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Friday, Oct. 17, 2014

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Maeder fund to promote innovation in energy and environment research

As a venture capitalist, Paul Maeder recognizes that investing in new ideas can enable tremendous progress in the business arena. Now he's seeking to spur similar transformations in academia -- he and his wife, venture capitalist Gwill York, have given $1 million to establish the Paul A. Maeder '75 Fund for Innovation in Energy and the Environment at Princeton.

The endowment will be used at the discretion of the dean of engineering to provide seed funding to faculty members engaging in risk-taking research that would not typically be supported by government grants and the conventional peer review process.

"The peer review process, although necessary, is not a recipe for dramatic innovation," Maeder said. "This gift is not formulaic; it's not part of the whole standard grant-making process. It appeals to me that the dean can identify interesting areas and decide what to fund and what to invest in. As a venture capitalist, I believe in small organizations, individual responsibility and individual initiative."

Scientists and engineers must find innovative ways to satisfy the world's energy needs while protecting the environment, said H. Vincent Poor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "I am deeply grateful for this gift -- for the good it will do and the vote of confidence it represents. Paul and Gwill care about research and its potential to improve lives. They know what it takes to help good ideas flourish."

Maeder's interest in energy was piqued during his years as a Princeton undergraduate by mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Robert Socolow, a renowned energy expert who was teaching a class on complex variables at the time.

"As much as he talked about complex variables, he could never stop talking about energy issues," Maeder recalled. "He absolutely transformed my thinking, and I haven't forgotten it for the last 30 years. Now being about to come full circle and contribute in some way to this enterprise was amazing."

Not afraid of unconventional paths, Maeder's first move after earning his Princeton degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1975 was to board a sailboat for a year to cruise the waters off South America. Upon his return, he plunked down $400 for an old Volkswagen and drove across the country to earn his master's degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford.

After working as an engineer for two start-ups, he was itching to know more about the business enterprise and headed to Harvard Business School. Just three years after receiving his MBA, Maeder co-founded Highland Capital Partners, where he is a general partner. While he has focused mainly on software, Maeder is increasingly devoting his attention to energy solutions and "clean technology."

A member of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department's advisory committee, he has no doubt that solutions to the energy problem will develop at Princeton.

"Having a great engineering school within the best liberal arts university means we can work on the technological side of the energy issue and explore the public policy side and other viewpoints," he said. "Innovation with the greatest impact often occurs at the intersection of multiple fields. Princeton brings to the table a unique ability to provide these multidisciplinary solutions."

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