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Innovative action NJII, housed on the campus of NJIT, is out to change the way higher ed and business collaborate

Don Sebastian, CEO and president, New Jersey Innovation Institute, an NJIT corporation.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Christine Barbieri saw a problem growing in slow motion: The senior citizen population in North Jersey was growing rapidly in areas where there was a lack of transportation infrastructure to bring them to the health care establishments they needed. So, she and co-founder Donald Jones created MediCoupe, which is like Uber for patients and their…

There was just one problem: MediCoupe needed help getting its own business moving before it could provide transportation for others.

Then they found the New Jersey Innovation Institute, a corporation within the New Jersey Institute of Technology campus in Newark.

“NJII is a very unique entity and has been very instrumental in getting our company off the ground,” Barbieri said. “In health care, the stakeholders, executives and decision makers are not necessarily the same people, so they’ve been instrumental in helping us navigate that system.

“(They) also helped us define our business model and get our technology functioning. I think what was originally an overwhelming task — something that seemed insurmountable — now has a critical path and a feasible way to scale. And that’s all because of NJII, their mentorship and their top-down introductions.”

All this … from a university?

Welcome to Higher Ed 2.0. A place where colleges are leveraging their institutional knowledge (both faculty and student researchers) to proactively solve problems in the business community.

And they’re doing this to help solve one of higher ed’s biggest problems moving forward: Finding more revenue.

NJII President Donald Sebastian said the organization was founded in April 2014 as a way to help NJIT to act as an active participant in helping to foster the state’s technology companies.

But it’s more than just philanthropy.

The NJII Board of Trustees
A look at the leadership of NJII:
Donald H. Sebastian
CEO and President
Joel Bloom
Holly Stern

Board members
Kenneth Blank
Vice President of Health Services, Rowan University
Michele Brown
CEO and President, Choose New Jersey
Vince DeCaprio
Medical Devices Professional
Nick DeNichilo
CEO and President of Hatch Mott MacDonald
Emily DeRocco
Asst U.S. Secretary of Labor
Fadi Deek
Provost and Senior Executive Vice President, NJIT
Debbie Hart
CEO and President, BioNJ
Rochelle Hendricks
Secretary of Higher Education, State of New Jersey
Christopher Molloy
Senior VP for Research and Economic Development, Rutgers University
Dean J. Paranicas
CEO and President, HINJ
John Pyrovolakis
Founder, Innovation Accelerator Network
Binay Sugla
Executive Chairman, Vestac
Joseph Taylor
CEO, Panasonic North America

“(NJII) allows (the university) to grow,” Sebastian said. “At this point we’re looking at finishing 2016 as a $60-million-a-year operation, but it’s not coming out of student tuition: It’s becoming self-sustaining out of grant opportunities and industrial contracts of a nature for which universities could never compete.”

NJII is now leveraging NJIT’s abilities in ways no one would have guessed.

“We were the only university without a medical school that won a (federal) health care transformation grant,” Sebastian said.

That grant, amounting to $50 million, will be used to help physicians improve patient outcomes and practice efficiencies, across 10 different metrics. In doing so, it positions the state’s doctors to succeed in the new world of accountable care reimbursement models.

“Increasing physician efficiency without reducing effectiveness is possible because we are creating a whole new generation of IT that’s focused on giving people the functions that allow physicians, specialists, clinical labs, pharmacies, hospitals, payers and others to act as a seamless health care delivery system,” Sebastian said. “There are a lot of commercial products out there, but they don’t hook together, so we’re operating a network and are creating services that plug into this network.”

It’s an example, Sebastian said, of the way NJII hopes to change how colleges collaborate with private industry.

“NJII is going to be configured to do a different class of work, the kind of things that used to be done in large-scale corporate research and development environments or, in some cases, haven’t been done at all in any environment,” he said.

NJIT President Joel Bloom is thrilled by NJII’s initial success — and feels the university will quickly recoup its initial investment.

“In three years, we expect NJII to be successful and on its own, off of our total startup budget of $40 million,” he said. “The goal was to get to $60 million by 2020 and we’re making very steady progress.”

The goal of the organization, however, extends beyond a new model for revenue generation. NJII, Sebastian and Bloom said, was created to build a statewide infrastructure that fosters what’s in the organization’s name: innovation.

To frame this idea, Sebastian is looking back at the history of American industry to look forward.

“Post-World War II, we ruled the industrial world: The rest of Europe and Asia was rebuilding, we were not physically damaged and our industries became ‘it,’” he said. “As a result of that volume of business, they could sustain these great innovation engines that had already begun prior to World War II in the 1920s, when the large corporations turned their intelligence over to large-scale corporate research and development as a way of embodying the innovative culture.”

It is this culture, Sebastian said, that produced the likes of Bell Laboratories, RCA Laboratories and others.

Stripped of its historical context, Sebastian’s idea to build this infrastructure is both familiar and simple: collaboration among industry, academia and government.

“That’s the context by which we formed the New Jersey Innovation Institute about a year ago, not just as a front-end or switchboard to connect industry needs into NJIT resources, but really a fundamentally different way of doing business with businesses,” he said. “Our motto is, ‘How may we help you?’”

“It’s not designed to sell to industry what we already do; it’s not an attempt to get philanthropy to pay for what we’re already doing; it’s really to create a problem-solving engine that has full-time professional staff that can be engaged and bring in the universities, both faculty and students, in team-size initiatives that don’t typically happen in a university environment.”

A first step was bringing representatives from both Rutgers University and Rowan University to the board of NJII.

“I deliberately invited Chris (Molloy, of Rutgers) and Ken (Blank, of Rowan) to my board so that we have partnerships that can extend into all of the public research universities,” he said. “They were gracious enough to accept and we are already working on new initiatives that span the three NJ public research universities.

“We’d gladly invite anyone else who wants to join because it’s going to take the talent of the entire state to be able to have the competency and the ability.”

To meet this end in when it comes to industry, NJII has been structured to have what Sebastian describes as “portals” for specific industry sectors: health care delivery, biotechnology and pharmaceutical, defense and homeland security, civil infrastructure and financial services.

These focuses each match a particular strength for the individual research facilities in the state:

“It’s not an accident those sectors are all in the state’s master plan,” Sebastian said.

NJII’s master plan is to keep companies in these sectors here.

“If you start all these startups you don’t want them, as soon as they have wings, to fly across the river, out to Boston or the West Coast,” Sebastian said. “We want them to fly here in New Jersey.”

A part of the solution, Sebastian thinks, is infrastructure.

“You start to create physical infrastructure that is necessary for them to grow as a business and then you’ve got another reason as to why they want to stay here,” he said. “Hopefully, then, we’ve done such a good job taking care of them that they want to be here forever.”

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Andrew Sheldon