, Feb 5, 2020
by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

Rodney Priestley is Princeton's first vice dean for innovation, a newly created role within the Office of the Dean for Research to provide academic leadership for innovation and entrepreneurship activities across campus.

As the University’s innovation leader, Priestley, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, will oversee efforts to grow Princeton's culture of innovation as a means to further the University's teaching and research mission and enhance its impact on the world.

Priestley will devote half his time to the role of vice dean for innovation while retaining his active research program. A member of Princeton's faculty since 2009, Priestley has published nearly 100 articles, has co-founded two startup companies based on inventions made in his laboratory at Princeton, and is co-inventor on five patent-pending technologies ranging from lightweight aerogels for membranes to colloids for gels and emulsions.

Below, Priestley outlines his vision for the newly created position.

How do you define innovation as it relates to Princeton?

Innovation is the transformation of fundamental research and insights into better solutions and new ways of addressing societal problems. Princeton is a world-renowned leader in fundamental research and inventions, but we need to take greater steps to turn these works into something that can benefit or bring value to society. This transformation is where I see my role as vice dean for innovation.

What are your top priorities as the vice dean for innovation?

My top priority is to support our faculty, students and alumni in their innovation and entrepreneurial goals as they translate their discoveries and inventions into services and products that can have a positive impact on society. We have a number of offices on campus that help make this happen, so one of my first tasks will be to work with colleagues to articulate a unified vision and mission for innovation and entrepreneurship at Princeton.

This vision for Princeton will inform a range of new programs and activities that I'm exploring that will strengthen the University's ability to grow its innovation culture, facilitate collaborations among faculty and innovation partners, enhance our training and support for faculty and students to develop their technologies via spin-out enterprises, and ensure that diversity is a priority in our innovation and entrepreneurship activities.

What are Princeton's unique strengths in innovation?

Our emphasis on interdisciplinary research, forged by the many centers, institutes and initiatives on campus, is certainly one of the University's strengths. When one thinks about the big breakthroughs — the ones that serve as the foundation for future innovation — these often occur at the interface of different disciplines.

Also, our researchers have access to world-class research facilities, as well as facilities where early-stage companies can incubate and develop. Our Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs and the Entrepreneurial Hub both offer working space for early-stage companies.

We also provide funding. For example, through our Office of Technology Licensing, Princeton offers the IP Accelerator fund to further develop the applications of a discovery by a faculty member.

Another of Princeton's strengths is our location between New York and Philadelphia, an area that is home to major pharma companies.

Further, we have a robust innovation and entrepreneurship education program through our Keller Center, which trains approximately 1,400 students a year. Also, our engaged and entrepreneurially minded alumni and the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council (PEC), can provide support and expertise for early-stage innovation companies.

What are your plans to promote diversity in innovation and entrepreneurship?

This is an important issue, and one I'm pleased that the University is focused on. For example, last fall Princeton hosted the Thrive: Empowering and Celebrating Princeton's Black Alumni conference, which included a one-day event, co-organized with PEC, around innovation and entrepreneurship that was one of the most highly attended of the events and featured many distinguished Princeton alumni.

Diversity is an integral part of innovation. Innovation is about bringing solutions to society, and society is diverse, so it is important that your team be a mirror image of the people that your innovation is helping. Diversity also leads to better innovation and better outcomes. We want to make sure that we include diversity and inclusion in the training that we do. For example, one goal of mine will be to provide programming specifically targeting women and underrepresented minorities as tech founders.

What sort of reaction have you been getting from Princeton faculty?

Faculty and students are very supportive. Faculty want to see their research reach the public where it can provide benefit. Students are also very interested, so one of my goals is to expand the innovation culture through trainings, invited speakers, and events in collaboration with the Keller Center and Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations, and other entities on campus.

The gap between fundamental research and product development can be quite large. You need a much longer runway in order for a startup to take off. I'm looking into programs that can support these long lead times.

Where would you like to see Princeton in five years?

I hope to enhance and foster the culture of innovation on campus, and make innovation an integral part of the University's research and teaching mission. I'd like to show that innovation has a seat at the table along with research and teaching, and that when they are merged together seamlessly, the impact can be significant. Given the importance of innovation to our society, I think we need to think about how we include innovation in our mission.

Another point I want to make is that, when we discuss entrepreneurship, some people think it solely means that you're trying to create for-profit entities for wealth creation. At Princeton, the driving force is not to create money for the institution — it is to have an impact on society. When I talk about innovation or entrepreneurship, it's about bringing out what we do here as fundamental research into the real world. Princeton is part of that world, and we have a responsibility to make sure that the discoveries made here can make a difference.

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