If you want to know all the connections between Princeton University and Google, you can start by, well, Googling it. You will quickly find that Google CEO Eric Schmidt is a 1976 graduate of the university, that he served as a trustee from 2004 to 2008, and that university president Shirley Tilghman is on Google’s board of directors. You will also find that the Princeton University Library is one of the partners in the Google Books Search project, aimed at putting more than a million public domain books on the Internet.
Now add another item to the list: The Google CEO and his wife, Wendy, have given a $25 million technology innovation endowment to Princeton University.
The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund, aimed at supporting the invention, development, and utilization of cutting-edge technology developed through the university, will be awarded through a campus-wide peer-reviewed competition under the stewardship of dean for research A.J. Stewart Smith.
The Schmidt Fund will be used to support the invention or implementation of entirely new technologies that will allow researchers to acquire a piece of equipment or an enabling technology that will change the direction of research in a field.
Following the October 13 announcement, Smith said that the endowment’s main purpose is to “strengthen long-term basic research” by streamlining the access to money that is hard to come by through private and government sources. Sometimes, he said, someone has a good idea but not the right instrument with which to research it, and getting access to that instrument, or to the funds to pay for it, is “a laborious proposal process with a very low success probability.
The money will be used for practical applications. “We’re not interested in an explanation for the birth of the universe,” Smith said. Rather, it will be given to projects that are defined enough to be a valuable avenue of research. Smith referred to the endowment as “an enabling fund” that will not be enough to carry a project through to the end, but could be enough to “light the spark” and generate outside interest.
“It’s not going to be just good for the person’s own research,” he said. He cited the development of the MRI, which started out decades ago as a Columbia University project to help scientists understand and measure nuclei through magnetic moments. The idea led to a Nobel prize for its inventor and has become a standard medical tool. Smith said no one is expecting that, but no one is ruling out that such a breakthrough could happen.
“The money will change research in the field,” Smith said.
According to the school, the fund will not need to be spent evenly from year to year. An internal peer review committee chaired Smith and composed of Princeton scientists and engineers will vet all proposals, and one or more experts from outside the university will review the Smith’s recommendations before they are sent to the president for approval. Smith’s office will have discretion to recommend that no grants be awarded in years when there are no sufficiently compelling proposals, and “to spend down principal as well as income in years when there are many compelling ideas,” according to a university press release.
Funding may be for one year or over multiple years.
The endowment from Schmidt, a who earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, could allow for university research projects to enter the commercial pipeline. The university has a long history of collaboration with the commercial sector that has led to some successful companies, most notably Sensors Unlimited, the near-infrared and shortwave infrared imaging technologies company founded in Princeton by Greg Olsen in 1991, and Universal Display Corp.in Ewing, which develops organic electronics.
The first competition for proposals will be announced later this fall.