Entrepreneurial Cross-Training – More Questions than Answers
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:
- Do you know that you own the Intellectual Property (IP) that you develop in your class projects?
- Are you aware of the new university-wide minor in entrepreneurship and innovation?
- Do you know about Innoblue? Lion LaunchPad? Nittany Entrepreneurs?
- Are you aware of the business plan and innovation competitions in Ag, Business, and Engineering? The seed funding available through SparkPlug.net?
- Do you know how to access the open source 3D printing resources at Penn State? The design and prototyping resources available in The Learning Factory?
- Have you talked to any students that have run Kickstarter campaigns?
- Do you know what SBDC is?
- Do you know about New Leaf? co.space? Surge?
- Do you know any local entrepreneurs?
- Do you know that Penn State owns the IP from your research?
- But did you know that you own the IP from your class projects as long as it isn’t tied to your research?
- Have you watched OTM’s new IP Training Module? Do you know what OTM is?
- Do you know how to file an invention disclosure?
- Have you heard of TechCelerator? Do you know what Ben Franklin is?
- Have you ever heard of an NSF iCorps grant? SBIR/STTR grants?
- Do you know any graduate students that have spun-out companies based on their research?
- Do you know any local entrepreneurs that were once graduate students like you?
- Did you know that Penn State owns your IP? Are you aware of Penn State’s new IP policy for industry-funded research?
- Do you know what OTM is? Have you seen OTM’s new Inventor’s Toolkit?
- Have you ever filed an invention disclosure? Do you know how Penn State manages its IP and decisions about patents?
- Have you ever tried to license something developed as part of your research? Do you know Penn State’s royalty return rates? Do you know what PSRF is?
- Do you know the Conflict of Interest policies for faculty start-ups?
- Do you know any faculty that have an NSF iCorps grant? SBIR/STTR grants?
- Have you ever sponsored a Learning Factory project to prototype an idea?
- Have you heard of TechCelerator? Do you know what Ben Franklin is and what they fund?
- Do you know any faculty that have started a company?
- Do you know that you can use your consulting time to work on your start-up?
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.