Entrepreneurship Fund helps Penn State community spur innovation

Emily Chambers
October 19, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – In an ever-changing world, no one knows the importance of innovation better than engineering faculty and students. However, sometimes a student or faculty member has an idea but not the monetary means to get it off the ground.

This was the reason for the creation of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund within Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME). Also known as the E-Ship Fund, the initiative is a way for Penn State engineering students and faculty to apply for seed grants.

“This program was created to spur innovation,” said Timothy Simpson, professor of industrial and mechanical engineering. “People use it to test ideas, develop prototypes and demonstrate proof of concept. With this money they can chase bigger funding opportunities.”

Simpson, the administrator of the fund, was one of its founders in early 2014. Along with then-IME Department Head Paul Griffin and then-Senior Director of Development for College of Engineering Mark Sharer, Simpson proposed the idea for the E-Ship Fund to IME alumni.

“We pitched it in the summer of 2013,” Simpson said. “Our alumni picked up on the project pretty quickly, and by the beginning of 2014 we had two alumni pledge $50,000 each for five years.”

Since the fund’s inception, Simpson estimates seven faculty members, six graduate students, three undergraduate students, two postdocs and five capstone projects have been awarded money. Awards have ranged from $500 to $25,000, with the average amount being $10,000.

“There is no easy way for people to get early funding to test their ideas,” Simpson said. “The E-Ship Fund offers a low-barrier to entry. It generates excitement and interest in the Penn State community and yields some great returns.”

Hui Yang, Harold and Inge Marcus associate professor of industrial engineering, received a $10,000 award from the E-Ship Fund in May to jumpstart his research to improve healthcare delivery for heart surgery patients. By early September, Yang had been awarded $299,954 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue his research.

“The money from the E-Ship Fund helped us develop our prototype and made our proposal to the NSF stronger,” Yang said. “Without the E-Ship Fund, there wouldn’t have been a prototype at all.”

Seed funding was provided by the E-Ship Fund to another IME faculty member, Michael Immel, to explore if photogrammy can be used in small-scale manufacturing.

Normally fund recipients are sought out by Simpson after he hears about them through the College of Engineering network. However, students and faculty can also seek him out. People applying for an award submit a funding proposal that Simpson reviews. Proposals are not limited to faculty research.

A group of industrial engineering students were awarded a grant from the fund to help in the development of an app called QuickPredict which was designed to help people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes to monitor and manage their condition without the help of a doctor. QuickPredict won first place honors at the 2016 Institue of Industrial and Systems Engineers Annual Conference & Expo.

Two years ago, the Penn State chapter of the National Organization for Business and Engineering (NOBE) received money from the E-Ship Fund to send the student group to the NOBE national conference. The next year, 2016, the Penn State chapter hosted the same conference.

“It is great to see the fund bring everything full circle,” Simpson said. “Like NOBE and Vortic watches.”

Vortic Watch Company was founded by R.T. Custer, a 2014 industrial engineering alumnus. The company recycles the time pieces from antique watches and uses 3D printing to make the cases. Custer is now going back to his roots, with a partnership between industrial engineering faculty member, Ed DeMeter and a current graduate student. With money from the E-Ship Fund, the two have 3-D-printed titanium watch cases for Vortic and are studying measurement and post-processing in manufacturing of the watches.

“It is exciting to see the passion people bring to this,” Simpson said. “It isn’t for everyone, but for those who can do it or see an opportunity, it is really neat to work with them.”

During the first year, the fund was only available to members of the Penn State IME. With Penn State President Eric Barron’s entrepreneurship initiatives and growing university interest in the E-Ship Fund, it has now expanded to include the entire College of Engineering. However, Simpson hopes to see the fund expand to other departments at Penn State.

  • Timothy Simpson

    Timothy Simpson, professor of industrial and mechanical engineering, is the administrator of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund within the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.

    IMAGE: Paul Hazi

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Last Updated October 20, 2016