Taking on the Hard Problems

Category: Regional
February, 2017
Hilton, Albany

Albany Business Review Tech Awards

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Thank you for this great honor, the Career Achievement in Technology Award. 

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we are very proud to belong to the remarkable innovation ecosystem of the Capital Region—and very proud to contribute to its growth. According to the latest annual statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Capital Region has seen the most vigorous business growth of any region in New York State.

While many sectors add to the dynamism of our economy, that growth was led by our information sector, a broad category of businesses that ranges from publications such as the Albany Business Review, to software-based companies such as 1st Playable Productions, a Troy-based educational gaming company founded by Dr. Tobi Saulnier of the Rensselaer Class of 1984.

In addition, U.S. News has ranked Albany, New York as third in the nation on its list of best places to find a job in technology—which is a lovely tribute to the brilliance and hard work of many people in this room. Clearly, a region that once relied on water to power its economy, given its favorable location at the juncture of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers—now relies on talent and innovation.

As we consider the development of that talent, it is a great honor to share this day with Dr. Daniel Walczyk, Professor in the Rensselaer Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering and director of our Center for Automation Technologies and Systems, or CATS— who has just received the Burt Swersey Higher Education Award.

Professor Burt Swersey served as a lecturer in the Rensselaer Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering for more than 25 years. He was an inventor and an entrepreneur, but his true passion was getting our students to believe in themselves. His Inventor’s Studio Class, a capstone design class for Rensselaer seniors in engineering, became famous nationwide for its success in inspiring student innovators. A number of U.S. patents arose out of the Inventor’s Studio.

Burt was not—to say the least!—patient with small thinking. He would tell his students not to present him with ideas. Ideas did not interest him. What he wanted them to recognize was a problem. The difference, of course, is that unlike ideas, problems cannot be not devised in a vacuum—they are observed in life, with insight, and with empathy. If you solve a problem, you improve lives. You change the world.

Indeed, educating young people who can recognize problems—and confidently address them—is one of the great contributions Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has made to the Capital Region since it was established in 1824.

Our academic founder Amos Eaton, a geologist, botanist, and chemist, had a radically new vision for education—one in which the student moved to the front of the classroom, presenting and demonstrating acquired knowledge to professors and fellow students, rather than listening passively to lectures. Eaton was the first educator in the United States to give systematic instruction in field work—a practice that included arduous weeks-long field trips along the Hudson River or west over the Erie Canal route. He was one of the first educators in the world to teach chemistry and physics using laboratory experiments conducted by the students themselves.

 Rensselaer students did not just passively absorb knowledge—they actively discovered it by engaging with the world around them, which is why so many mavericks and visionaries have emanated from Troy, NY, over our history. 

The examples are legion, but the lunch hour is short, so I will name just a few:

  • J. Eric Jonsson, co-founder of Texas Instruments;
  • Ted Hoff, inventor of the microprocessor;
  • Claire Fraser, a pioneering microbiologist who sequenced the first genomes of disease pathogens; and
  • Curtis R. Priem, a pioneering designer of graphics chips, and co-founder of the company NVIDIA, whose graphics processing units, or GPUs, are moving us into a truly thrilling future in computer vision, automated vehicles, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computing.

Rensselaer has never educated incremental thinkers, people who tinker around the edges. One sees this in the young entrepreneurs emerging from Rensselaer today, who have zeroed in on crucial challenges—and are addressing them with brio. We are, for example, very proud of Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer of the Rensselaer Class of 2007, founders of the Green-Island-based Ecovative Design, a company that has taken on the problem of synthetic materials such as polystyrene foams that do not biodegrade and that litter the environment long after their useful life is over—by manufacturing much more sustainable mushroom-based packaging and construction materials.

We are proud, as well, of Colleen Costello of the Class of 2012, and a co-founder of Vital Vio, who has addressed the problem of antibiotic resistance and hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA using LED lighting that both illuminates safely, and that kills bacteria in the environment.

When I became President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999, I was profoundly appreciative of its long legacy of discovery, invention, and entrepreneurship—but sought to extend and deepen that legacy by supporting the creativity of our students, our faculty, and local industries all the way along the continuum from laboratory to marketplace—and fostering, along with government and industry partners, an innovation ecosystem that does not allow great concepts to wither for lack of nourishment at a crucial stage.

History and the lifecycles of technologies suggest that four elements are necessary for a healthy innovation ecosystem:

First, as Burt Swersey well understood, is a strategic focus on the greatest of challenges. At Rensselaer, within the construct of The New Polytechnic, we focus the attention of both faculty and students on issues of global import, including our food, water, and energy security; a changing climate; human health and the mitigation of diseases, including new and poorly understood diseases such as Zika and Ebola; our need for sustainable infrastructure; and the allocation of valuable natural resources. To paraphrase Burt, we do not do nonsense at Rensselaer. We take on the hard problems.

Second is the generation of transformative ideas. University-based research, particularly basic research, which unites seamlessly with our mission to educate, plays an indispensable role in generating such ideas. I was proud to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009 to 2014, helping to keep investment in research and development among our most important national priorities.

The third element comprises translational pathways that bring ideas into the world, for applied, commercial, and societal use. At Rensselaer, we created the first incubator program in the nation wholly sponsored and operated by a university, to help start-ups bring their products to market—and our incubator launched many successful companies, including MapInfo and Vicarious Visions.

But it became clear that we could do more to support the fledgling start-ups generated by our faculty and students through their early stages, so we moved from a one-size fits all incubator to our Emerging Ventures Ecosystem, a distributed approach that recognizes and acknowledges the varied needs of our start-ups, and makes more intelligent use of the remarkably diverse resources of our region.

Above all, we underscored the culture of entrepreneurship at Rensselaer.  An important part of that culture is connecting students with talented and knowledgeable people in the surrounding Capital Region—to mentor them, to provide financing and advice, and to engage in joint problem-solving. Some of the most valuable of these connections are made through the Paul J. ’69 and Kathleen M. Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship, which is fostering new generations of entrepreneurs. The Severino Center encourages and coaches student-based startup businesses—and networks them into the collective wisdom of the Capital Region community.

The fourth necessity for a successful innovation ecosystem is capital to make the system run: financial, infrastructural, and human.

Financial capital is a challenge, particularly for new technologies requiring seed or early-stage investments. The Center for Economic Growth, or the CEG, has been an important partner for us in this effort. Together, we have created the Venture Bplan series—a regularly-scheduled forum at our Heffner Alumni House, where start-ups present to angel and institutional investors, and business service providers and advisors—as well as to interested students, faculty, alumni and alumnae, and other members of the early-stage business community.

Infrastructural capital is also crucial, and shared infrastructure that brings together universities, government, and industry for research and development can be particularly valuable for a high-tech economy. Rensselaer has a long history of partnering with New York State, with regional industry partners, and with locally based global corporations such as IBM, Global Foundries, and GE, 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 our membership in the New York State High Performance Computing Consortium (HPCNY ), and in the Rensselaer Technology Park, the development of our supercomputer center—the Center for Computational Innovations, or CCI. This center originally was established, in 2007, as the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) as a $100 million partnership among Rensselaer, IBM and New York State, with each partner contributing one third of the cost.

When it was time to migrate to a more powerful computational platform, the CCI was born in 2012, which Rensselaer established with our partner, IBM. The CCI hosts Rensselaer experts in high-performance computing, as well as AMOS—Advanced Multiprocessor Optimized System, and is also the name of our first professor, Amos Eaton. AMOS is our IBM Blue Gene Q supercomputer that is one of the most powerful university-based computers in the world. AMOS’s massively parallel processing capabilities allow for the modeling and simulation of the most complex of industrial products and processes, and the analysis of enormous amounts of data.

Since the opening of the CCNI in 2007, our high performance computing center helped more than 1800 researchers in academia and industry—ranging from start-ups, to large multinational corporations such as IBM and GlobalFoundries —to tackle scientific and engineering challenges across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

The Seneca Falls-based ITT Goulds Pumps offers a wonderful example of the utility of shared infrastructure. This is a venerable company—Goulds Pumps began manufacturing metal-banded wood pumps in 1848, and rocked its industry by introducing the first all-metal pump in the world in 1849. Today, in the 21st century, ITT Goulds Pumps remains at the cutting edge. Computational fluid dynamics programs at the CCI allowed it to design the most competitive products, and to create better processes. Another company, the Albany-based Blasch Precision Ceramics, brought together Rensselaer expertise in high-performance computing, in energy systems, and in chemical engineering. Blasch and Rensselaer faculty from the CCI, the Rensselaer Center for Future Energy Systems—one of the New York State Centers for Advanced Technology—and the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering—worked together to optimize the walls used in sulfur-recovery unit furnaces for petroleum refining—with enormous potential efficiency and environmental gains.

Partnering with HPCNY computational scientists, and engineering researchers from the Scientific Computation Research Center (SCOREC) at Rensselaer, a Brooklyn-based New York start-up, Pliant Energy Systems is exploring radically new methods of harvesting energy from moving water that are not a modification of conventional, turbine-based methods. Pliant’s multi-stable non-linear systems use planar hyperbolic geometry and flexible electroactive polymers to capture hydrokinetic energy via dynamic material strain. Its goal is challenging: affordable technology that can harness the power of flowing water with mechanisms of few or no articulated moving parts. At the CCI, Pliant Energy is able to advance its analysis techniques by applying higher fidelity multi-physics computer models, enabling advanced simulations that greatly improve the overall design and performance of its components and systems.

 And as the CCI helps local businesses use modeling and simulation to find answers to the most complex challenges—it teaches Rensselaer graduate and undergraduate students to become the next generation of leaders in computation and in industry.

The second of our New York State Centers for Advanced Technology—our Center for Automation Technologies and Systems, or CATS, led by Professor Walczyk, offers another example of the virtuous circle spurred by connecting Rensselaer and industry through such shared infrastructure. The CATS helps businesses to overcome manufacturing process and system challenges. They come to Rensselaer to solve their companies’ problems, but at the same time, they teach and inspire our students, some of whom then go on to start their own companies—such as Vistex Composites, which is commercializing and marketing a new, patented, low-cost, and energy-efficient out-of-autoclave curing process for advanced polymer matrix composites.

At the Rensselaer Technology Park, we also offer our tenants an enormous competitive advantage, by connecting them with faculty researchers, Lally School of Management business consultants, and some of the most talented student interns in the world.

We are so pleased that Rensselaer has been selected to lead the Northeast Regional Manufacturing Center Hub of the new Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, and to serve as the New York hub of the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute. Both are part of a shared national infrastructure bringing together academia and industry for the development of new intelligent technologies and processes to spur advanced manufacturing in the United States.

 Finally, but critically, an innovation ecosystem must have human capital. If we want the most advanced industries to take root here in the Capital Region, we must have an educated population well-prepared to work at the leading edge of discovery and innovation. Clearly, our universities increase the capacity of our innovation ecosystem by educating bright, motivated young people. Hudson Valley Community College’s TEC-SMART (Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Technologies) facility in Malta, New York, for example, features state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories to train the workforce in semiconductor manufacturing and green technologies. We are also pleased that the University at Albany is launching its new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences downtown. At Rensselaer, we believe firmly in the economic value of “clustering,” which is the somewhat paradoxical fact that businesses competing in the same industry often gain a collective advantage from operating in physical proximity to each other. This is no less true for universities. In other words, the more engineers and other technologically skilled young people we educate in the Capital Region, the better for all of us!

At the same time, nationwide, we clearly are not inspiring sufficient numbers of American children early in their school careers with the wonders of the natural world, mathematics, materials, and machines. And, when they are inspired, we do not retain them in these areas. I call our failure to draw the full complement of our national talent into STEM fields the “Quiet Crisis.” It is quiet because it can take a generation to manifest itself fully in our economy, and when it occurs, it is a crisis—because it takes decades to educate a world-class scientist or engineer.

To mitigate this, we must tap the complete talent pool. It makes no sense, for example, that nationwide, the already low percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering, computer science, mathematics and statistics, and my own field of physics actually declined between 2004 and 2014. Moreover, we have to really get serious about educating minority students through strong curriculum, and continued encouragement. We simply must do more to inspire, motivate, educate, and retain women and underrepresented minorities in the sciences and engineering—and in science and engineering careers. We cannot NOT attract and retain nearly two-thirds of our own population, yet argue that we are tapping the complete talent pool.

At the same time, we must recognize, as well, how important it is to our economy that our superb system of higher education continue to draw many of the best students in the world to us. Half of the doctorates earned in the United States each year in engineering and in mathematics and computer sciences are earned by international students. This is talent that forms new companies, that addresses great societal challenges and improves lives, and that enriches us culturally as well as economically. We cannot and must not inhibit their ability to study at our universities, and, with their advanced training to remain in the U.S. to strengthen our innovation ecosystem.

A career achievement award, such as the one the Albany Business Review has graciously given to me today, inevitably prompts some contemplation of the long-term. As I look around, it is with great satisfaction. Together, we have helped a region of great natural beauty, with a rich industrial history, develop into a vibrant innovation ecosystem that supports a growing technology- and knowledge-based economy.

As we move forward, we must not look back, but focus on the future—on the next generations of discoverers and innovators—and prepare them to lead us places we cannot yet imagine.

I thank you, again, for the great honor, and wish you all a wonderful afternoon!