While the research and development divisions of New Jersey-based corporations have mostly disappeared, Donald Sebastian, provost and senior vice president of R&D for the New Jersey Institute of Technology, believes research universities can take on that role by creating innovation hubs and supply chains for new technologies.
“At one point, the university had 100 faculty and Bell Labs had 100,000 employees, but global competitiveness made it easier for companies to stop investing in research and development,” Sebastian said. “Companies became less worried about inventing for tomorrow. Now the general attitude at our university is, ‘How can we make things happen that are mission relevant and pick up where private sector left off?’ We need to form a buffer to industry.”
To help NJIT achieve that goal, Sebastian has founded several public-private partnerships that leverage state and federal grants to research new technologies and supply chains for businesses in the state’s manufacturing and high-tech industries. In 1996, Sebastian established the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program under the National Institute of Standards & Technology to assist small and midsize manufacturers through more than $15 million in federal funding, and in 2010, with a $23 million federal grant, he founded the New Jersey Health Information Technology Extension Center to facilitate the use of electronic health records through statewide outreach and awareness training. Under his leadership in writing competitive grant proposals and developing industry partnerships, Sebastian said NJIT has received more than $100 million in research and development funding.
“The health care extension grant and other funding we’ve been awarded are typically not competed for by universities. It’s not a traditional research grant for health care IT, because its purpose is to get the technology in use,” Sebastian said. “It’s really to our credit that we take on these missions. They wouldn’t have been possible without our knowledge of IT and experience with building these kinds of programs.”
According to Sebastian, research and development in the state “will never get to the level of Bell Labs on the back of a single academic enterprise,” but NJIT is doing everything it can to support emerging industries like advanced medical devices and solar cell technology, and the university currently hosts 90 high-tech startups in its business incubator.
Sebastian said alumni established in various industries have returned to NJIT to form research and development partnerships with the university. One graduate, Apollo Solar Energy Inc. CEO Jingong Pan, recently awarded NJIT a three-year, $1.5 million grant to launch the Apollo Cadmium Telluride Solar Energy Research Center, which will attempt to find a way to improve thin-film solar modules’ applications.
“We have the opportunity to pull together research to make thin-film solar technology cheaper and more efficient to revitalize domestic supply chains,” Sebastian said. “If we can move from a lab of single solar cells to develop the whole process of making solar panels, we could be looking at all stages of solar technology and building the supply chain around us.”
To create even more supply chains for new technologies, Sebastian said NJIT is “ecstatic the idea of clustering is being embraced in the new State Strategic Plan, and that manufacturing is one of those clusters.”
“We’ve been proponents of cluster development since we first heard about it in 1995,” Sebastian said. “I think the advanced technology sectors on campuses like ours can serve the specific industrial clusters identified in New Jersey.”
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