Innovation Fund moving good ideas forward

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In April 2014 the Penn State Research Foundation created The Fund for Innovation to promote commercialization of promising new ideas and discoveries generated by Penn State's $800 million research enterprise. The primary goal is to create new companies and new jobs, and by doing so to increase the already sizable positive impact that Penn State has on the economy of Pennsylvania.

Funding is provided in three stages, aimed at advancing the transition of an idea or discovery to a marketable product. In the first stage individual colleges solicit and select proposals from their faculty aimed at commercial development of findings resulting from fundamental research. For those projects selected, the Fund for Innovation adds $1 for every $2 of college support.

The first round of awards were made in July 2014, to projects selected and put forward by the Eberly College of Science and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Last month, a second round of awards went to ideas emerging from the Colleges of Medicine, Information Sciences and Technology, and Engineering. Total investment in the program has now topped $1 million.

Peter Linder, Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the Office of the Vice President for Research, who oversees the operations of the Fund, recently offered a progress update.

How are things coming along?

Very well. Most of the first set of projects have passed their four-month review, which is an important part of the initial, proof-of-concept, phase.

At the four-month point they review their progress with me and with the research deans from their respective colleges. They have to submit a product data sheet that describes what they are proposing.

Doing this forces them to focus on practicalities. These researchers are not exactly in the wilderness as far as product development, but they tend to think about commercialization in too much detail. They want to list all the possible applications that could come out of an idea, for example. We ask them to focus on one idea. Where should you concentrate the effort now?

These data sheets have been given to our M.B.A. teams from the Smeal College of Business for evaluation, and will be returned with recommendations to help the researchers fine-tune what they're doing.

What are some of the ideas that have been funded?

Examples include a microorganism that converts methane gas into methanol, a rapid visual detection method for pathogenic bacteria, a low-cost device to harvest fruit from fruit trees, a new type of biopesticide to control flies, and a secure over-the-air parental control system for smart devices.

What happens next?

Some of the first projects have already entered stage two, the proof-of-relevance stage. Here's where our Smeal M.B.A.s work with the researchers for a 60-day period to examine the marketplace and an idea's potential for success relative to existing competition. Volunteer alumni from the respective colleges are assisting with this evaluation, providing additional advice and counsel.

And after that?

Stage three occurs if and when proof-of-concept and proof-of-relevance are established, at which point the fund will provide $50,000 to $100,000 to "jump-start" formation of a new company to commercialize the idea.

At that point there are still some important issues that have to be resolved in order to start a company. One big question is: Who is going to run it? Some researchers will want to take advantage of the TechCelerator Incubator Program at Innovation Park and run the company themselves. Others will have to look for qualified candidates.

[Vice President for Research] Neil Sharkey has put together a working group tasked with finding and building up a strong pool of such candidates, people well-qualified to be CEOs of these start-up ventures. That's another part of building an entrepreneurial culture.

When can we expect to see the first companies emerge from the process?

It will probably be late autumn of this year before we'll have any start-up companies up and running. There's a lot to do. We may get 8 to 10 start-ups out of this original group of 18 ideas.

It takes a while to get going, and it will take even longer to produce the number of companies we'd like to see. But I'm very encouraged. We already have an agreement to do it again next year, and I'm now meeting with some of the colleges that didn't get involved in the first go round, as well as some of the Commonwealth campuses. The research deans are all fully on-board. It's an exciting time.

For more information on the Fund for Innovation, faculty/researchers should contact their College Research Dean. 

Last Updated February 19, 2015