March 31, 2014

Paul Horn, NYU Sr. Vice Provost for Research, To Lead AIG-NYU Collaborative Research Initiative

Paul M. Horn, NYU Distinguished Scientist in Residence, Senior Vice Provost for Research, and Senior Vice Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Entrepreneurship, Polytechnic School of Engineering, leads University-wide research efforts at NYU, specializing in developing links between faculty, students and industry and promoting a dynamic entrepreneurial environment.

Dr. Horn was instrumental in forming the AIG-NYU Partnership on Innovation for Global Resilience, a five-year, $5.5 million joint collaborative research program co-chaired by Siddhartha Dalal from AIG and Anindya Ghose from NYU. Research proposals from NYU faculty are presently being reviewed by an Advisory Committee, which will select for funding those projects that demonstrate the potential to have a transformational impact on the world at large.

Prior to joining NYU, Dr. Horn was Senior Vice President and Executive Director of Research at the IBM Corporation. Under his leadership, IBM Research produced an unmatched string of technological breakthroughs, including the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue, the world’s first copper chip, and Blue Gene, the world’s fastest supercomputer, credited with bringing computer leadership back to the United States. Also during his tenure at IBM, Dr. Horn initiated the project that developed Watson, the computer that successfully competed on Jeopardy!. Before his tenure at IBM, Dr. Horn was a professor of physics in the Department of Physics in the James Franck Institute and the Physics Department at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Horn is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, an NSF Graduate Fellow and a former Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and in 2005, received the Industrial Research Institute Medal in honor of his contributions to technology leadership. Born in Rochester, NY, Dr. Horn grew up in Syracuse, attended Clarkson College of Technology, and received his doctoral degree from the University of Rochester (’72). 

After flunking retirement, Paul Horn has happily settled into his third career at NYU

Apparently, retirement doesn’t suit Paul Horn. After 28 phenomenally productive years at IBM, preceded by a period of time in academia as a physics professor, it took Dr. Horn “about a year” to flunk the leisure life. As he describes it, “NYU had invited me to come down and have an office and some secretarial support and use it as a base of operations. And that gradually grew into a real job. So now I’m the Senior Vice Provost for Research, responsible for helping build NYU research and some of the entrepreneurship programs. I’ve been doing that now for 4½ years and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I try to find areas that faculty will be excited and interested in, and potentially work together.”

The key to successful research often lies in Pasteur’s Quadrant, which focuses on a mixture of applied and practical

In his role as director of University-wide research, a good piece of Dr. Horn’s efforts center around helping students and faculty get connected to the venture capital community. “We work on things in the early startup phase,” he says. “We train students and help them take ideas to market. It’s fun to do these little things, small ventures, and watch them grow. It’s a mixture of applied and practical.”

When it comes to determining which research ideas have the best chance of success, Dr. Horn is a strong believer in Pasteur’s Quadrant, a term coined by Donald Stokes. “Stokes looked at all of research and development and broke it up into four quadrants,” he explains. “One axis represents the desire for commercial or societal impact. The other axis examines to what degree the research is deep and really fundamental, or is just trying to solve a problem. For very deep research where you are not really aimed at applications, Stokes called that Bohr’s Quadrant, after Niels Bohr. That’s very common for research in many universities.”

The quadrant where commercialization is important but the work is mostly aimed at getting it done is called Edison’s Quadrant. “That’s when you’re trying everything to solve a problem,” Dr. Horn says. “You don’t have to understand it, you just need to get it done, so you try everything. And the quadrant where you are interested in projects for commercial or societal benefit but there are deep underlying issues you are working on, Stokes called Pasteur’s Quadrant.”

That’s the type of research Dr. Horn is fond of encouraging ― deep and fundamental, yet focused on solving a real world problem. “The interesting thing is that if you look at the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and biology, more than half of them in the last 10 years have come out of Pasteur’s Quadrant,” he says. “So many of the great problems in science, technology and math were aimed at solving a real world problem.”

Yet the process of pinpointing what will ultimately turn into something is “very difficult and random,” Dr. Horn states. “There is no simple answer to it. My role is to try to create connections to the marketplace that will stimulate great science. I build partnerships in areas that hopefully great things will come out of. It can be very fundamental work in math and physics and chemistry but it’s aimed at significant impact, not just in academia but also in the world at large.

The goal of the AIG-NYU partnership: to solve problems that will immensely benefit both

As Dr. Horn describes it, the AIG-NYU alliance will focus on defining problems that if solved, would be incredibly important for the company but would also stretch NYU’s thinking in a number of areas of basic science, economics, mathematics and informatics. “Informatics is clearly going to be important to AIG as a company because it can help solve problems,” he says. “So if we can define the right problems that will push our science and our faculty into an interesting direction and that will create value for them, it’s a win-win. That’s what the AIG partnership is really all about: trying to find interesting things that we can get excited about working on together with them.”

The potential is to uncover “really get ideas that we never thought about that could be incredibly important,” he adds. “We have programs in a variety of our departments/Schools that have the potential to have great impact on AIG, everything from law to engineering. I’m hopeful that if we put this interesting collection of people together, we will get some terrific out-of-the-box thoughts.”

Why AIG chose NYU as its inaugural research partner

In the future, AIG may partner with other academic institutions, but Dr. Horn believes there are essential reasons the company took the first step with NYU. “They chose to do it with us because we have some good contacts and they correctly think we have some really smart faculty,” he asserts. “Sid Dalal, who is the co-chair of the project on the AIG side, used to be at RAND, and I worked with him on and off for many years. We also have a number of faculty, including David Mordecai and Vasant Dhar, who are connected to AIG, too.”

AIG recently created a research division with the goal of using analytics to solve problems. “They knew NYU is strong in data science and analytics, so it was natural to start talking and seeing if there was something we could do together,” he explains. “Plus, with Facebook and the IBM Watson group moving here to the Village, the Moore and Sloan foundations picking NYU as one of the three nodes, the new initiative started by Leslie Greengard with the Simons Foundation, Google just a few blocks away, and Microsoft with a research program here…all of these are connected to us one way or the other. I like to think of the buzz in and around NYU a bit like the buzz twenty years ago around Stanford. Silicon Alley is really getting hot.”

 What Paul likes most about research? The a-ha moments.

Fortunately, what Paul Horn enjoys most about research is most probably why he failed at retirement: the joy of curious discovery. “I get a buzz out of listening to something, in any field, and getting a-ha moments,” he explains, “like, ‘Oh, so that’s what they’re thinking,’ and ‘Oh, that could mean this.’ I really enjoy that feeling you get when you see or learn something new. And you get that when you hear someone talk about their research program and you’re able to make a connection between X and Y in what they’re saying with perhaps something else in your background or your experience. That’s a good feeling.”

In terms of the AIG-NYU initiative, we share Paul’s joy of discovery and can’t wait to see what a-ha moments are yet to come.


By ML Ball