A Princeton University-led collaboration to drive economic and technological advancements in photonics — the branch of science that includes lasers, optical fibers and cutting-edge light-based innovations — has been awarded a development grant from the National Science Foundation‘s Regional Innovation Engines, or NSF Engines, program.
In the simplest of phrases: This is a big deal — for research and for economic development. The grant will lay the groundwork for a multi-state collaboration called Advancing Photonics Technologies, which will aim to advance research, transition discoveries into the economy and build the region’s technological workforce.
Photonics is an emerging technology has applications in numerous key fields, including health care, clean energy, computing, telecommunications, advanced manufacturing and more. Many feel photonics has the potential to improve cancer detection, food safety, smart phones, computing and self-driving cars, among other uses.
Princeton (and co-lead Rowan University) will lead a collaboration of 12 universities (in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware) and 11 companies (including Nokia Bell Labs) as well as statewide economic and workforce development programs, and technology accelerators and incubators that help transition research into startup companies.
Princeton professor Craig Arnold will serve as the principal investigator. Rowan’s Robert Chimenti is the co-PI. Both are experts in the field.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who has long pushed for the state to return to its roots as an innovative economy, obviously was thrilled by the announcement.
“Photonics is one of the unseen gems of the New Jersey economy, providing thousands of good-paying jobs and leading global innovation,” he said. “Congratulations to Princeton University, Rowan University and the many other New Jersey institutions of higher education, companies and state agencies that are joining forces on this effort to affirm our state’s longstanding role as a leader in innovation.”
The NSF Engines program was launched by NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships and authorized by the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.” It aims to catalyze robust partnerships, accelerate technology development, address societal challenges, advance national competitiveness and create high-wage jobs.
The NSF Engine Development Award is the first step in creating a regional “engine” of research and workforce development, which, if granted, comes with up to $160 million for up to 10 years.
And, while the Princeton-led group was one of 44 to earn an Engine Development Award from the NSF on Thursday, it is believed to be the only grant specifically geared toward photonics.
NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said the NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for innovation.
“These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF’s vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere,” he said. “They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation.
“Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and to grow their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”
The initiative will focus on increasing opportunities for growth and participation in the photonics economy in ways that ensure diversity and equity while providing an inclusive and accessible environment.
The development grant enables the collaboration’s universities, community colleges, industry and state economic development agencies to plan:
A diverse and inclusive research and innovation ecosystem around photonics;
Expansive opportunities for the translation of technological and scientific breakthroughs from research labs to industry;
A robust pipeline for jobs creation and workforce development.
Princeton President Chris Eisgruber said the potential impact is huge.
“This initiative unites colleges and universities, startups and established companies across our region to catalyze research, develop new technologies, create jobs and strengthen the economy,” he said. “Princeton is proud to be part of this National Science Foundation program, which is helping to grow scientific research and technological innovation in every part of our nation.”
Rowan University President Ali Houshmand was thrilled, too.
“Public-private partnerships between industry and higher education institutions are critically important for driving economic growth and workforce development,” he said. “We are pleased to share in this effort and look forward to translating research into opportunities for our region.”
The collaboration also will involve four statewide economic development agencies:
New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology;
New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools;
New Jersey Economic Development Authority;
New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.
And four entrepreneurial incubators and accelerators:
Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs;
SOSV’s HAX Accelerator;
For a map showing all 44 NSF awards, click here.
This article originally appeared May 12, 2023 in ROI-NJ.