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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Capital Region Chamber of Commerce

Category: Regional
November, 2018
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone, to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute!

I am delighted to join the other Leadership Investors of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce.

At Rensselaer, we are very proud to belong to the remarkable business community of the Capital Region, helping it live up to its “Tech Valley” moniker, while underpinning its vigorous growth…

  • by educating talented and entrepreneurially minded young people in many different fields;
  • by partnering with businesses to develop new approaches to their challenges and opportunities;
  • by offering our partners access to our world-class platforms for research and development, and
  • by spinning out new companies that arise out of the groundbreaking research that takes place at Rensselaer.

Rensselaer people always have been a powerful economic force, responsible for much of the physical and digital infrastructure, not just of the Capital Region or of the United States, but of the world. Our graduates envisioned or invented…

  • the transcontinental railroad,
  • the microprocessor,
  • the digital camera,
  • networked email and the @ sign in our email addresses,
  • the mapping and sequencing of the first genomes of human pathogens,
  • the main ingredient in sunscreen,
  • putting man on the moon, and
  • creating great companies such as NVIDIA, which has pioneered, and continues to pioneer, the graphics processing units that have led to breakthroughs in perceptual artificial intelligence, essential to self-driving vehicles, among other uses.

When I became President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999, I was profoundly appreciative of its long legacy of discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurship. However, I also was keenly aware that the model the United States had used to power its economy and leadership in innovation since World War II—one of partnerships among government, industry, and universities such as Rensselaer—needed to be revitalized for a new century.

I sought to extend and deepen our institutional and national legacy of innovation 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 our government and industry collaborators, 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. Rensselaer works hard to contribute to each one:

The first essential element is a strategic focus on the greatest of challenges. At Rensselaer, with a vision we have articulated as 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; our need for sustainable infrastructure; and the allocation of valuable natural resources.

In other words, at Rensselaer, we take on the hard problems, and we use collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, cultures, and the generations to do it.

One sees this focus on the grand challenges in the entrepreneurs emerging from Rensselaer. Colleen Costello of the Class of 2012, and a co-founder of Vital Vio, for example, has addressed the problem of antibiotic resistance and hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA, using LED lighting that both illuminates safely, and kills bacteria in the environment.

Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer of the Class of 2007, founders of the Green-Island-based Ecovative Design, have addressed another great problem—that of synthetic materials such as polystyrene foams that do not biodegrade and litter the environment long after their useful life is over—by manufacturing much more sustainable mushroom-based packaging and construction materials.

The second requisite of a healthy innovation ecosystem is the generation of transformative ideas. University-based research, particularly fundamental research, unites seamlessly with our mission to educate, and plays an indispensable role in generating ideas that eventually change the way all of us live and work.

At our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, for example, Rensselaer researchers and students are unlocking the secrets of Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, and other neurodegenerative conditions that until now have not been well understood. 

One of the great challenges with autism spectrum disorder is the fact that while children benefit from early interventions, it has, until now, only been diagnosed behaviorally, which makes it difficult to identify in very young children. However, by applying Big Data analytics techniques to the metabolites in a blood sample, Professor Juergen Hahn has devised the first physiological test for autism, one that is proving extremely accurate. The insights revealed by Professor Hahn’s algorithm may someday even point to treatments.

With The Jefferson Project at Lake George, a partnership with IBM and The Fund for Lake George, we are pioneering a new, data-driven approach to scientifically modeling freshwater conservation—urgent work, indeed, given the many threats to water resources around the globe. We have equipped Lake George and its watershed with more than 50 sensor platforms, some invented just for our purposes, which create enormous amounts of streaming data about the systems that influence water quality, including weather, currents, run-off, the tributaries that feed the lake, and the living creatures in the lake. We then use high-performance computing, modeling, and visualization to understand this data, and develop insights and hypotheses from it that guide experimentation—all with the goal of protecting the lake. 

We say that Lake George is now the “smartest lake in the world,” in part because the sensor platforms are themselves smart—and can react to environmental conditions—and decide to collect more data when something interesting is brewing, such as a storm. 

This is well beyond Internet of Things technology. At Rensselaer, we believe that one of the linchpins of the next industrial age—of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the digital, physical, and biological realms are merging—will be an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things. In this Internet, the network is smart and recognizes opportunities and vulnerabilities in data streams—and the devices it connects also are smart, and able to adapt to changing conditions. The Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things is crucial to addressing many challenges and opportunities, from cybersecurity, to advancing robotics, to enabling personalized medicine—in short, to making more informed use of the tsunami of digital data humanity is generating.

Our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, or CISL, a collaboration among our faculty, students, and IBM researchers in fields that include computer science, computer vision, cognitive science, and the arts and media, offers a particularly compelling example of the power of an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things. 

At CISL, we are creating smart Situations Rooms, such as smart boardrooms or design studios, that offer a natural, non-intrusive interface between the participants in a meeting and a range of technologies designed to register changes, understand, suggest, and inform. These rooms include intelligence both at the level of hierarchies of cognitive agents that can interpret and advise individuals and the group—and, at the level the room itself, where smart sensor and actuator technologies, coupled with cognitive agents, allow the room to perceive and react as a meeting unfolds.

At Rensselaer, we see grand possibilities in using machine intelligence to enable humans to work together more effectively, and in improving collaborative decision-making in medicine, business, education, and many other fields.

The third element for a thriving innovation ecosystem is 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 startups bring their products to market—and this incubator launched many successful companies, including MapInfo and Vicarious Visions.

But it became clear that we could do more to support the fledgling startups 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, or distributed incubation, that more intelligently understands the varied needs of our startups, and use of the remarkably diverse resources of our region.

Above all, we underscore 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 these connections are made through the Paul J. ’69 and Kathleen M. Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship. 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 CEG, has been an important partner for us in this effort. Together, we have created the VentureB series—a regularly scheduled forum at Pat’s Barn in the Rensselaer Technology Park, where startups present to angel and institutional investors, and business service providers and advisers—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. One of the Capital Region’s great advantages is its enormous amount of academic R&D space for engineering—we are ranked 7th in the nation here.

Rensselaer has a long history of partnering with New York state, with regional industry partners, and with locally based global corporations to build intellectual and physical platforms that have led to fundamental discoveries, attracted large-scale federal research investments, commercialized technologies, and created startup companies.

Perhaps our most visible involvement in this regard is the Center for Computational Innovations, or CCI, initially established as a $100 million partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York state, with each partner contributing one third of the cost. The CCI hosts Rensselaer experts in high-performance computing, as well as AMOS, an IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer, which is the second most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. AMOS—which stands for Advanced Multiprocessing Optimized System—is named in honor of the Rensselaer academic founder, Amos Eaton. 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. And our researchers are exploring hybrids of such high-performance computing with cognitive and neuromorphic computing as well.

In fiscal year 2017 alone, the CCI supported over $36 million in externally funded research—and it has helped companies ranging from startups to world-leading multinationals take on challenges that demand petascale computing power.

For example, a collaboration with Corning at the CCI explored optimizing the extrusion process that pushes, blends, cuts, and stretches molten glass, transforming it under high temperatures and pressures into the desired product. The slightest variation alters the properties of the glass, as well the energy and manufacturing costs of producing it.

The CCI helped Corning develop simulation-based engineering systems that would minimize the time and expense of physical prototyping, as well as improve the fidelity of its products, and make them more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. In addition to the expertise in high-performance computing of CCI Director Professor Chris Carothers, Corning was able to avail itself of the expertise in fluid dynamics of Professor Onkar Sahni of our Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering.

As the CCI helps businesses use high-performance computing to find answers to the most complex challenges—it also teaches Rensselaer students to become the next generation of leaders in computation and in industry.

Indeed, the CCI is currently advising a startup named Lucd, an enterprise artificial intelligence and machine learning company, a number of whose founders and leaders earned doctorates in computer science at Rensselaer: Dr. David Bauer Jr., of the Rensselaer Classes of 2004 and 2005, Dr. Joel Branch, of the Classes of 2003 and 2007, and Dr. Justin LaPre, of the Classes of 2002, 2005, and 2015.

The Empire State Development’s Division of Science Technology, and Innovation, or NYSTAR, supports two Centers for Advanced Technology at Rensselaer, the Center for Future Energy Systems and the Center for Automation Technologies and Systems, or CATS, which offer other important examples of shared infrastructure that greatly benefits the Capital Region.

The CATS center, for example, helps businesses to overcome manufacturing process and automation system challenges. Recently, CATs partnered with Plug Power, which produces hydrogen fuel cell systems to replace conventional batteries in electric vehicles and equipment, such as the forklifts used in warehouses and FedEx delivery vans.

Collaborating with Plug Power engineers, our CATS researchers developed the technology for a robotic fueling station that could save valuable time in a warehouse. For the pilot study, they developed the requisite computer vision, sensors, robotic manipulation of the fueling nozzle, and remote controlling mechanisms.

The pilot was so successful that the team was recently awarded a $2 million grant by the Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Lab to develop a commercially viable autonomous hydrogen fueling station.

The economic value of our Centers for Advanced Technology is considerable. In the past 10 years, CATS, for example, has helped 59 companies to expand their operations, 17 new companies to launch, and one to relocate to New York state—efforts that have generated 376 new jobs, with a cumulative economic impact of $254 million. And it has proven to be important to manufacturing startups in particular—a mighty contributor to the high-tech entrepreneurship driving our local economy.

During my service on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009 to 2014, I was co-chair of a report on the enormous opportunities represented by advanced manufacturing. President Obama made one of our most important recommendations a reality: expanding the nation’s store of shared infrastructure for product and process R&D—with a network of advanced manufacturing institutes, each focused on a specific technology, that bring together industry, academia, and federal partners—with the ultimate goal of increasing the United States’ competitiveness in 21st-century manufacturing.

This network is now known as Manufacturing USA, and I am pleased to say that Rensselaer is a leader in three of these institutes, the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, and the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals—again, offering crucial support for industries on the leading edge.

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 local colleges and universities increase the capacity of our innovation ecosystem by educating bright, motivated young people.

At Rensselaer, while we educate our students for deep knowledge in their own fields, we also ensure that they develop skills that cut across disciplines. That is why Rensselaer is the first university in the nation to include a “data dexterity” requirement in its core curriculum. We believe that no matter what field of endeavor they choose, our graduates will need to use diverse datasets to define and address complex challenges. So all students at Rensselaer must complete two “data-intensive” courses; one to establish the foundations of data modeling and analysis, and a second course that applies modern data analytics within their academic disciplines.

We also offer our students significant opportunities to test their acquired knowledge out in the world—through approaches such as The Arch, which we have been piloting for the past two summers, and which will be fully realized next summer. Under The Arch, all rising Rensselaer juniors remain on campus the summer after their sophomore years, taking junior-level classes and benefitting from the undivided attention of their professors and our Student Life staff. This allows them to spend a semester or more away from campus during the traditional junior year, and still to graduate on time.

With the help of our Center for Career and Professional Development, they will choose an away semester experience that suits their interests and passions, whether an internship or launching a business, or a volunteer or research experience, or an approved Individual Learning Experience. We hope that the leaders in this audience will consider creating opportunities specifically for Rensselaer juniors.

We are very attuned at Rensselaer, also, to the educational opportunities offered by emerging disciplines; and we have created 22 new degree programs in these fields. Currently, we are developing a new academic focus devoted to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

The connection between Rensselaer innovations in teaching and learning, and new local industries is powerfully demonstrated by the vibrant video game cluster that has grown up in our midst in recent years. We are very proud of the success of 1st Playable Productions, founded by Dr. Tobi Saulnier of the Rensselaer Classes of 1984, 1989, and 1994, and of Vicarious Visions, co-founded by Karthik Bala of the Class of 1997. When Karthik and his brother Guha launched a new experimental gaming company named Velan Studios two years ago, they did it in Troy, specifically to be close to the talent emanating from Rensselaer.

Rensselaer truly pioneered education in gaming and the electronic arts in general, and we remain one of the best places in the country to study them. Our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program is ranked 6th in the nation by, 7th by, and 12th by The Art Career Project. Indeed, our influence is so profound, that New York state has recently named our Digital Game Development Center a Center of Excellence, along with that of New York University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

I suspect that some of you may be surprised to learn that we not only contribute human capital to the tech side of Tech Valley, but we also contribute talented artists to the growing creative economy, which is becoming one of the great strengths of our region.

During my tenure as president, we have invested in wonderful platforms for explorations in the arts, including the one that surrounds us now, our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. And with an initiative we call Art_X @ Rensselaer, we teach our students to be better scientists, engineers, architects, and managers by helping them to make aesthetic considerations part of their own work.

We also are expanding our academic offerings in fields where art and technology meet, including with a new technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music program at Rensselaer. This program is readying talented students for 21st-century careers in music—including production, performance, and composition for video gaming or for music social networks.

So please, do not be shocked, if in a few years you find that downtown Troy suddenly hosts a burgeoning cluster of businesses that have emanated from this program!

I thank the Chamber of Commerce for giving me this opportunity to tell you about how we at Rensselaer see our role in the Capital Region, and about our vision for the future. Partnerships with many of the people in this room are at the very heart of it.

Together, all of us 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 focus on the future—the next generations of discoverers and innovators—and prepare them to lead us places we cannot yet imagine.