Q&A: The Magic of University Entrepreneurship

Abhijit Banerjee, AVP of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

As one of the nation’s top 25 public research universities, UConn is home to many faculty and student inventors. The discoveries they make in the lab could some day become products and services that help society. They could also launch Connecticut companies that provide high paying jobs in the state. But it’s not always easy to think like an entrepreneur when you’ve been trained as an academic researcher.

Abhijit (Jit) Banerjee, Ph.D., MBA, is leading UConn’s mission to help more faculty and students participate in commercialization activities. Banerjee, who has extensive experience facilitating public-private partnerships, joined UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research as Associate Vice President, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in May 2020. He leads Technology Commercialization Services, a group that specializes in transforming UConn inventions into products, services, and companies that help society.

“Our efforts to bring the fruits of our research to the world are tremendously strengthened by Jit’s arrival at UConn,” says President Thomas Katsouleas. “His background, skills, and passion for the work are going to help us become even more prolific and successful in demonstrating the value of the world-class research being done at UConn.”

Banerjee recently answered a few questions about becoming a Husky during a pandemic and the importance of innovation to tackle the world’s great challenges.

 

Connecticut has a rich history of innovation and invention. How does UConn contribute to this legacy? What do you think the University can do to help the state’s economic health now and in the future?

The innovation engine runs 24/7, 365 days at UConn. The University’s 14 schools and colleges are filled with world-class faculty and students who are building on UConn’s strong legacy of innovation. Our footprint isn’t limited to the local geography either. UConn has a statewide impact, with programs like the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), a flagship program that supports UConn companies as well as external ventures. TIP’s three locations in Storrs, Farmington, and the soon-to-be-launched Stamford site support the state’s economy because it grows and attracts companies that want to locate in Connecticut and will create jobs here. Another example is the Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park, which is a world-class engineering living lab that is an asset to the state’s engineering and manufacturing industry.

With all of these hubs of innovation, I am convinced that the University still has too many “well kept secrets” for businesses and citizens around our state.  We have expert faculty in every field, talented students to bolster the state’s innovation workforce, and unparalleled facilities to help solve problems and make breakthroughs for any industry sector, from manufacturing to personalized medicine.

In a fiercely competitive national environment where every state is aggressively looking to expand their funding and improve their economic health, success comes when the state, its agencies, and major innovation engines like UConn work hand-in-hand. I plan to do everything I can to help UConn continue our collaborative approach to support state economic development goals.

In your newly created role within the Office of the Vice President for Research, you are responsible for leading UConn’s efforts to enhance entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology commercialization for UConn companies and external ventures. How do you and your team support these efforts?

The Technology Commercialization Service (TCS) team is responsible for protecting intellectual property that is generated at UConn and bringing inventions from bench to marketplace or bedside through commercialization. A major focus for TCS is fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem that enables faculty and students to pursue commercialization of their discoveries – whether it be through licensing to existing companies or forming startups. The TCS team has dedicated and passionate individuals who are deeply committed to the University and all faculty, regardless of the discipline.

As I’ve met with leaders at each school and college, it has become clear that there is an opportunity for TCS to take much bigger and strategic roles across the University, and we are excited to take that on.

How has the pandemic affected innovation, in your opinion? What challenges and opportunities does it provide for faculty and student innovators?

The impact of COVID-19 on global well-being is now being felt in every sphere, from mental health to the economy to education. This pandemic has taught us to quickly adapt, pivot, and rely on both instincts and innovation to get through this and survive the new normal.

As the world collectively works to find a vaccine for this pathogen, we shouldn’t stop innovating and seeking solutions for other major challenges we still face. Climate change, wild fires, tsunami, and hurricanes are impacting both human lives and our ecosystem. As we know, any slight imbalance in this ecosystem can cause disasters which are often irreversible. There are thousands of other conditions that still need effective treatments. We can still do more to develop innovative technologies that support the defense sector. For all of these problems, science, innovation, and commercialization can help find solutions. I am confident UConn inventors will be part of the solution and TCS is here to support them on that path.

You joined UConn while the University was still in the middle of the COVID-19 ramp down. How do you like being a Husky so far during these unprecedented times?

COVID-19 has changed the way we conduct business and interact, and for the unforeseen future, we need to accept this as the new normal. Our individual responsibility to stay healthy and follow guidance from scientific experts to reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection adds another layer of complexity. From what I’ve seen so far, at the individual and organizational level, UConn Nation is pivoting and adapting to continue working towards our educational, research, and service goals.

But I have to admit that even before I came to UConn, I felt an affinity for Husky Nation, since our family dog was a Siberian Husky named Mishi. We recently lost him to cancer, but he brought out the best in us as humans and I can see that same core value in everyone I’ve met so far at UConn.

 

To learn more about UConn technologies and startups, visit www.innovation.uconn.edu

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