How to develop cutting-edge technologies faster

When DuPont introduced Nylon in the 1940s, its creators had no idea that the material would be a critical component in today’s automobile engines. It took just as long for the world’s third-largest chemical company to develop a new kind of Nylon specifically for the auto industry.

This story isn’t unique. Many of today’s technologies—from our ubiquitous handhelds to the most advanced military equipment—were made possible by materials that took decades to develop. In fact, the average time to market for a novel material is 18 years.

In 2011, the Obama administration announced a multi-agency initiative to combat that stagnancy, fuel advanced manufacturing, and strengthen the U.S. economy. The Materials Genome Initiative, it said, would “help business discover, develop, and deploy new materials twice as fast” and at a fraction of the cost. Two years after its announcement, the MGI is honing in on the best strategy through which to realize its goal.

At the Materials Genome Initiative New England Regional Workshop hosted by Northeastern on Tuesday, many speculated the need for the course adjustment arises from the expansive nature of the effort.

“It is a highly unbounded problem,” said David Luzzi, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and executive director of the university’s Strategic Security Initiative. “There needs to be some bounding and strategizing as to the approach that is right for this time, with this level of capability, with this knowledge.”

Hosted by Northeastern in conjunction with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the workshop convened a group of academic, industrial, and governmental stakeholders from around New England and beyond with the goal of identifying how to expand MGI’s potential.

The workshop was the first of a series that will take place through spring 2014 at five higher education institutions around the country. At this kick-off event, participants were tasked with identifying the major research opportunities and grand challenges for MGI, as well as how academia, industry, and government can partner to tackle them.

Consensus among the group led to several requirements to make MGI successful. Among them were organizing cross-sector consortia around customer-driven needs;  designing open engagement platforms that allow competing institutions to collaborate while still protecting intellectual property; and supporting computational research, a critical component in modeling novel materials in a high throughput fashion.

As part of Northeastern’s ongoing engagement with the White House, Murray Gibson, dean of the College of Science, and other university officials met last year with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to discuss opportunities for reinvigorating the MGI. That conversation gave way to Tuesday’s meeting and catalyzed the start of the regional workshop series.