Innovation Boulevard

David Pacchioli
June 01, 1994

Cengiz Camci weaves past work stations and experimental set-ups to the heart of the turbomachinery lab, in the basement of Hammond building. He ducks into a snug antechamber, built of framed plastic sheeting over the end of a long corridor of metal casing. Inside, he and a visitor are suddenly staring point-blank into the mouth of an airplane turbine, three feet in diameter. The smooth dark wood of the engine's rim and propeller give it an antique feel. The chamber smells strongly of wintergreen.

Camci, an associate professor of aerospace engineering, is explaining the intricacies of measuring fluid flow.

Earlier, he had drawn from their secure place in a converted Riunite box a variety of tiny metal probes: thin, finely wrought devices that can be deployed inside an engine like this. The probes sense pressure, and transducers convert their readings into electrical signals for computer analysis. The higher the pressure, the greater the velocity of the flow.

circular black equipment shoots two red lazers

Detail of a prototype for a miniature laser anemometer, a fluid-flow measuring device invented at Penn State and marketed by Techkor Instruments, a brand-new company leasing space in the Park's small-business incubator.

"Same principle as sticking your hand out the window of a moving car," Camci's former student Chris McLean had explained over the phone.

But there are occasions when a probe won't cut it. "Sometimes a flow is so sensitive," notes Camci, "that the presence of a probe would disturb it." In other situations, the fluid (in this case air) in flow is too hot or too caustic for an instrument to physically withstand.

When probes won't work, investigators can turn to laser Doppler anemometry. Instead of invading the flow with a mechanical device, LDA measures velocity by harnessing the properties of light.

"What you do," McLean had explained, "is take two laser beams, and cross them. Right where they cross, they interfere with each other." The interference creates alternating patterns of dark and light.

If you set that crossing in a flow field, McLean continued, tiny particles carried by the flow will pass through it, scattering light at very high frequency. A lens then collects the light as oscillation. From this pulse, an investigator can calculate how fast the particles are moving. The yield is a very precise measurement.

As we leave the turbine's presence, Camci points across the room to a standard LDA system. It's as big and unwieldy as a pool table, outfitted with a powerful argon-ion laser that at the moment is wrapped in plastic. "It cost about $200,000," Camci says, "and it is very power hungry." Merely aligning such a system can be a full-time job.

Three years ago the limitations of this behemoth spurred Camci and his then-student McLean to dream of something smaller.

Camci had read of some new LDA devices which substituted tiny solid-state components for the clumsy gas lasers and fragile photomultiplier tubes of the past. He had an idea of what he wanted for the turbomachinery lab, and he was looking for someone who could build it. Enter McLean, a master's student in aerospace engineering with an extensive background in electro-optics and a knack for design.

"He is very good at putting components together," notes Camci. "That's a special skill."

McLean decided to build a miniature LDA system for his master's project. The instrument he came up with after two years of work was a rugged, self-contained, battery-powered unit about the size of a tennis-ball can; its total cost was $10,000.

By the time it was finished, McLean recalls, "we knew other labs would want it." When he and Camci presented the device at engineering meetings in the U.S. and abroad, "people would come up or call us and ask us where they could get one. There was a lot of interest."

Thus encouraged, McLean, with his newly minted master's degree, decided last year to hold off on pursuing the Ph.D. He wanted to take a crack at developing his LDA prototype into a commercial product. With Camci's blessing and the University's (once it had been determined that the new mini-anemometer was not a patentable idea), he founded Techkor Instrumentation.

"Chris McLean is exactly the kind of tenant we're looking for," says Fred Meade.

Meade is director of the Penn State Research Park, a $68 million industrial development project that is currently taking shape on a 130-acre tract two miles east of the University Park campus. He is sitting in his spacious office on the first floor of a sprawling red-brick building at a brand-new address: 200 Innovation Boulevard. It's the park's Technology Center, the first structure completed and open for business.

Outside, behind a high chain-link fence, gangs of construction workers crawl over the half-open shell of what will be the Penn State Scanticon Hotel and Conference Center. Meade, a youngish forty-something in close-cropped beard and loosened tie, does his bustling indoors. He disappears, and comes back with an armload of schematic drawings. Runs out again, and returns with a slide projector. No screen in sight, he clears a place on a coffee table and trains the projector's beam on a bare patch of cream-colored wall, just to the right of a framed first-run movie poster announcing the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night."

As "a strategic resource" for developing stronger ties between the University, industry, and government, he explains, the park will provide "an environment more conducive to entrepreneurship and technology transfer." If all goes as planned, it will, 20 years hence, be home to perhaps a hundred research-oriented businesses.

The backbone of the whole enterprise, Meade is saying, will be start-up ideas like Chris McLean's.

"This is our strong suit," he explains. "We have all this research talent, especially in the faculty. And they already have contacts in industry. The idea is to go with our strengths."

In a larger sense, that's the basis for building a research park in the first place. With the phenomenal growth of the University's research program during the 1980s, a period which saw that program's total budget nearly quadruple to $292 million a year, Penn State emerged as one of the top 10 research universities in the country. In industrially-sponsored research, the University ranks second nationally, trailing only M.I.T.

Given this grounding, notes David Shirley, senior vice president for research, "It seemed appropriate in the late '80s to launch a research park." Particularly at a time when traditional funding sources were dwindling, such a facility, further strengthening Penn State's existing industrial ties and opening the possibility for new ones, seemed a logical step.

For faculty, Shirley explains, the research park would provide "an outlet for their discoveries, another parameter for them to link with industry." For students, new opportunities for research would help boost graduate enrollment. For the local region, the park would be "a real engine of economic growth," eventually bringing some 3,000 to 5,000 high-tech jobs and the spin-offs that come with them. And for the state of Pennsylvania, the park would not only draw desirable industry from neighboring states but reverse what Shirley likes to call "the net export of brainpower:" the loss of young well-educated potential workers who seek opportunities elsewhere.

Not all of this positive impact will be accomplished by small locally spawned companies. The University hopes also to attract a migration of established companies interested in the advantages of the region and the opportunities for collaborating with University researchers. But most of the ventures that fill the park, it is both expected and hoped, will grow in some fashion out of University research. Expected, as Meade explains, because of the rich pool of local talent. Hoped, because of the stability offered by companies with deep roots.

Local start-ups can grow into bigger things, Meade notes. He recounts the tale of David Packard and Bill Hewlett, who started their mega-conglomerate from a shoebox at Stanford. "We only need one Dave and Bill," Meade notes.

Two of the most successful research parks in the country are two of the oldest: Stanford and Research Triangle Park, in North Carolina. "Stanford," says Meade, "started as an industrial park right after World War II. The research came later." The North Carolina park, which is centered between three universities and their respective industrial cities, started in 1956, and grew slowly, especially in the first few years. "It took a while for them to get off the ground."

Meade, who studied urban and economic development at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and serves on the board of directors of the national Association of University Research Parks, readily offers a capsule history of the research-park phenomenon. By 1970, his slides show, there were still only 18 parks across the country. Less than 25 years later there are 140. "Part of this is the high-tech boom and the movement of universities into more applied research areas," he says. "And then there were a lot of wannabes," schools trying to duplicate the success of those two famous parks. But there were other reasons for the rapid growth.

"This was a time when universities, especially rural and suburban institutions, found themselves with excess land," Meade explains. "Also, up until the '86 tax-reform bill, S&Ls and banks were loaning like crazy for real estate development." As a result, he says, "a lot of institutions rushed in without a lot of thought or planning." In the late '80s, many of these research parks foundered.

It was in the wake of these failures, in 1991, that Meade received a visit from Gary Schultz, Penn State's associate vice president for finance, in Blacksburg, Virginia. At the time, Meade was director of a successful research park affiliated with Virginia Tech.

"He asked me why research parks weren't doing well," Meade remembers. "I told him what I thought. He asked me if I'd be interested in coming to help start the project at Penn State."

Meade said no. "I was just getting settled. I had no interest in leaving Virginia Tech." He did agree to come for a visit, however, and once he got to University Park he was persuaded to change his mind—first, he says, by the overall strength of the research program, and then by the University's commitment to the development project.

"Clearly," Meade says, "there was a lot of legwork that had gone into this—seven years of analysis, market studies, and master planning. Then there was a strong philosophical commitment," evidenced by the close involvement of top University administrators including president Joab Thomas, who is CEO of the newly formed Research Park Management Corporation, and Shirley, who is the corporation's president. "This kind of top-down involvement is not common."

Finally, Meade adds, it impressed him that Penn State was willing to put its money where its mouth was—to finance and build, up-front, the kind of infrastructure necessary to attract further investment. "It's very hard to attract industry to a green field," Shirley has acknowledged. "The project's first phase will provide an anchor for development."

Slide-show completed, Meade is eager to move on to a walking tour. Pausing to fetch a set of blue-and-white Penn State hard-hats from the coat closet across the hall, he leads the way out and onto the construction site. There, passing briskly through the open-air framework of concrete and drywall, carefully detouring every bent nail and stray bit of electrical cable, he points out future features of the 150-room hotel—the restaurant, with terrace, the oak-paneled bar, the swimming pool—and conference center—meeting rooms from cozy to cavernous, telecommunications hook-ups, common areas. Back outside, he places other soon-to-be amenities: bus stops, day-care center, a tree-lined courtyard. "We've got to see about getting a running trail," he says, looking around for a likely spot.

Across the way, looking finished but as yet unoccupied, sits the third structure in Phase I, a $17 million facility to be administered by the University's recently formed Materials Research Institute. This large square building will house laboratories for materials synthesis, characterization, and fabrication, and bring together materials researchers from numerous disciplines. Its cornerstone will be an electron-beam vapor deposition facility, an advanced materials-coating technology, brought to the U.S. by an agreement between Penn State and scientists in Ukraine, whose many applications range from microelectronics to floor coverings.

"We believe this facility will be a strong magnet for companies interested in developing new materials, or in shopping for new materials to enhance their products," says K. Jack Yost, associate vice president for research and technology transfer.

Beyond the physical infrastructure, the park has already in place a comprehensive technology-transfer system that, according to it director Yost, has few if any rivals among American universities. Alongside Meade's digs, the Technology Center's first floor houses five offices devoted to industry relations and economic development: the Ben Franklin Technology Center, a program of the Pennsylvania Department of Commerce and a source of R&D funds for company-University joint projects; the Pennsylvania Technological Assistance Program (PENNTAP), supported by state and federal sources, which provides free technical advice to small businesses; the University's Industrial Research Office, which acts as a scout and a matchmaker, helping faculty develop relationships with industrial sponsors and vice versa; the Intellectual Property Office, which manages patent, copyright, and licensing chores; and the Sponsored Programs Office, which negotiates all contracts and grants, smoothing the way for University-industry interaction.

Up on the second floor, for good measure, is the small-business incubator, run by the Centre County Industrial Development Corporation, where Chris McLean's Techkor Instrumentation has set up shop.

Having all these facilities under one roof, Meade says, "provides a kind of one-stop shopping that is unique."

What it means, adds Yost, is that "Penn State is ideally positioned to excel in an environment in which conveying the results of research to industry has become a national priority."

In person, in the spanking-new conference room of the Centre County incubator, Chris McLean looks much younger than his phone voice, a resonant bass. Dressed casually in crew-neck sweater and jeans, he looks much closer to his actual age: 25.

McLean found the incubator while casting around for help in getting his new business off the ground. He had sold a prototype of his laser Doppler anemometer system to a European firm, a leader in the LDA field, and had also built a second, larger, flow-velocity detector suitable for less-demanding uses. ("Sort of a rich man's and poor man's approach," he jokes.) He was hustling for any available resources.

The incubator offered commercial space at below-market prices. And services, shared with the five other fledgling companies currently occupying the second floor of the Technology Center: a secretary, office equipment, and help with the nitty-gritty of billing and other essentials. "All the stuff a small start-up can't afford to do," McLean says.

One of the not-so-intangibles this new location would provide, McLean decided, was legitimacy. "Just having access to a professional-looking environment," he says, motioning to the bright walls around him. "That was very important." In October, McLean moved his operation from his apartment to Innovation Boulevard.

Since then he's been working on fine-tuning his designs and building prototypes. He orders the laser and optics components from specialty suppliers, and contracts local machine shops to create the necessary housings. McLean himself does the painstaking work of assembly.

He continues to work with Camci. "We will do testing and evaluation in the turbo-machinery lab," McLean says. In return, Techkor will provide the lab with an LDA system.

"I think things should always go this way," Camci says of the metamorphosis from research project to commercial venture. "More of our work should translate into something technologically useful."

By late December, McLean was in the middle of negotiating a manufacturing agreement with his European customer. If it goes through, Techkor will produce the LDA systems for the larger company. "The other option," says McLean, "is they purchase the technology itself. Then we would get royalties on sales."

In the first quarter of '94, he planned to release his two products to market, one way or the other. That would mean advertising and marketing; McLean has hired Sherry Bowman, a friend who is completing a Ph.D. in management science at Penn State, to handle business operations.

After things get rolling, he has plans to expand the company's product line. "I have three or four other devices in mind." Techkor is also offering consulting services. In four more years, when his company is ready to "graduate" from the Incubator, and is looking for room to spread out, McLean knows, there will be space available just down the Boulevard.

"Our products and services are geared toward university labs," he says. "Being close to one of the largest research universities in the country makes it a lot easier to get feedback. It provides a very good test-market base, and a customer.

"Moving into the park would be a natural progression."

Fred R. Meade is director of the Penn State Research Park, 101 Technology Center Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-5925. David A. Shirley, Ph.D., is senior vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, and president of the Research Park Management Corporation. K. Jack Yost, Ph.D., is associate vice president for research and technology transfer.

Chris McLean received an M.S. in aerospace engineering in May 1993; McLean is engineering director of Techkor Instrumentation, 200 Innovation Boulevard, Suite 224, State College, PA 16803.

Cengiz Camci, Ph.D., is associate professor of aerospace engineering, 153E Hammond Building, University Park; 865-9871.

Last Updated June 01, 1994