Debrief: Learning as we go with Imin Kao

Kao tipping: Stony Brook University mechanical engineering professor Imin Kao's best advice on the future of Long Island innovation? Bet on biotechnology.

On-the-job learning has never been a problem for Stony Brook University engineering professor Imin Kao, who directs the university’s Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence and in January succeeded Jeffrey Saelens as executive director of the SBU-anchored Manufacturing and Technology Resource Consortium. Kao, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1991 and has been part of Stony Brook’s Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty since 1994, is still learning to juggle his myriad directorial responsibilities – but already revels in the excitement of the business-development arena, particularly regarding Long Island’s brilliant biotechnology future. The professor’s lessons:        

Birth of SPIR: When the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence first started in 1994, Dean Yacov Shamash here at Stony Brook, and also deans at (SUNY) Binghamton and the University at Buffalo, saw the decline in industry, particularly here at Grumman, and also the suppliers of Grumman. Those suppliers needed to find a way to transition and broaden their businesses. They were typically smaller companies and did not have the expertise in research and development to handle this kind of transition. SPIR was designed for these companies to tap into the diverse expertise of our faculty and students, and likewise in Binghamton and Buffalo. Effectively, we are the R&D for these companies.

Two decades in the making: I participated in the very first year of SPIR as a faculty member. When we started, we didn’t have companies coming to us. I remember I had to go out to the companies and talk to them and find out their needs and what problems they wanted to solve, and then help them come up with solutions. But the companies kept coming back. They recognized the value SPIR provides. And the number of companies that wanted to participate in the SPIR program increased tremendously.

Pay to play: There’s always a funding commitment. It kind of shows the seriousness of a project, and a professor’s time is also valuable, so you don’t want companies just walking away at any moment. At first, SPIR matched company contributions one-to-one, but because of the number of companies that want to participate in the SPIR program, the matching was slowly reduced. Right now, it’s closer to the company puts in 65 percent of the funding … and it’s working quite well, having professors and students collaborate with the companies directly.

Something for everyone: These programs have helped me submit proposals to federal funding agencies, from which I have received grants to support my research activities. And we have recently expanded into internships, so the company gets to see the competence and work ethic of the intern, and a competent intern typically gets a job offer before graduation. This arrangement is very efficient, without any commitment to permanent employment.

MEP for all: The state, through its [Empire State Development Division of Science, Technology and Innovation, or NYSTAR], gets block funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and uses it to fund regional Manufacturing Extension Partnerships through regional centers like the MTRC at Stony Brook. Each of the regional MEPs has a specific focus. Ours is biotechnology, but we engage in all sorts of manufacturing, education and workforce-development programs.

It takes an Island: [The Stony Brook MEP] has partners at Farmingdale State College, Nassau Community College, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Brookhaven National Lab and the Composite Prototyping Center. If a company has a special need or a project that matches the nature of the MEP, they can call us and we’ll see if we can help. And it’s not just for Stony Brook companies – we welcome companies from across Long Island, if it’s a project that falls within the scope of MEP support.

Teacher becomes student: It’s been baptism by fire. The MEP business is very diverse and covers a wide spectrum of activities. Being new as an executive director, I’ve needed to learn a lot of things. Jeff Saelens left a lot of work, so I’m trying to continue what he has established in helping companies and industries on Long Island. And that’s what the (national) MEP program is all about – reaching out to help manufacturing industries in the United States.

Engineering update: There is a national trend that the enrollment in mechanical engineering programs has increased in the last 10-plus years, with enrollment doubling and sometimes tripling at some universities. Our department now has enrollment that exceeds 130 per class, and it’s still increasing. In addition to the teaching mission, the department is very active in research, including robotics in manufacturing and … a new focus on collaborative research between engineering and medicine, a very strategic area. We have quite a few young faculty members who bring excitement to their research activities. The department is looking better than ever.

Funding concerns: I think overall, at every research institution in the United States, there is concern about the proposed reduction in funding. The funding appears to be on the way down at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, and that certainly affects fundamental research in science and engineering. This research is important for the economic development and technology leadership of the United States. People may not see a direct correlation, but a lot of fundamental research in science and engineering becomes public knowledge, so innovators can go make products out of it. That’s what will make economic development thrive in the 21st century, and if you start cutting the roots of fundamental research, inevitably you’re going to dry out innovation.

Summit recap: At the National MEP Summit (May 1-3 in Denver), there were about 400 to 500 participants, including the whole team from New York, led by (NYSTAR Director) Matt Watson. Because of the looming budget issue, they talked about the branding of NIST programs. We were also told the good news that funding up until the end of this year has been restored, in its entirety, for the MEP national program.

LI innovation, from the trenches: I think it’s very strong. We have different universities, we have a national laboratory, we have research entities such as Cold Spring Harbor, and we have the intellectual capital and entrepreneurial spirit on Long Island. People are creative. I think the innovation economy is going to continue to grow, particularly in the biotechnology area. I believe in biotechnology. We are going to see more products and new developments, and also some real breakthroughs.

Interview by Gregory Zeller