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Eric Toone to Lead Innovation and Entrepreneurship Efforts

Toone, a Duke chemist, educator and entrepreneur, helped build and then lead the U.S. Department of Energy's research incubator for the past two years

Eric Toone, Duke University chemist

Eric Toone, a Duke University chemist, educator and entrepreneur who helped build and then lead the U.S. Department of Energy's research incubator for the past two years, will be the new leader of the university's Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, President Richard H. Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange announced Wednesday.

Toone has been on leave from Duke since May 2009 to serve as the principal deputy director of the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which promotes and funds development of advanced energy technologies. 

"Innovation and entrepreneurship have become major priorities for Duke because they connect to the heart of education -- using the creative powers of mind to invent a better world," said Brodhead. "Our university-wide initiatives have gained speed in recent years, and with a leader as experienced and dynamic as Eric Toone, they will continue to thrive." 

Toone succeeds Kimberly Jenkins, who launched the initiative two years ago before stepping down this summer. Since then, Robert Calderbank, the dean of Natural Sciences, has served as interim director.

"This initiative, focused on both innovation and entrepreneurship, is a means to increase the relevance of the university and increase its impact on society," Toone said. "It is a commitment to taking action by translating knowledge in ways that create value for society.  While we will work with researchers across the entire campus, social entrepreneurship will play a special and very important role in everything we do."

Toone said he plans to build the initiative around four foundational axes: education, research, translation and social entrepreneurship. He envisions educational offerings and research that address all levels of the philosophical and practical aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship. The initiative, he said, will develop a suite of tools that will help researchers across campus translate fundamental discoveries in science and engineering into products that will transform marketplaces. 

"My sense is very much that each and every component of the university can and should be involved in innovation and entrepreneurship," Toone said. "Each of Duke's schools has a role to play, whether it is in providing ideas about how innovation, entrepreneurship and translation work in a practical sense, in providing the inputs of technology that can and should be translated or in providing the educational opportunities for students, faculty and staff. There is a role for everyone here." 

Toone brings extensive start-up expertise to his new role, having been part of the team that built the ARPA-E agency from the ground up. 

"In many ways my time at ARPA-E was the perfect preparation for engagement with the I&E initiative at Duke," he said. Nearly 40 percent of ARPA-E funding went to university researchers, and Toone said the agency focuses on cultivating technologies at a stage of development between what universities produce and where the earliest private sector would be willing to invest. Part of his job was to guide researchers through the process of making technology market-ready. 

"Early-stage tech transfer is not about discovery anymore, it is about making those discoveries ready for market impact. I spent four years learning how Washington works -- who funds what, who is responsible for what, how agencies work and how Congress works," he said. "This knowledge is important because the federal government is still the primary supporter of early stage translation -- not venture capitalists. VC support typically comes later on in the process." 

Understanding where opportunities lie and how to access them will be critical to the success of this effort, Toone said. Coordination with state and local agencies interested in economic development will enable many activities, he said. Partnerships with industry will be vital to ensure that the activities of the university are aligned with the needs of the marketplace and that researchers have a clear understanding of marketplace opportunities and challenges, he added. 

He also noted the tremendous opportunity presented by the $15 million philanthropic gift for the initiative from university trustee David Rubenstein, announced earlier this year. "David's gift puts Duke into a new learning curve, a fundamentally new path where the translation of knowledge is as valued as the creation of knowledge," Toone said."That resource makes it possible for us to assemble an entire suite of capabilities and people to advance our efforts."

Duke's expertise and leadership in social entrepreneurship was recently reinforced through a $10 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to launch the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke, which will support global health needs in low and middle-income countries.

Toone also draws on personal experiences as the scientific founder of two medical startup companies. Aerie Pharmaceuticals is a research-based ophthalmology company developing chemical compounds used in glaucoma therapeutics. The other startup, Vindica Pharmaceuticals, was a nitric oxide delivery company that folded, something that Toone calls a valuable learning experience. 

"Eric brings a wealth of experience, energy and aspirations to the I&E initiative," said Lange. "The breadth of vision, with its combination of educational, research and translational ambitions and commitments to both commercial and social entrepreneurship, assure a good match both with the university's mission and the passions and interests of our faculty and students."

The opportunity to return to Duke to lead the initiative is something Toone calls irresistible. Duke, Durham and the Research Triangle are already magnets for the kind of early-stage research and development that can be an engine for economic growth in the region and state, he said. 

Toone is a professor of chemistry in Duke's Trinity College of Arts of Sciences, with a secondary appointment in Duke's School of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry.