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An Ecosystem of Innovation

Translational research by Northwestern faculty and student entrepreneurs is thriving, bolstered by philanthropic support.

Mark Hersam
Northwestern researcher Mark Hersam and his startup Volexion are part of the new Querrey InQbation Lab. Volexion develops graphene-coating for next-generation lithium-ion batteries.Image: JB Creative

Fall 2022

University-wide research institutes and centers (URICs) are a fundamentally important and vibrant nexus of innovation and discovery at Northwestern. Continued investments in these hubs have strengthened the work of faculty and students who seek to benefit humankind through advancements in fields ranging from medicine and engineering to nanotechnology and materials science. URICs also contribute to entrepreneurial activity, fueled by the University’s long-standing commitment to research- driven innovation and further supported by philanthropic gifts and federal funding. 

Since 2011 Northwestern’s annual sponsored research funding has increased by more than 74%, reaching a record high of $893.4 million in fiscal year 2021. In addition, private philanthropy from individual donors has expanded Northwestern’s capacity for discovery and its impact by funding programs such as the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center (DPELC), the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice and the Querrey InQbation Lab — the University’s new technology accelerator for faculty spinoff companies. 

The lab’s name honors Kimberly K. Querrey, chair of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Committee of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, who gave $25 million to make the vision for this accelerator a reality. The project also received a grant from the state of Illinois. 

“Northwestern innovators are pushing the bounds of science and engineering through discovery, collaboration and promising ventures,” Querrey says. “The Querrey InQbation Lab will give these entrepreneurial faculty the resources to realize their potential and maximize the benefits to society.” 

Seven Northwestern startups now reside in the downtown Evanston location. Those companies include Rhaeos, which develops noninvasive sensors to monitor function of ventricular shunts in patients with hydrocephalus. Rhaeos is based on the research of John Rogers, the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor and director of the Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics. Other InQbation Lab ventures were born out of the Center for Synthetic Biology, McCormick School of Engineering and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. 

“The Querrey InQbation Lab blends Northwestern’s science, technology and business thinking to create distinctive companies whose products will benefit our community and economy and the greater society,” says Alicia Löffler, associate provost for innovation and new ventures. 

Querrey’s vision builds on the collaborative culture Northwestern donors have helped cultivate for more than a decade. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Northwestern startups increased 536%. In 2021 The Princeton Review ranked Northwestern third in its list of top graduate schools for entrepreneurship, thanks to a robust ecosystem of research institutes and centers across University disciplines and campuses. 

At the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, the DPELC — endowed by the Pritzker Family Foundation — has been educating law students about entrepreneurial thinking for more than 20 years. Originally founded as the Small Business Opportunity Center, the DPELC was one of the first programs in the U.S. to provide hands-on training for students who aspire to become transactional lawyers or startup CEOs. 

“Northwestern innovators are pushing the bounds of science and engineering through discovery, collaboration and promising ventures.” — Kimberly Querrey

Kellogg School of Management students prepare to become entrepreneurs through coursework, immersion programs and competitions where they interact with industry experts and venture capitalists. Since 2011 Kellogg alumni have started companies that represent almost $20 billion in market value. The Levy Institute, endowed by Carol ’64 and Larry Levy ’66, ’67 MBA, ensures that students will always benefit from a cutting-edge entrepreneurship curriculum and experimental learning. 

In 2008 the McCormick School of Engineering’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation was endowed by James ’50 and Nancy Farley. The center expanded rapidly, establishing an entrepreneurship minor and the popular NUvention course series, which challenges students to come up with novel solutions to problems in medicine, sustainability, media, artificial intelligence, transportation and more. 

Political science major Stephanie Shields. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Shields

Stephanie Shields ’24, a political science major, had no experience with clean tech before enrolling in NUvention: Energy, a course cross-listed by Northwestern Engineering and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. “The transferable skills and networking opportunities provided by NUvention: Energy give me an incredible launchpad into a potential career in the clean energy sector,” Shields says. 

NUvention courses have ignited some of Northwestern’s most successful student- generated startups, many of which have gone on to be developed further at The Garage — a 100,000- square-foot coworking space that is home to the student entrepreneurial community — or to compete in VentureCat, an annual student startup competition. 

Northwestern also helps develop faculty members to become innovation leaders. Trainings include Kellogg’s experience-based course for those interested in developing commercial opportunities and INVOForward, a series of mentorship programs geared toward supporting Northwestern faculty.  

“Northwestern’s momentum as a community of big thinkers and challengers of the status quo continues propelling the University’s translational and entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Löffler says. “Whether through groundbreaking discoveries, repurposing old technologies or increasing efficiencies, innovators embrace a collective mission to stir change and unlock solutions that improve society and impact lives.” 

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