Barry Johnson is taking on the challenge of accelerating the transitioning of technology from basic research into commercial markets.
Johnson, the L.A. Lacy Distinguished Professor of electrical and computer engineering, brings a wealth of experience in industry and startups as well as building public and private partnerships to his two-year appointment as director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Translational Impacts. The Division provides pathways for researchers, startups and aspiring entrepreneurs to move their ideas from the laboratory to the market and society.
The programs within Johnson’s purview accelerate the translation of research results to practical use and are managed within the newly established Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, or TIP, which is led by UVA alumnus Erwin Gianchandani. “We want to create more opportunities to accelerate the translation of research results in our laboratories into tangible outcomes that positively impact society and in turn advance our nation’s competitiveness,” Gianchandani said.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to work on programs I’m passionate about and help NSF build and grow this new directorate,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s portfolio within TIP includes programs he managed during a previous four-year appointment at NSF, for which he earned the NSF Director’s Distinguished Service Award for executive leadership with profound impact on innovation and collaborative partnerships with academia, government and industry.
“It’s really hard to get ideas or concepts out of universities and into the market or society because there’s such a huge gap between where faculty stop and where commercialization can begin,” Johnson said.
“We are heavily focused on emerging technologies, to predict the next hot topic,” Johnson said. “Erwin is encouraging us to think outside the box, to be more experimental in how we manage programs.”
Pathways to Enable Open-Source Ecosystems, which is enabling or harnessing the power of open-source development for the creation of new technology solutions, is one such example. NSF recently announced 25 inaugural Phase-I grant awards for this pilot program.
“Introducing and embedding research scientists and engineers in the nation’s innovation ecosystem is a key part of our mission,” Johnson said. “Most faculty have not started a company. They might have a great technology, but aligning it with something that the market really cares about and wants to see is really important.”
Two programs within Johnson’s Division of Translational Impacts focus on building entrepreneurial skills. NSF’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps™, helps researchers gain valuable insight into industry requirements and challenges through an immersive, seven-week training program.
“Faculty, post-docs and students who complete an I-Corps training program have a good sense of whether their idea coming out of basic research has commercial potential,” Johnson said. “It’s all based on customer discovery and trying to determine product-market fit — if their idea aligns with a market need.”
Johnson is also excited to announce a new entrepreneurial fellowships initiative with Activate, to provide two-year fellowships for graduates and students to immerse themselves in a start-up environment to pursue their ideas. Activate Fellows supported by NSF explore whether they have something that can be commercialized and how to start a company. This fellowship program began as an initiative of Berkeley National Laboratory and Activate.org, with a primary geographic focus on Northern California; TIP funding from Johnson’s division to Activate.org will extend the program to sites across the United States.
“Initially we expect that the fellows will be post-docs, but we hope it will be extensible to graduate students, and eventually undergraduate students,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s Division of Translational Impacts also supports partnerships with industry and deep-technology feasibility assessment. For example, the Partnerships for Innovation program awards grants to research faculty who perform proof-of-concept experiments, prototype development and scalability assessments to determine the commercial potential of a discovery made through basic research.
The Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer program is the biggest budget program in Johnson’s portfolio. NSF started the programs in the 1970s, since codified across other government agencies to support technology development by small businesses within each agency's mission space. Johnson’s Division of Translational Impacts funds approximately 400 startup companies a year to de-risk technologies and stimulate commercialization.
At UVA, Johnson most recently served as director of the computer engineering program, a joint degree program of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Computer Science led by Mircea Stan, Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of electrical and computer engineering. Johnson leveraged his prior startup, industry, and government experience to increase growth and expand investment in UVA’s computer engineers and their research.
“To build and sustain relationships, universities and their faculty need to think beyond transactional grant proposals to instead foster strategic, long-term alliances in critical mission areas,” Johnson said. Johnson advises early-career faculty to focus on use-inspired research.