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Raja Krishnamoorthi speaking on election night

Raja Krishnamoorthi (D–IL)

Associated Press

Special series on the new Congress: Meet entrepreneur, lawyer, and engineer Raja Krishnamoorthi

Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress in last month’s election. But that doesn’t mean the 115th Congress that convenes on 3 January is identical to its predecessor.

Fifty-six new members of the House of Representatives will take their seats (42 Republicans and 14 Democrats) along with four new Senators (three Democrats and one Republican). Although none has a science Ph.D., a few have significant ties to the research community.

This week, ScienceInsider is profiling three new members of the House with research connections, and one friend of science who is leaving.

Tuesday: Representative Jodey Arrington (R–TX), who directed commercial activity at a major university, expanding its research capacity

Today: Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D–IL), who ran a university startup begun by an academic with an entrepreneurial bent

Thursday: Representative Ro Khanna (D–CA), who defeated fellow Democratic Representative Mike Honda in the race to represent a district in the heart of Silicon Valley

Friday: Honda discusses what he learned in his 16 years in Congress.

Krishnamoorthi used engineering, law degrees to run university spinoff  

A political fundraiser may be an odd place to find someone to run a company that helps commercialize university research. But after meeting an aspiring Illinois politician named Raja Krishnamoorthi at a 2010 event for U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D–IL), physicist Siva Sivananthan knew he had found the right person to be president of Sivananthan Laboratories.

Krishnamoorthi is a Harvard University–trained lawyer, not an academic. But he holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton University. He jokes that his father, a professor of industrial engineering at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, strongly suggested that “I could study anything I wanted—I could be a mechanical engineer, a civil engineer, an industrial engineer, [or] an electrical engineer.”

That background meant “he knew a little science,” says Sivananthan, a serial entrepreneur who directs the microphysics laboratory at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “I was looking for someone with good leadership skills, who could figure out who we should partner with and make the right decisions without being bogged down by the bias of someone who created the technology.” Both are also Tamil-Americans: Sivananthan was born in Sri Lanka and Krishnamoorthi in India.

Krishnamoorthi was running for state comptroller at the time. But after losing in the Democratic primary—“I took the silver medal,” he likes to say—he accepted Sivananthan’s job offer. He has spent the past 6-plus years tailoring the infrared sensor technology that Sivananthan had pioneered in his lab for a variety of applications, with help from a federal research program that funds such startups. (He was also president of Episolar Inc., another Sivananthan spinoff using the same molecular beam epitaxy technology to grow mercury cadmium telluride crystals that are exquisitely sensitive to infrared radiation.)

But next month the 43-year-old Democrat will start a new job: as a member of the 115th Congress replacing Representative Tammy Duckworth, who defeated incumbent Republican Mark Kirk for a seat in the U.S. Senate. (Krishnamoorthi first ran for Congress in 2012, losing to Duckworth in the Democratic primary.)

At Princeton, Krishnamoorthi focused on engineering, but was also intrigued by government, so he pursued both paths to graduation in 1995. “My family definitely got its money’s worth: I did the full coursework for engineering, and got a certificate in public policy,” he says.

By then Krishnamoorthi had already dipped his toes into the political waters, stuffing envelopes for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign as a college freshman. Soon he was hooked: While in law school he worked on Barack Obama’s failed attempt to oust Representative Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary, and after joining Kirkland & Ellis’s Chicago office he also served in the unpaid position of issues director in Obama’s successful run for the U.S. Senate. “We did research, wrote speeches, and tried to educate him on the issues,” he says. “He was a very quick study.”

Obama’s victory in 2004 “opened my eyes to the possibility of running myself someday,” he says. “I was always a little skeptical of how voters would react to my name.” Indeed, in his failed 2010 bid for state comptroller, his campaign manager told local media that “we’ll call him Raja—it’s much easier.”

A focus on the economy

This year, Krishnamoorthi’s background and message struck a chord with voters in his suburban Chicago district, home to one of the largest Indian-American communities in the country. “Pocketbook and economic issues is pretty much all I campaigned on,” he says.

His stance on many social issues falls comfortably into the liberal camp: strengthening and improving the Affordable Care Act, supporting a path to citizenship for young immigrants (the so-called DREAM Act), expanding Pell Grants for low-income college students, and starting an infrastructure bank to repair aging facilities and boost local economies. He co-founded InSPIRE, an Illinois nonprofit organization that trains students and veterans in solar technology. And though he rose to partner doing corporate law for Kirkland & Ellis, he left in 2007 to work for the public integrity unit of the attorney general for the state of Illinois.

His work with Sivananthan Labs gave him a front-row seat on understanding the importance of federal investments in research as a driver of the nation’s economic well-being, he says. “The most important thing is to recognize that research is our seed corn. It’s a national security priority,” he says. “It’s not just a way to have enough going on that graduate students can do their Ph.D.s and scientists can publish. We have to do research or we’ll fall behind the rest of the world.”

China’s growing investment in molecular beam epitaxy is a prime example, he says. “And the reason I know is that we keep track of who buys the equipment for doing the research in this area,” he says. “Our vendors have let us know that China is buying lots of these machines, which cost millions of dollars apiece.”

Krishnamoorthi also backs the federal government’s efforts to support research by small firms. His companies have received several grants from the Small Business Innovative Research program, which is funded by a tax on existing research funds at a dozen federal agencies. Many academics have opposed its growth over the years, saying it diverts money from higher quality research proposals. But Krishnamoorthi rejects that argument and strongly defends the program’s value.

“I think some of the criticism is rooted in self-interest,” he asserts. “There are some incumbent players who believe they should get the money. But these are not sweetheart deals by any stretch. Everything is peer reviewed. Also, the small businesses have to do a lot of cost sharing, which I think is how it should be. A lot of these critics have probably never started a small business and don’t know the difficulties of growing one.”

Overall, he’d like to see the federal government invest more in basic research. At the same time, he says that policymakers need to find a way to boost science without adding to the budget deficit. “We need to find a place from which that additional money will come, aside from borrowing. So it may mean cutting some other expenditures, or finding fees or something else to pay for it.”