Near the close of World War II, Vannevar Bush, a science adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, presented a vision for government-funded basic research to be conducted at American universities, with the products of that work to be developed for market application by the nation’s industries.
This represented the birth of the research mission at an expanded number of universities, as well as distinct enterprises for research and development. Major corporations successfully adopted such an approach, where scientists at entities like AT&T’s Bell Labs conducted basic research that was later molded into market-ready commercial products.
This model thrived for many years, resulting in landmark discoveries, such as the first transistor, the binary digital computer and other technological advancements, but the innovation cycle is changing now and so is the role that higher education should play within it.
The first stage, ideation, is commonly characterized as basic, undirected research and is the space that higher education has traditionally occupied. This work has predominantly been faculty-led.
The subsequent three stages explore potential applications for the discoveries of Stage 1, develop and test products related to those applications, then adapt the product to consumer demands and bring it to market.
Higher education has been far less connected to these three stages of innovation, but we have moved to an era when the researchers will no longer be isolated from the product development teams.
In fact, analysis of research and development expenditure projections across all business and government sectors by The Economist predicts that applied and developmental research will grow far more rapidly than basic research.
IBM coined the term “service science” to describe an interdisciplinary approach and alignment of people and technologies for the conceptualization design, and implementation of complex systems that provide a value or service.
At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, we have adapted to the new innovation cycle by taking a somewhat similar approach that enables us to engage our researchers as well as our students in all four stages, from ideation through commercialization.
While NJIT faculty members conduct a great deal of externally funded basic research, we have developed a mechanism through our New Jersey Innovation Institute to build teams that respond to specific problems identified by industrial or governmental partners.
NJII is organized around i-labs that overlay industrial clusters: health care systems, biotechnology and pharmaceutical production, defense & homeland security, civil infrastructure and financial services.
This model allows us to fuse the first two stages of innovation by directing lines of research toward applications that can be used to address or solve the identified problems.
NJIT also is uniquely equipped to engage in stages 3 and 4 of innovation, which involve beta testing of products or applications through bringing a commercially viable product to market. NJII is able to conduct this work and often partners with NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center, which is the largest technology and life science incubator in the state of New Jersey.
The EDC provides office and lab space, access to scientific and technological equipment, financial guidance and extensive technical/coaching advisory services. The key to this approach is that industry identifies the problem and commits resources that can include team members, and NJII assembles the intellectual and technological resources that form the team.
This often includes other universities joining with us to solve the problem by shepherding a solution through the entire cycle of ideation to project selection to product development to commercialization. The research and development teams of NJIT/NJII and industry are connected from concept to market.
This is how higher education will fill an important role that has been left vacant by the disappearance of large corporate labs, particularly in New Jersey, one of the most intense science, engineering and technology states in the nation. It’s also an opportunity to prepare our students, future STEM industry leaders, to participate in all aspects of the innovation process.