Entrepreneurial Cross-Training – More Questions than Answers

Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Faculty & Staff, Research, Students | 2 comments

by Dr. Tim Simpson

So what does it really take to get a good idea to market? How much of that can I do as a faculty member and how do I avoid conflicts of interest with my research and my students? How should I be advising my graduate students to take their ideas forward and what should I be teaching undergraduates interested in design innovation?

These are the sorts of questions that I’m investigating by immersing myself in our local entrepreneurial ecosystem during my sabbatical. I’m hoping that this “entrepreneurial cross-training” will provide insight not only into the problems that we encounter (as faculty and as students) in bringing ideas to market but also into the “innovation assets” that are available to help at Penn State and in our local ecosystem.

What I have seen thus far is both exciting and overwhelming. It is exciting because there is considerably more going on now than there was five years ago, let alone last year. At the same time, it is overwhelming because there is so much going on across departments and colleges. While small pockets of activities may be coordinated, there is little to no coordination of these entrepreneurial activities across the university, which is both good and bad. Good because we need to explore many different models for innovation and tech transfer in order to learn what works best within our institutional culture. It’s bad when efforts are duplicated and resources are wasted, or we miss synergies between those with the passion and energy to get things done and those trying to effect change. Like any other large organization that struggles with getting everyone on the same page, we need to find new ways to communicate effectively about something that was on few people’s radar screens last year.

So while I don’t have all the answers, and I never will, I at least know the questions to ask. This is where learning starts—when you realize that you don’t know something, and you can start to ask questions and find the right people to answer them. To share where I am at in my learning, here are the questions you should be asking yourself:

Undergraduate Students

Graduate Students


Finding the solutions is the tough part. It requires work and lots of networking, and then more networking, and more networking, which is what I’m spending most of my time doing on sabbatical. I’m co-working in New Leaf, helping organize events for co.space, advising the development of networking website for State College, HappyValleyStartUps, helping a former graduate student launch and grow DecisionVis, participating in TechCelerator and “triage sessions” to see how Ben Franklin and SBDC work with faculty, sitting in on Cool Blue Mentoring meetings to see how MIT’s Venture Mentoring Services gets adapted to our ecosystem, and attending SCORE workshops to meet others in the community, shadowing local entrepreneurs and start-ups to hear their stories, talking to students about commercializing their ideas, co-developing a product based on what I’ve learned, and figuring out what and how to bring all this back into Penn State to benefit our faculty, students, and tech transfer opportunities because we are lagging behind many other universities.

Why are we behind? It’s not for lack of trying mind you. We have a phenomenal entrepreneurial ecosystem emerging here, and everyone is doing the best they can with the time they have. If this interests you, then get involved and share your ideas and input on ways to improve our ecosystem and help answer the questions you have about getting your ideas to market.

Tim Simpson is a professor in both mechanical engineering and industrial engineering. He holds affiliate appointments in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) and the College of Information Sciences & Technology. From 2007-2012, he served as director of the Learning Factory, and now he serves as co-Director of the Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D), a DARPA-funded Manufacturing Demonstration Facility for Additive Manufacturing. This is his second sabbatical. 



  1. Tim, great list of questions. While there is definitely an increase in e-ship classes and opportunities for undergraduates, I’m particularly interested in how we can facilitate more cross-College, cross-discipline entrepreneurial teams. I guess this speaks to your finding that there are small pockets of activity and no real University wide effort other than the ENTI minor.

    I’d be interested in your and others’ ideas about how we might do more cross-College activities. I was really blown away by how well the students worked together and the quality of the pitches as part of the mHealth Challenge held this fall between IST and BBH (BioBehavioral Health).

    Exposing IST students to a different domain where mobile apps can actually change behaviors and address societal health issues was eye opening for many of them, not to mention having to interact with other students who speak a different language. We’re planning to do more of these competitions, but I’m interested in other types of cross-discipline activities that people think we should be doing.

  2. Tim,

    Thank you for spending your sabbatical on such a critical issue! In the last month, I have hosted visitors from different state agencies that have noted that State College and Penn State seem to be on the brink of something. Not quite at the tipping point, mind you, but close.

    I have often thought about whether it would be worthwhile for Penn State to have an office/Center to *at least keep track of* entrepreneurship services and activities around campus and market our coordinate efforts to prospective students (and faculty). That may be worth further exploring if we get VP and Dean support.

    I sponsored a Learning Factory team last semester on a design project. As a small part of the project, they surveyed English 202 students about entrepreneurship. Of the students surveyed, 8% had already owned or currently owned a business. (n=236) Interesting…

    Thanks again for your insights and leadership.

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