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A Field Guide to Innovation

A new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program in the college assists students and faculty members in commercializing their ideas.

From Google to Gatorade, from Plexiglas to penicillin, the inventions of university researchers have made our lives easier, safer, and more fun. But is it really the job of faculty and students to create new products? Aren’t university scholars and scientists better suited to ponder and postulate?

According to Gary Thompson, associate dean for research and graduate education in the college, land-grant universities have a mandated objective to translate research into real-world products and solutions.

“By solving problems related to food security and global health, for example, researchers and students in the college have the potential to make a real difference in the world,” he says.

That’s why the college is devoting time, money, and resources to help aspiring student and faculty entrepreneurs develop their ideas into marketable products through its new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program.

The benefits are obvious

Take Nina Jenkins, senior research associate in entomology, for example. Her research on fungus may one day safely control bed bugs. And Sandeep Prabhu, associate professor of immunology and molecular toxicology, and Robert Paulson, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, are investigating a compound in fish oil that has the potential to cure leukemia.

A vital culture of entrepreneurship in the college will help faculty and students in a changing research and job market.

“Federal funding for research is highly competitive,” says Thompson. “The funding rates of the U.S. National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health continue to decline, and with the recent sequestration those agencies may fund even fewer proposals in 2013.”

The college is creating a small grants program to help faculty develop their ideas into commercializable products. In addition, faculty are cultivating alliances with industries that have research needs that match faculty members’ interests. Furthermore, the college is hosting workshops and discussions, such as the Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Forum, which brings successful entrepreneurs to campus to share their learning and to highlight the positive impact of entrepreneurship on society.

For students interested in an entrepreneurial path, the college is creating a range of opportunities: mentoring programs, the food and bio-innovation cluster of courses within the University’s new entrepreneurship and innovation minor, and competitions, such as the Ag Business Springboard, to encourage them to develop their ideas and provide support to get them started.

But the college also recognizes that a culture change is needed to shift the way students and faculty members think about entrepreneurship.

Many faculty are interested in developing their ideas into commercial products. An informal survey found that 40 percent of respondents already had a research project with commercialization potential and 54 percent were interested in learning about how to commercialize their research. Yet many still need to understand the potential of commercialization for their research.

“Our researchers are not trained in business or entrepreneurship; they are trained in science,” says Thompson. “We want them to focus on doing what they do best, but for those who also want to take their research results a step further, we want to be there to help them do it. We also want to educate and empower the next generation of innovators—our students.”

An Idea Comes to Life

It doesn’t look like much—just another piece of farm equipment. Yet the contraption that Greg Roth, Corey Dillon, and Chris Houser created is anything but ordinary. By delivering valuable environmental benefits, the machine has the ability to do for corn and other grain fields what the catalytic converter did for automobiles.

They call it the interseeder.

On June 11, Dillon, a master’s student in agronomy, and Houser, a 2012 agronomy graduate who now works for Penn State Extension as field and forage crop educator, won a $7,500 Tech Celerator award for their invention. The piece of equipment will allow farmers to establish cover crops in between rows of standing corn, thereby capturing unused nutrients, protecting the soil from erosion, providing forage for livestock or wildlife, reducing the need for fertilizer, and improving yields for subsequent grain crops.

“The growing season for corn goes right into September, leaving little time to establish a cover crop after the corn has been harvested,” says Greg Roth, professor of agronomy and co-creator of the interseeder. “The ability to seed a cover crop while also side-dressing the standing corn with fertilizer and spray herbicide is a huge money saver, potentially improving returns by over $100 per acre.”

With help from the college, Greg Roth and his team are pushing forward full steam with their interseeder. The researchers already have built a working model of the machine (a patent is pending), and with help from a RAIN (Research Applications for INnovation) grant from the college, they will develop a marketing plan and business model.

“RAIN grants are one of several initiatives in the college’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program,” says Thompson. “The grant’s purpose is to provide funds to our researchers so they can develop their technologies along with a commercialization gateway plan.”

Next, the team will pursue a plan to manufacture the machine.

“We would like to partner with an existing manufacturer who might be interested in working on the marketing and further development of the concept with us,” says Roth. According to Roth, the college is helping him do just that.

An Entrepreneurial Culture on Ag Hill

“The college has a broad set of capabilities not often apparent to major corporations,” says Daniel Azzara, the Alan R. Warehime Professor of Agribusiness. “Likewise, our investigators don’t always know industry’s needs. We are now working with Aspen Management Group to develop an inventory of the college’s capabilities and a list of potential industry partners who have needs that align with these capabilities. Once this information is available, we will hold forums and invite industry representatives to campus to discuss research capabilities and their interest in working with identified faculty members.” Before coming to Penn State, Azzara was the senior vice president of global research and development at The Hershey Company. While there, he observed companies beginning to look outside their own walls to access innovative solutions to technical problems.

“Penn State and the College of Agricultural Sciences can be a go-to partner for those companies with a more open approach to research and development,” says Azzara. “By understanding industry’s needs and being innovative, the college will be in a better position to attract industry-sponsored research.”

Roth says other aspects of the college’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program also have been major sources of assistance to him.

“The college helped us develop a vision for moving the interseeder into a commercially viable enterprise, helped us review some of the options available to us, helped us develop a preliminary business plan draft, and helped us develop a brochure and website that we can use to share our research and promotional information on the interseeder,” he says. “We have also been invited to functions with other entrepreneurs in the college to share ideas on commercialization of intellectual property. All of these have given us some valuable insights to the process since we are all new to this area.”

“Our ultimate goal in developing all of these initiatives is to create a vibrant entrepreneurial culture in the college,” says Thompson, “for faculty and students.”

Student Entrepreneurs

Life as an entrepreneur is full of risk and stress, particularly for those just starting out. In fact, the chance of succeeding among first-timers is a mere 18 percent, according to researchers at the Harvard Business School. So what’s an aspiring entrepreneur to do? “We know how hard it can be to get started with a business idea. That’s why the college has created a variety of opportunities through its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program to help students learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship and to help them launch their careers when they graduate,” says Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneurship scholar and entrepreneurship coordinator in the college.

Those opportunities include a mentoring program and two competitions: the Ag-60 pitch competition, in which students are given 60 seconds to pitch a business idea, and the Ag Business Springboard competition, in which students pitch a full business plan.

“Students who participate in the competitions learn valuable career-building skills,” says Gagnon, himself a former entrepreneur. “They have to submit a business plan and address issues such as competitive due diligence, marketing, and financial projections. They also have to think on their feet to deal with any problems that arise.”

In addition, says Gagnon, winners of the competitions get help taking their ideas to the next level.

Jon Gumble, a senior majoring in landscape contracting, is one student who is benefiting from the college’s support.

“One summer, working for a landscaping company, I couldn’t help but notice how in attempting to make the environment look pristine, the gas-burning engines we were using were causing so much pollution,” he says. “It really hit me that I wanted to feel better about what I was doing.”

So Gumble and a team of four other students from across Penn State—Dustin Betz, plant biology; Mike Zaengle, architecture; Mike Ghen, computer engineering; and Ken Palamara, energy engineering—created “Green Towers,” a project that aims to convert used shipping containers into aquaponic greenhouse structures that can grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, and fish. The system uses the waste produced by the fish to fertilize the plants, which then provide clean water back to the fish. The goal is to market the structures to high-end restaurants in cities as sources of local, organic produce and fish for their menus.

Penn State Ag. Sciences Students

Team members (left to right) Jon Gumble, Dustin Betz, and Mike Ghen with their prototype “Green Tower.”

The team entered the 2012 Ag Springboard Competition and won the first-place $5,000 prize. Recently, the students used some of their prize money to transport a used shipping container to the Russell Larson Research Center at Rock Springs, where they are beginning to build a full-scale model.

“The next step is to find investors who are willing to support our effort,” says Gumble, noting that they are relying heavily on Gagnon’s advising to help guide their way.

“I try to give students a realistic preview of what life will be like as an entrepreneur,” says Gagnon, who also teaches an advanced agribusiness ventures class to help students take their business ideas to the next level. “A good number of them won’t succeed on their first attempt, but for those who decide to act upon their ideas, it’s the most empowering experience.”

According to Gagnon, even those students who don’t end up as business owners still can be highly successful working for others. “Employers seek the entrepreneurial skill set,” he says. “They want people who can take initiative, who can grow and develop the business.”

Gagnon added that not only do students benefit from the college’s assistance, but the college stands to gain as well.

“We’re going to benefit by having a more successful productive alumni base that is reaching its potential,” says Gagnon. “We hope alumni will come back and share their experiences with students. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a lot of this right away, but I guarantee ten years from now we will see amazing stories come back.”

by Sara LaJeunesse
Photographs by Steve Williams