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“New York’s Nanotechnology Model: Building the Innovation Economy ”

Keynote Address
Presented by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

A National Academy of Sciences Symposium
Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, New York

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Good afternoon.

On behalf of Rensselaer, I thank the National Academy of Sciences for sponsoring this symposium. Rensselaer is delighted to be a co-host, along with Hudson Valley Community College, Global Foundries, and the Center for Economic Growth.

We all understand that the success and economic well-being of our citizens are critically dependent on the development and nurturing of an Innovation Ecosystem. Indeed, our national security, competitiveness, and future prospects rely on our ability to excel in the understanding, advancement, and application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As the leader of a technological research university, I am keenly aware of Rensselaer’s role in contributing the discoveries that come from basic research, and the technological innovations that come through applied research, and translational and entrepreneurial initiatives and programs.

Life-changing, job-creating, security-sustaining scientific discoveries and technological innovations rest on strong collaboration among business, government, and academia. Over the years, especially since the end of World War II, this three-way partnership has created an ‘innovation ecosystem’ that has driven our economy, prosperity, and well-being for decades.

A strong “innovation ecosystem” requires four key elements: (1) strategic focus, (2) game-changing idea generation, (3) translational pathways to bring discoveries into commercial or societal use, and (4) capital, including financial, infrastructural, and human capital.

It also requires partnerships. The examples I will offer demonstrate research and commercial successes, dependent on many game-changing ideas from Rensselaer’s students and faculty. But such outcomes are possible only when academia, government, and the private sector each play their respective roles.

As is true for other universities, Rensselaer’s core mission is the education and preparation of our students. Economic benefits derive from our graduates’ productive lives, and from the research and innovations of our faculty and students.

With that in mind, Rensselaer has a long history of partnering with New York State, with regional partners and locally based global corporations like IBM, Global Foundries and GE. We have collaborated with them in a variety of ways to build intellectual and physical platforms that have led to fundamental discoveries, attracted large-scale federal research investments, commercialized technologies, and created start-up companies.

Perhaps our most visible involvement in this regard is the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI). This center was established as a $100M partnership among Rensselaer, IBM and New York State – with each partner contributing one third of the cost of creating CCNI, which hosts one of the world’s most powerful university-based supercomputers. CCNI has allowed companies of all sizes—from early start-ups to multinational corporations, such as Global Foundries—to improve their products and processes by tapping the expertise of Rensselaer scientists and the power of high performance computing for simulation, modeling, and manipulation of big data. The CCNI has had 800 discrete users, and 25 corporate partners.

An example of the utility of the Rensselaer high performance computing center is ITT Gould Pumps.  This company has been around for a long time—its first material for making pumps was wood. ITT Gould Pumps used computational fluid dynamics programs at the CCNI to model their pumps and to look at efficiencies in design. With the help of CCNI staff and its computational power, the company was able to design more competitive products and create better processes thereby increasing their productivity and speed to market.

In addition, Ames Goldsmith (AG), a New York State company that is a major supplier of silver-based products for printed electronics, approached Rensselaer’s computational staff concerning the particle size distribution resulting from their silver microparticle production process.  Rensselaer simulation models showed that the process could be improved by controlling the nucleation and growth phases of the particle production independently.  AG stands to increase the quality of their product, in particular the monodispersity of particle sizes. Additionally, by creating monodisperse particles, of known and controlled size, AG can blend particles output streams to tailor their product to individual customer needs.

As well, CCNI-affiliated faculty have engaged in research on a range of health, energy, and other challenges. In doing so, they have involved our graduate and undergraduate students, thereby preparing them to be the next generation of digital leaders.

These are the kinds of tools and partnerships that make our region (and Rensselaer) attractive to talented individuals, entrepreneurs, and high tech businesses.

Now, while nanotechnology’s role in semiconductors, and in computing, may be top of mind today, this field encompasses much more, including work in biotechnology (such as the creation of MRSA-resistant coatings), pollution control (such as materials for buildings) and energy. The work in energy includes next generation batteries, new materials for transmission, and novel sources of electricity.  

In an example linking nanotechnology and the life sciences, engineering researchers at Rensselaer, led by Professor Jon Dordick (our Vice President for Research), Ravi Kane, and Linda Schadler, have developed a new method to kill deadly pathogenic bacteria, including listeria in food handling and packaging.  This nanobiotechnology breakthrough kills listeria on contact, even at high concentrations within a few minutes, without affecting other bacteria.  This enzyme-based innovation (Using a food-safe nano-fabricated gel), represents an alternative to the use of antibiotics and chemical decontamination in food supply chains.  The security of global food supply chains is critical for human health, for regional global trade, and ultimately for the economy – regional and national.

For 10 years, beginning in 2001, the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center hosted the NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures. Directed assembly is the fundamental gateway to the eventual success of nanotechnology because it allows us to control the functional properties and the ultimate applications of nanomaterials for use in electronics, in medicine, and in consumer products. The Nanotechnology Center  discovers and develops the means to assemble nanoscale building blocks with unique properties.

The Center continually integrates its research with innovative educational outreach activities, including the development of the Molecularium which serves to educate students from kindergarten through college in the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, and biology, which is the basis for all of nanotechnology. The Molecularium is a planetarium-like show. Instead of turning outward to the universe, it turns inward to the smallest units of matter. 

I will add that the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center was one of the six original NSF-funded nanotechnology centers, which in New York State included Cornell and Columbia Universities.  New York State matched the Rensselaer center’s funding with half million dollar annual grants for ten years through NYSTAR.

ThermaAura, a Troy company founded jointly in 2011 by Rutyik Mehta and several Rensselaer professors, produces a high-efficiency material that creates electricity from waste heat. This start-up is on the verge of scaling up for commercialization. The essence of this success is taking Rensselaer research into new nano materials and processes, to convert heat into electrical energy in new ways, adding entrepreneurial capabilities, and finding support in the form of a business partnership and seed money—in this case help in the form of a $393,000 from New York State’s Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

As NAS looks for recommendations on models for regional development, I hope you will explore NYSERDA. This organization has been a critical partner of ours in many innovative areas in – and beyond -- nanotechnology, including smart lighting, energy, wind tunnel testing, and smart buildings. Rensselaer has collaborated successfully with NYSERDA in bringing together project partners and guiding innovators toward success.

Of course, a result we all are looking for is the creation of jobs. This is a trailing indicator, but, fortunately, we have a history of innovation in this region that, even in nanotechnology, reaches back far enough to provide a strong example.

Precision Valve & Automation (PVA)—a global supplier of coatings and fluid dispensing equipment used in many industries ranging from semiconductor packaging to medical device manufacturing to consumer electronics—has created over 70 new jobs since 2010. Rensselaer’s association with PVA began in 1992, when the company’s president, Anthony Hynes, moved his firm into Rensselaer’s Incubator Center. This leading edge facility gave PVA the space and access to expertise it needed to grow. As it has continued to expand, PVA moved to a new site granted Empire Zone designation, allowing this new firm to take advantage of the tax incentives that allowed it to grow the business and invest in human capital -- including graduates from Rensselaer, Siena College, and Union College. PVA has become an important part of our community, regularly providing opportunities for internships and shadowing by local high school students.

This example demonstrates the kind of virtuous circle that is provided when up-to-date infrastructure, human capital, entrepreneurship, and government incentives come together.

Rensselaer has maximized the value of State funding to drive innovation and discovery, and ultimately drive economic growth, through a range of other partnerships.  These include:

  • Our two State-funded Centers for Advanced Technology—the Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) and the Center for Future Energy Systems (CFES)—with funding from the Empire State Development, Division of Science, Technology, and Innovation (formerly known as NYSTAR), which helps to strengthen the region's  manufacturing base
  • The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, which, with funding from New York’s Gen*NY*Sis Program, NYSTAR, the New York State Department of Health and NYSTEM, is creating new opportunities in the healthcare arena, in agriculture and in biomaterials, and 
  • The Rensselaer Interconnect Focus Center, supported by Empire State Development, Division of Science, Technology, and Innovation, which is working collaboratively with universities and businesses around the world to increase the power and speed of computer chips that are at the heart of the nanoelectronics revolution.

As proud as we are of these achievements, we recognize the work is incomplete. We need to continue helping to grow the local economy and to catalyze growth more broadly. We need to sustain—even expand—investments in our innovation ecosystem by preparing students to participate—that is, developing our human capital—and building the financial capital and physical infrastructures that are needed for the opportunities and challenges we face. We need to continue to encourage partnerships that share knowledge, resources, and talent more effectively.

We need to approach our investments thoughtfully, without becoming too tentative. Now is not the time to pull back on our commitments. The health, prosperity, security, and global leadership of the United States depend on our strength in science and technology.

The innovation ecosystem—and a vibrant 21st century economy—rests on three legs: academia, the private sector, and the public sector. All three must perform their essential roles, working in partnership.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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