Penn State

‘A blank canvas’: Penn State research aims to spur economic development

Penn State research, through government and industry partnerships, aims to fuel economic advancements through initiatives such as EdTech Network Happy Valley LaunchBox.
Penn State research, through government and industry partnerships, aims to fuel economic advancements through initiatives such as EdTech Network Happy Valley LaunchBox. CDT graphic

Editor’s note: This story on how artificial intelligence is about to change the educational experience at Penn State is the third installment in a four-part series running Sunday through Wednesday.

Here, at one of the largest research universities in the world, the educational experience is about to mirror our online life, an endless RSS feed of the organic-made digital. Daren Coudriet, the Penn State EdTech Network’s entrepreneur-in-residence, envisions it for the user’s entire academic lifespan — and beyond.

In surveying the landscape of AI, the EdTech Network, for instance, is looking at IPsoft, an intelligent systems outfit that has developed a digital assistant named Amelia. The anthropomorphizing goes a step further: Amelia, the company says, “emulates human intelligence,” possessing the cognitive scaffolding to make decisions based on requests. And like a person, she learns with the user.

“I think Amelia can not only go with them through their whole experience from high school through college, but I think it can become that person’s assistant for lifelong learning,” Coudriet said in December. “That’s my vision is to have that life-learning student assistant. Imagine what we could do if we could pull that off.”

Backing those visions is a lot of muscle, something Neil Sharkey knows well. A prolific researcher in orthopedic medicine and biomechanics, Penn State’s vice president for research is feeling under the weather on a chilly morning, about a week before the Immersion Day Kickoff. But that changes quickly when he breaks into his office’s vision for the next few years.

Enthusiasm blankets any illness.

“I’m drinking that Kool-Aid,” he said, smiling. “In the 21st century, that should be part of a land-grant institution’s mission, to do things to enhance the development of the country, and that includes economic advancement.”

Powering that push, he said, has been a mix of funding from the state, the federal government and industry. Traditionally, states have funneled more assistance to their institutions, but with the Great Recession, state spending declined sharply.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, from 1987 to 2012, states spent 65 percent more on average than the federal government on higher education. But the economic downturn leveled off or decreased state spending, Sharkey said.

“Then President Obama stimulated the American Recovery (and Reinvestment) Act, and that really gave research institutions like Penn State a big boost because there were a lot of federal dollars that were directed out through the basic science agencies,” Sharkey said. “So the Research I institutions like ours became even more dependent on federal awards, while at the same time industry was really hurting and had no dollars to put toward R-and-D.

“But that has since reversed,” he continued. “Federal funding is flat, it’s actually going down, but industry investment is on a pretty steep trajectory up. So particularly in the last four or five years we’re seeing an increased investment from the private sector.”

For 2016-2017, Penn State’s state appropriations total $315.7 million, according to the board of trustees’ proposed operating budget.

Research expenditures for the 2016 fiscal year, meanwhile, totaled $836 million, with federal support constituting $530 million — the largest source of support for the university. According to the university’s annual report of research activity, $83.1 million in research was sponsored by industry or private foundations in 2016.

The university also partners with more than 400 companies annually. Sharkey sees that number increasing, despite the uncertainty that comes with the new administration.

“We don’t have a good sense of what the president is going to do just in terms of basic science agency funding,” he said. “We have to wait and trust our judgment. We have a broad portfolio, and we have expertise in everything, so we’re well protected.”

At the university, the current administration has seen impressive growth in the innovation industry since President Eric Barron took office in 2014. The Invent Penn State initiative has spurred the school’s inaugural Venture and IP Conference, the creation of the Happy Valley LaunchBox, a State College business accelerator, and hundreds of startups built by a mix of students, professors and community members.

“In those regards, we’re a startup company ourselves, so culturally we’re trying to do the same things we’re encouraging the LaunchBox teams to do,” said James Delattre, the director of entrepreneurship and commercialization and one of the masterminds behind the LaunchBox and the Venture and IP Conference. “And that is evaluate where you are, get out and talk to potential customers and make sure you’re creating value and keep iterating.”

In July, Penn State welcomed Morgan Advanced Materials, a leader in carbon research, to its Innovation Park, announcing its deal to establish a 30,000-square-foot research-and-design center for the U.K. company.

Jeff Fortin, the director of industrial partnerships, spearheaded the effort to bring Morgan to Penn State. A former engineering director at General Electric, Fortin holds more than 25 patents on things as everyday as a dishwasher cycle to those as esoteric as how to deliver fuel using microvalves to a jet engine.

Yes, it is rocket science. But the business part, he says, is simple collaboration.

“What we’re trying to do here is build and ecosystem that supports itself,” he said. “We have a good complement of skill sets. Neil (Sharkey) has got a good business acumen. And then James (Delattre) is great because he lived here in State College and built a startup here. And then I come from outside of State College, but was experienced in large corporations, particularly in product development and bringing products to market.”

Originally, for instance, Morgan was looking to set up shop in Ohio, closer to one of its existing facilities. But on St. Patrick’s Day last year, luck favored the bold. After an initial visit, the deal was announced just months later.

Then in August, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked State College as one of the 15 best cities for entrepreneurs.

For all three men, the results have surprised even them.

The LaunchBox, for instance, recently graduated its third class, and its startups have had more than 90 interns. The latter is something Delattre said he hadn’t envisioned going into the project.

“It beat every expectation I had,” he said. “My job really was to create this blank canvas for a bunch of smart people and then get out of the way.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy