Northwestern University

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E2S: Energy and Environment Solutions
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Northwestern University

On October 12th 2016, Pr. Gilles Pijaudier-Cabot visited Northwestern University (NU) to learn from its trajectory and more specifically from the way it connects research to industry and attract talents. Several meetings with researchers assuming responsibilities at the university gave him the opportunity of hearing points of view on questions pertaining to UPPA’s E2S project.

Though Northwestern University is much larger than UPPA (21,000 enrolled students, 3,334 full-time faculty members), some of its centers or schools, like the McCormick School of Engineering & Applied Science, are rather close to E2S in terms of the project's themes and the number of researchers involved.

For instance, according to Prof. John Rogers, member of the NAS and NAE, one of the main assets for attracting world class researchers is a technology platform of the highest quality, available to all of the University’s researchers. Another attractive asset is the creation of ”hubs” with healthy initial funding, multidisciplinary expertise nearby and, of course, a leading-edge instrumentation platform. These observations confirm the importance E2S gives to the UPPA-Tech platform and the thematic hubs.

To initiate students to the economic spin-offs of research, another contact of Pr. Pijaudier-Cabot, Pr. Mark Hersam, director of the Material science and engineering center, described an innovative measure set up in his center: Teams of three students (one from Engineering, one from Law school and one from Business school) are allocated a patent taken at the university but which has found no license yet. The team works on a business development program for it and presents conclusions at a defense in front of an audience composed of potential sponsors. Such an action could also enhance the collaboration between colleagues from Law, Business school and Science and Technology.

Other points concerning joint projects with industry have been developed by Pr. Richard Lueptow, associate dean for research. He emphasized that his aim for each project is to have it run by two principal investigators, recognized researchers, one from the university and the other from the company. But he acknowledged that this is often rather difficult to achieve …

He also pointed out that their calls for proposals are “bottom up”: the university generates a call and companies choose what may interest them. The meeting with Pr. Chad Mirkin was interesting for it confirmed that technology is not a second-rate but rather a first-class activity in research. And as a proof, C. Mirkin compared the trajectories of two universities. On one hand, Northwestern University, which, though being very strict on excellence, was guided by the idea that research must be “for something” (health, new products, new solutions…) whereas University of Illinois had a more traditional view of research for knowledge first. After a few years, Northwestern University had outranked University of Illinois in ranking hierarchy.

This visit was very fruitful as it confirmed several fundamental orientations followed by our project, but also it provided ideas for additional instruments and motivations to the benefit of E2S.