Sunday, December 6, 2009

RPI's integral role in our Tech Valley

The following was first published in The Record.

The cumulative effect of a number of developments over the past decade – from the creation and expansion of alternative energy-related businesses such as Latham’s Plug Power to the start of construction of Advanced Micro Devices’ $3.2 billion computer chip fabrication plant at the Luther Forest Technology Campus – signaled that the Capital Region is earning the moniker it is marketing as America’s new Tech Valley.

Along the same timeline, Troy’s own Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has quietly transformed itself into a world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.

How intertwined are these developments? Well, without the latter, the former may never be fully realized.

America’s premier technology corridor, the Silicon Valley - grew mainly from its proximity to Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. With respected engineering and electronics departments, the university establish in 1951 the nation’s first research park where companies could build facilities and conduct research in cooperation with the school. The seed was planted – with much nurturing and support from Stanford - for a phenomenal run of technological and economic achievements over the last six decades; without Silicon Valley, there may be no Facebook or iPod in our lives today.

When RPI president Dr. Shirley Jackson announced “Renaissance at Rensselaer: The Campaign for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute” 10 years ago, I suspect few entirely grasped her vision for the campus. And there were skeptics who thought the $1.4 billion fundraising goal might be too aggressive.

Her effort was a nod to the college founders’ The Rensselaerean Plan, a statement 185 years ago that gave form to a vision for applying science to life’s common purposes. Here are just a few of the game-changing components of the modern-day plan:
  • Expand the school’s fundamental research activity in technological entrepreneurship and the management of innovation.
  • Introduce the teaching of the fundamentals of entrepreneurship to students across all majors.
  • Cultivate a campus culture that provides the spirit and motivation for inventors to pursue commercialization.
  • Create innovative programs targeted at growing major new technological ventures and creating value.

And for evidence of the impact of “Renaissance at Rennselear” today, look no further than some of the headlines of just the past 60 days: “Space Shuttle Atlantis will carry a new Rensselaer nanomaterials experiment to the International Space Station.” “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute receives $16.75 million from the Army Research Laboratory to launch a new research center devoted to the study of social and cognitive networks.” “Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have received $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to model how different metals are affected by neutron irradiation.”

Our newspaper has chronicled over the last few days – and will continue to tomorrow – a few highlights of both the impact of the Renaissance campaign and a celebration taking place this weekend on the campus commemorating its completion. Sometimes it is hard to recognize in the moment but this is a historic event in our community … an opportunity to reflect on some truly significant economic, academic and technological developments, and to ponder what is to come.

This investment is going to - well, there is that word again – transform this region over the coming years in ways we can’t begin to imagine. Over time, RPI’s contribution to the Tech Valley will be no less significant than Stanford’s to the Silicon Valley. We join this weekend in reveling in Dr. Jackson’s and all of the Rennselear community’s extraordinary accomplishments.

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