New fund will contribute to Penn State entrepreneurs

bmilazzo@centredaily.comApril 5, 2014 

Penn State entrepreneurs soon might find startup capital in their own backyard.

The Penn State Fund for Innovation would contribute about $1 million annually to jump-start businesses.

The Penn State Research Foundation came up with the plan for early investment in innovative research that could help boost the local economy.

The goal is to launch the program by the fall, said Neil Sharkey, interim vice president for research.

Calling it a “multistep approach,” Sharkey said the program would be extremely competitive, and the foundation would work with the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County on the community end of things.

“We can only do so much, but the community can help provide the environment to flourish,” Sharkey said.

Sharkey occasionally meets with the CBICC board regarding new ideas and initiatives, he said.

The CBICC said it is encouraged by the growing dialogue in the community about the importance of fostering entrepreneurship and keeping knowledge and talent local in order to strengthen the private sector.

“This is a very welcome announcement,” said chamber spokeswoman Lesley Kistner. “It signals a commitment to helping to turn world-class research and development taking place at the university into viable business ventures — companies that get their start here and hopefully grow and prosper here.”

The CBICC operates its own business incubator at the Centre County Business and Technology Center, which is almost at full capacity, Kistner said. Along with other organizations, the chamber also provides financial assistance to the Ben Franklin TechCelerator@State College.

The foundation would determine new ideas worth pursuing and provide funds for “proof of concept” work that would develop the idea into a potentially viable commercial product. A marketability assessment would be done, and if the product appears promising, an initial capital investment would be made to help establish a startup company, Sharkey said.

The idea began last summer between Sharkey and Nicholas Jones, executive vice president and provost.

Sharkey said the two were working on a fund that would provide competitive resources for bright ideas. The money would help bring companies to a point to help kick-start it. Funding would help those ideas that have “real potential,” Sharkey said.

“We do all of these things already, but how can we do it better?” Sharkey said. “It’s an innovation and enhancement fund. That’s the bottom line.”

The focus is on Pennsylvania industry and to enhance Centre County, possibly by helping create more manufacturing, Sharkey said.

“This is all tied to innovation,” Sharkey said. “We do not want to lose our edge in innovation. We’re really at the very early stages of a new boom in manufacturing … and Penn State needs to position itself and take advantage.”

Because it’s a nonprofit organization, the group cannot make money, but rather distribute it appropriately, Sharkey said. Some of the money would come from research-licensing fees that the organization charges when developing a new idea, or other royalties.

This plan, Sharkey said, would be long-term investment, but he couldn’t specify a time line and declined to comment when asked if there were any startup companies already in mind.

“It’s about enhancing small to medium (-sized) businesses, and all aimed at increasing economic development,” Sharkey said. “We feel that is part of our mission.”

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