There was a time in the Route 1 corridor when armies of scientists, engineers, and technicians would go to gigantic labs run by companies like AT&T, GE, RCA Sarnoff, and Bell Labs. Those corporate behemoths employed thousands of workers, and created many of the inventions in electronics and telecommunications that power the modern world.
It’s easy to read about what those companies were like in the 1960s and then look at those companies’ now downsized presences and think that the glory days of innovation are over. But Judith Sheft, associate vice president of technology development at the New Jersey Institute for Technology, sees it differently.
“There used to be an NIH syndrome at companies,” Sheft said. “Not Invented Here. Companies were like fortresses that didn’t want to talk to other people,” she says. Sheft says companies today are less likely to have large research departments than they once were, and instead buy their technology from risk-taking startup companies and university researchers.
“New Jersey is a great place for innovative startup companies,” she says. “I think we have a good ecosystem. People just need to know that the universities are open for business and want to work with companies to help be a part of taking inventions and innovations to the next level.”
Nowadays, breakthrough innovations are less likely to come from monolithic corporate labs, and more likely to come from academics at research universities like Princeton, NJIT, and Rutgers. Sheft will help connect companies with such inventions at the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network poster and networking session on Wednesday, February 18, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s Friend Center. The annual event brings together university researchers, who display posters about their projects, with the business leaders who might be interested in commercializing it. Tickets are $40. For more information, visit www.njen.com.
Sheft ought to know about the transition of tech research from corporations to academe because she has been a part of the shift. Sheft grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, where her father was a chemist who worked on the Manhattan project, and her mother was a food nutrition chemist. Growing up with two scientist parents, Sheft was encouraged to go into science herself. She earned a degree in mathematics at the University of Illinois in 1976 and then went to work for Bell Labs, where she helped develop switching system technology. She later earned a master’s degree and an MBA from Penn.
She then switched over to the management side of the business and technology commercialization, looking for ways to sell semiconductors to other companies. When she came to NJIT as a commercialization expert, she had worked for Lucent Technologies, the successor company of Bell Labs, and had founded the Licenz Group, an intellectual property consulting firm.
Having lived through a major evolution in the way research is done, Sheft says the new way is better in many ways. While the huge workforce of Western Electric may have been impressive, the numerous smaller companies and independent researchers today are developing new technologies at an astonishing rate.
Some of those new technologies will be on display at the poster session. Two of the main presentations will be from Universal Display Company and Princeton Power Systems, both of which are successful companies founded using technology from Princeton University. UDC makes organic LED displays used in smartphones and televisions, and Princeton Power Systems makes widely-used power control systems.
NJIT will show off the result of the institute’s collaboration with Catalent Pharma Solutions, a Somerset-based company. Catalent is licensing taste-masking technology developed by NJIT professor Rajesh Dave.
The technology will be used in pills, chewables, sprinkles, and tablets to disguise unpleasant and bitter-tasting ingredients in various medicines. “Taste-masking of fine drug particles has remained an un-met technical challenge for formulators,” Dave said in a statement. “Through funding from Catalent we have been able to leverage our expertise to innovate technology and processes that allow for these materials to be cost-effectively coated and taste-masked.”
Deals such as the one between Catalent and NJIT have become steadily more common since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed universities to take research that was done using federal grants and commercialize it rather than turning it over to the federal government. In all the poster session will have about 20 to 30 presentations, Sheft says.
In addition to the posters, the event will include an expert panel moderated by Sheft. The panel will feature people who have been involved in commercialization of technology, including Jim Harris of UMDNJ and Treena Livingston Arinzeh of NJIT.
Harris, a former Merck executive, is a serial entrepreneur who is now working with technology firms and universities to bring new inventions to the marketplace. Livingston Arinzeh is working with BioRegenics, a Philadelphia company, to develop implants that repair cartilage using stem cells.
“We hear from industry sources that it’s hard to get behind the veil of what goes on at the universities,” Sheft says. “This is an opportunity to pull back that curtain and show companies what’s going on.”