New SEAS fund will help nurture Yale-borne ideas that benefit humankind

In a Q&A, SEAS Dean Jeffrey Brock shares how the Roberts Innovation Fund will help amplify the process of bringing Yale-developed breakthroughs to market.
SEAS Dean Jeffrey Brock

SEAS Dean Jeffrey Brock (Photo by Mara Lavitt)

Technologies created in the labs of the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) are used to treat cancer, deliver clean water to communities where it is desperately needed, and provide industry-leading blockchain security.

The newly created Roberts Innovation Fund will improve the chances that world-changing advances by these and other researchers at SEAS will reach market and help address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

In an interview, SEAS Dean Jeffrey Brock, who this week will host a panel during the Yale Innovation Summit, discussed the kinds of ideas the new fund will support and how it will work.

Why was the Roberts Innovation Fund created and how will it work?

Jeffrey Brock: We want the world to benefit from the discoveries emerging from our faculty’s research. The Roberts Innovation Fund will facilitate bringing these breakthrough technologies that solve real-world problems to their greatest impact in the world. Initially, we envision the areas of data science, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and blockchain being the key domains. We’ll also be excited to see outcomes from biomedical imaging, sustainable tech, energy, quantum science, and more. Our expert external advisory board will be responsible for selecting the most impactful faculty ideas, which will then receive grant funding, mentoring, and business training.

Why now?

Brock: In SEAS, we have a number of very successful faculty start-ups, like CertiK and Isoplexis, just to name a couple of examples. These ventures are bringing valuable faculty research to society, making a real-world impact. We want to build on this type of activity by creating a culture where our researchers are not only conducting important research — as they always have — but also asking, “How can I get this to where it will be most transformational?”

We want the Innovation Fund to encourage that kind of thinking, and to provide the infrastructure and resources to create a robust pipeline of start-up companies and partnerships with industry. We have no shortage of great ideas; we just needed the resources and structure to facilitate the process of commercializing those ideas.

What challenges has the School of Engineering & Applied Science faced in getting projects to market in the past? How might the fund help address these issues?

Brock: Commercialization is a tricky process. And to date, it hasn’t been an area that the majority of our faculty have considered pursuing. The Roberts Innovation Fund will supply SEAS with a dedicated team who will provide the guidance and grant funding that enables and encourages our faculty to take this path.

The current commercialization landscape at Yale has a strong focus on biomedical efforts, particularly pharmacology, and many technologies developed in SEAS labs are often non-pharmacological and have diverse IP considerations. Despite these hindrances, many of our faculty have still been successful in commercializing their discoveries and changing the landscape of digital technology and healthcare. We have always had the ideas; we were lacking the infrastructure needed to make this leap.

I am equally excited with the recent Yale announcement regarding its plan to devote far greater resources to its entrepreneurial efforts with the creation of Yale Ventures. We are working side-by-side with this fantastic team to develop the structures that will ensure success for our faculty wishing to translate their research.

We are currently in the process of searching for a founding director of the Roberts Innovation Fund, an individual who will have the experience and expertise to help build the fund from the ground up and seamlessly take these innovations to market.

How will you measure the success of this fund?

Brock: We will measure the success of the fund in two different ways. The obvious data point is the number of discoveries being commercialized, but I think there is a larger, hard-to-measure, metric that is just as important: amplifying the innovation and entrepreneurial culture at SEAS, for the purpose of recruiting faculty and students to Yale.

We want to build this culture here on campus and create an innovation ecosystem focused on contributing to society and benefiting humanity. Our students are already coming to Yale eager to make this kind of impact. I strongly believe that the Roberts Innovation Fund will help amplify our culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, supporting this interest among our students as well as our faculty.

You will be hosting a panel at the upcoming Yale Innovation Summit. What can attendees expect?

Brock: Yes, the panel is called “Enabling Yale Technologies to Drive New Businesses.” During the discussion, four members of the Roberts Innovation Fund Advisory Board will share their perspectives on the anticipated impact this new fund will have, explore ways they believe Yale can advance faculty entrepreneurship, and highlight the value each board member will bring to this effort. The panelists are Donald Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Tidelift; Steven Kan, chief of staff and head of operations at Google and mentor for Google for Startups Accelerator; Sheng Liang, president of engineering and innovation at Suse; and Bhaskar Ghosh, partner and chief technology officer at 8VC.

Members who are not able to join us on this panel but will play major roles in the rollout and management of the fund are A.G. Breitenstein, founder and executive chair of Folx Health; Anthony Philippakis, chief data officer of the Broad Institute; Katie Rae, CEO and managing partner of The Engine at MIT; and Namratha Vedire, director of platform and operations for  Engage.

Register for the Yale Innovation Summit.

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