Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Princeton’s innovation ‘czar’ brings new life to campus entrepreneurship

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: April 7th, 2021

A detailed article on Princeton’s push to create a regional innovation hub appears in the March issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, click here.  

What can an innovation “czar” accomplish in one year? At Princeton University, a lot, as it turns out.

Under the leadership of Rodney Priestley, Princeton’s first vice dean for innovation, the  university is turning its well-established but not yet well-known standing as a seed bed of innovation and entrepreneurship into a powerhouse. The school hopes to create an innovation hub in New Jersey that school officials believe will rival the impact of other hubs across the country.

With President Christopher Eisgruber at the helm, Princeton took significant steps in its journey in innovation and entrepreneurship almost six years ago when a university advisory committee outlined a future vision for entrepreneurship. The university created the Princeton Entrepreneurial Council (PEC) as an entrepreneurial hub, and also created a position in the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) for a new ventures associate.

PEC Executive Director Anne-Marie Maman and New Ventures Associate Tony Williams started work within a week of each other, tasked with putting a 21-point entrepreneurship and innovation plan to put in place. The two dug in and implemented the plan within two years. “We’ve gone way past those first 20 points and grown beyond it,” says Maman.

In 2020, feeling the time was right to provide academic leadership in the entrepreneurship arena, Provost Deborah Prentice and Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti created a vice dean for innovation position and appointed Priestley to fill it. Debenedetti also moved the PEC under the Office of the Dean for Research’s umbrella, reporting to Priestley. Now, the PEC was closer to OTL and Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations (CEFR), both already part of the Office of the Dean of Research.

More recently, the university sent another powerful signal in support of innovation and entrepreneurship when it hired Andrea Goldsmith, a celebrated engineer and entrepreneur, as Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Goldsmith came to Princeton after 22 years on the Stanford faculty, starting her new position in the midst of the pandemic in September 2020.

Priestley’s and Goldsmith’s long-term vision is to establish an innovation and tech hub in New Jersey that promotes inclusiveness and diversity, blending science and engineering with the humanities and social sciences.

The pair agree that the time is right for this far-reaching effort, noting the recent exodus of “young techies” from Silicon Valley, many of whom are putting down stakes in the New York City area and seeking work or building companies in fields where Princeton shines — biotech, computer science, data science, quantum tech, and smart cities.

Princeton sits at the halfway mark in the corridor between New York City and Philadelphia, she adds, where there is a growing demand for engineering knowledge and entrepreneurship. Add to those trends the availability of inexpensive land and New Jersey is in a position similar to Stanford University in the 1950s, Goldsmith contends.

It also helps, she says, that “our governor is pushing entrepreneurship in New Jersey in a very new and important and innovative way…. So there are things that are different now about Princeton’s location and opportunity that make it right for this ability to launch and serve as a catalyst for a tech hub.”

The university is preparing for that future by developing a new 500-acre campus across Lake Carnegie that will provide more room for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship activities. The university has also agreed to be the first institutional tenant in a new collaborative innovation site in New Brunswick, NJ, a city 15 miles north of Princeton.

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