Research with an Impact
Research with an Impact

In 2009, Professor MacMillan founded Chiromics, a company that designs libraries to access diverse stereochemical structures. “I felt there was important research to be done that could impact the pharmaceutical industry,” MacMillan said. “And because this research had commercial potential and its primary purpose wasn’t basic academic research, I felt strongly that it should be conducted outside of academia.”

Throughout the process of founding Chiromics, MacMillan made an important discovery about the connection between research and entrepreneurship: “I realized that just because something makes money doesn’t lessen the fact that it’s still going to be useful—the research can still have an impact.”

The relationship between academia and entrepreneurial ventures has not always been perceived as symbiotic. MacMillan recalled, “For a long time, I think the culture at Princeton was ‘basic research is basic research,’ or that as academics, commercializing businesses is not what we’re here to do.”

Over the last decade, however, MacMillan believes this mentality has subsided, largely in part to the success Princeton faculty have had commercializing their research. “Now, the attitude is such that if you’re doing basic research and its value can be exported to many different people, that’s great. And if the research can be progressed and commercialized, there’s almost a responsibility to do it, especially if it’s going to benefit human health.”

MacMillan has experienced firsthand the obstacles many faculty entrepreneurs face. “For many academics, the hardest thing about embarking on an entrepreneurial journey is not knowing how to get started,” MacMillan said. “They think, ‘This could be a useful commercial entity but I don’t have the proper business training or an MBA.’”

So what can Princeton do to address this problem? MacMillan believes that the university can make it more straightforward for students and faculty to launch their ideas with minimal challenges, which is the aim of the university’s Office of Tech Licensing. The department offers resources and funding for faculty looking to get their startups off the ground. “Once we educate the university community about the available resources, I think entrepreneurship at Princeton will become even more free flowing than it already is.” 

And entrepreneurship on campus is certainly free flowing. MacMillan shared an illustration of the entrepreneurial spirit he’s observed: “In the sciences, we often focus graduates’ attention on jobs in pharma and academia. I wanted to hold a meeting to encourage students to consider entrepreneurial endeavors as another viable career option.” Turns out, the students didn’t need convincing. “The level of interest was spectacular,” MacMillan said. “We never had a higher attendance at a group meeting!”

— Julie Clack
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.