What were some of the key developments and partnerships established over the past year?
CB: A highlight of the past year has been long-time Princeton professor Rodney Priestley becoming the University’s inaugural vice dean for innovation. In this newly-created position, Rod leads a University initiative, Princeton Innovation, that is building awareness on campus and beyond of Princeton’s support for innovation and entrepreneurship. So, for example, through Princeton Innovation, we held a large virtual conference called Engage 2020 that was open to faculty, students, our partners and the public. The goal was for everyone to learn about Princeton University’s innovation ecosystem and how it helps extend the impact of research beyond campus through innovation and entrepreneurship.
AW: One of the new programs that I’d like to highlight is an engagement between Princeton University and the Wharton School of Business at Penn. The Princeton Wharton Entrepreneurship Executive Education Course provides formal entrepreneurship training. The initial course was virtual and took place in January. Over four days, the team from Wharton worked with Princeton faculty members who had either already started a company or were in the earliest stages of exploring ideas for a wide range of potential businesses.
AM: This year, we also launched Princeton Startup Bootcamp, powered by Techstars. Princeton Startup Bootcamp is a two-day boot camp in entrepreneurship for graduate students and postdocs that is led by startup accelerator TechStars and organized by Princeton Innovation. Ten teams and 45 people participated in the first instance of the new program in January 2021. After two days of workshopping, participants presented their business ideas to a panel of judges.
How has the relationship between venture firms and universities evolved in recent years?
AW: Speaking of Cliff Brangwynne, in the last 12 months, we saw Princeton's biggest ever seed round in the life sciences for Nereid Therapeutics, a company that Cliff founded with Apple Tree Partners, who made a US$50 million funding commitment. This is reflective of a desire on the part of VCs to get in very early, find a platform technology that is exciting, and build the company from the ground up, working with University researchers. We are currently working with large strategic venture funds on another big seed round for another professor in our molecular biology department. The VCs want to get in and work with our inventors from the very beginning and build everything with them from the ground up. We have seen this happen more in the last year than ever before.
What are the expectations of life science corporations when they engage Princeton in partnerships?
EA: Industry is increasingly looking at platform or master agreements with which to engage universities. These kinds of agreements typically give Princeton the flexibility to bring faculty from different disciplines to the table to meet an industry partner’s needs. Master agreements also represent efficiency in that, when a match between industry needs and University strengths is established, a “pre-negotiated” contract is already in place—the collaboration can get going without delay, and the money can flow. But of course it’s not all about money in university-industry relationships. Sometimes it is about the exchange of people, materials, confidential information or large data sets. In particular, at Princeton we are seeing an explosion of data exchange and use agreements. Data is the new IP, and it is more and more a focus of university agreements with industry.
DE: Companies are engaging with Princeton researchers to better understand the fundamental mechanisms and pathways that create targets and delivery opportunities for new therapeutics. Princeton’s strengths in structural biology and computational biology are critical as are the tools we have available, like the latest cryo-EMs.
What function does higher education perform that industry is not willing to?
EA: Government and university investments in basic science have birthed entire industries that have created millions of jobs. These investments are one of the reasons why the US is a leader in technologies of the future. The private and public sectors working together are exceptionally powerful in the US, and it provides us a competitive advantage.