Opportunities and Challenges of Driving Impact In Innovation – A Princeton Panel Discussion

impact innovation princeton Oct 05, 2023

A dazzling array of speakers opened a day of hearing from entrepreneurs, researchers, businesspeople, and others convened for Princeton’s Keller Center’s Innovation Forum. I was delighted to be part of a panel, each person discussing a slightly different aspect of the current innovation system.

The Keller Center at Princeton and the vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in … central Jersey?

You may have heard that the Princeton area and the towns and counties around it have finally received its own designation as “Central New Jersey.”  With a sweep of a pen, Governor Phil Murphy definitively said that “Central Jersey exists,” setline a longstanding debate and giving the residents of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset a clear way of describing their home.  It was exciting to be part of a panel, moderated by Nena Golubovic, the Director of Design for Innovation Program in Sciences and Engineering, looking at creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem around the substantial resources of the university and the area around it.  

Don’t get me wrong – New Jersey has always been a home to innovators and entrepreneurs, from Thomas Edison to the many innovations coming out of Bell Labs. But Princeton hasn’t been as eager to talk up the area’s accomplishments as some other schools might.  I get the impression that that is about to change and the Keller Center will be at the center of those changes.  

Michael Nowak, General Partner of Rainmakers Private Equity

Nowak described the evolution of the venture capital business since the end of the “tail end” of Bell-Labs style big corporate R&D budgets. Venture capital initially was about seeding and growing companies from an early stage – now, he observed, VC and Private Equity are starting to look more like one another with large mega funds coming in far later in the evolution of a venture (and for a lot more money) than those of a previous generation.  He observes that having too little money is obviously a problem – but actually having too much, too early, is a curse as well.  He reminds us that venture money is probably the most expensive money an entrepreneur will ever raise.

Evgeni Gousev, Senior Director, Qualcomm AI Research

Gousev discussed how Qualcomm, one of the leaders in tech related to artificial intelligence, is fostering an approach to figuring out what AI means to us, our children and grandchildren.  As someone involved in developing some of the most cutting edge technologies of our time, he’s now championing the cause of AI for Good.  

Ken Anderson, James Wei Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship at the Keller Center

I met Ken Anderson at a reception the evening before our panel discussion and … of course… the discussion of Ken from the Barbie movie came up.  My favorite line was one that may have slipped by you, but when Barbie and Ken get arrested, she writes her name “Barbie” and he’s “and Ken!”  A small note of genius.  

Anderson has a long history on the cutting edge of design and was one of the earliest proponents of human-centered design.  For years, hard-core engineering types scoffed – what was it about the people that meant you needed to design for them.  Today, the success of companies like Xerox and Apple have validated that approach.  Today, his insight about the future is that in fifteen years or so you won’t be able to talk about technology without covering questions about how a new approach might change society, and what impact it will have on everyone’s well-being.

Carolyn Rouse, Ritter Professor of Anthroppology

Rouse has studied how systems are designed to either encourage human flourishing – or not. She’s been exploring how racial inequalities continue to exist and how ecosystems are designed. Earlier in life, she built a high school in a fishing village in Ghana, serving as a living laboratory of sorts for theories of how ecosystem design choices lead to differentially equal outcomes. I was surprised to learn that she is also a documentary filmmaker, including Chicks in White Satin . Editor, Film 1992, which was nominated for an Academy Award and winner of numerous awards. One of the points she made on our panel was that our narratives about development tend to lack nuance – it’s all “development is good” or “development is bad” with examples of failure supporting both arguments. Instead, she suggests that failure is with us all the time, and that learning from it is critical.

Rita McGrath, Columbia Business School

I had fun talking about my ever-growing “flops file” – the catalog of disasters, missteps and outright failures that have over the years demonstrated how much better the discovery-driven approach to uncertain new businesses is than planning them as though one had a platform of experience to work with.  That netted me an opportunity to speak to groups of Princeton area entrepreneurs – I’ll report on that when we get a little closer (happening in January).

Zach Beecher, Chief of Staff, America’s Frontier Fund

America’s Frontier Fund is a group of investors and technologists determined to support, demonstrate and scale the next generation of “frontier’ technologies, hence the name. He argues that government played a little known and misunderstood role in de-risking and establishing incentives for people to pursue basic research in situations as diverse as defense and space exploration.  The Fund seeks to be a catalyst for entrepreneurs and scientists to position the United States in attractive spaces with new technologies.

Z. Jason Ren, Princeton Professor and co-founder, PureLi

Ren’s firm, PureLi is the newest spinoff out of Princeton, incorporated just 3 weeks earlier. It has innovated a process to extract minerals such as Lithium from existing products, hence the name. The company has won the innovation forum award and is in the process of jump-starting what they hope will be an ecosystem of companies doing similar things.  

Niraj Jha, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Jha is one of the world’s leading experts on the next generation of artificial intelligence, pursuing what is called “artificial general intelligence” in which the machines get smarter than just looking at correlations and can begin to help us tease out causality.  As he points out, the problem with a lot of the AI programs in use now are trained on huge datasets that contain both good and bad data, hence the problem of their “hallucinating.”  He’s arguing that there is an increasing utility for so-called “tiny ML (for machine learning)” systems in which the analysis and the data are consumed close to where they were produced.  

Among the other topics that came up in the general discussion was the limitation of ecosystems – that a number of ingredients have to be in place before one takes off. You need bankers who understand entrepreneurial finance, investors who get it and of course sufficient talent to support large-scale growth.  The struggles of the Arizona plant from TSMC highlight some of the potential pitfalls.  

A great day

The rest of the day was a lot of fun as well, with presentations from contenders for the Innovation Forum’s prize grant giving short pitches on everything from how to preserve breast milk for longer to a very cool idea to use plasma therapies to shorten the cycle of wound healing to live performance made for people with neural differences.  I spent much of the day saying “that’s so interesting” to myself.  

To learn more about the Keller Center and its programs visit its website.

** Content originally published by Thought Sparks