Posted: July 12, 2018

Over the past five years, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program in the College of Agricultural Sciences has been transforming the way students and faculty members do research--moving great ideas and solutions from the lab to the market.

With a successful product, and a vision to expand it in the future, Hunter Swisher embraces his new entrepreneurial identity.

With a successful product, and a vision to expand it in the future, Hunter Swisher embraces his new entrepreneurial identity.

"I wasn't intending to be an entrepreneur," says 23-year-old Hunter Swisher, explaining that he actually thought his postgraduation plans would mean going back to school and doing more lab research on morel mushrooms. But that all changed when Swisher, a State College native who graduated from Penn State with a bachelor's degree in plant science in 2016, stumbled upon something special while sitting in class: his professor's unique, but decades-old, technology; specifically, a buffering agent for controlling phosphorus. Swisher, then a sophomore, was so curious about it--and why he had never seen it in the marketplace--that he chose to write about it for his final paper. It was during this research that he learned the old patents had never sold at auction and were, essentially, just sitting at Penn State.

Although the original product was meant to control (and reduce) the runoff of nutrients from farms, the young scientist wondered if it could help turfgrass on golf courses grow longer and stronger roots. If so, the fairways and greens on golf courses would need less water, less fertilizer, and, ultimately, less money to maintain.

Passionate about the product's potential to protect the environment, Swisher, then 20, knew he had something worth pursuing, but he wasn't sure where to go from there. "I had no real experience or interest in business," he says. So he scheduled a meeting with Mark Gagnon, the Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar within the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. The two spent a few hours at the whiteboard, mapping out exactly what the technology did and how to turn it into a product. "In the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program, we help students and faculty members develop an entrepreneurial mindset," says Gagnon. "We provide them with some of the essential business acumen, but we don't develop experts in finance or marketing. Instead, we help them develop a basic understanding so they know they can reach out to someone who is strong in those areas to support their specific endeavors."

Swisher spent the next two years developing his product--called RhizoSorb--with help from Gagnon and others in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. "Hunter was a unique case because he identified a patent that was on the shelf and brought it to commercialization," says Dan Azzara, who has served as the program's director since 2014. (Before that, Azzara spent 25 years at The Hershey Company, where he retired as senior vice president of global research and development.) "Hunter is a great example of someone who was able to use the program's resources and mentors, and obtain money to make his idea successful."

Swisher began by refining his elevator pitch and entering his company--called Phospholutions--into the 2016 Ag Springboard competition, where he ultimately earned a spot as one of the six finalists. The winner was actually another plant science major, Ben Nason, whose business pitch was all-natural blue and white potato chips. Friends with Nason because they had taken many classes together, Swisher says there were no hard feelings. Swisher eventually asked Nason to join the Phospholutions team in January 2017.

After the Springboard competition, Swisher sought assistance from local business incubators like the Ben Franklin TechCelerator, Happy Valley LaunchBox, and the Summer Founders Program. While LaunchBox helped him to further transform his idea into a product and TechCelerator molded his idea into a viable business, it was the 2016 Summer Founders Program that really changed his mindset. "That was the turning point," recalls Swisher. "For someone to hand me $10,000 and say, 'Don't work on anything else this summer, because we think your idea is that good,' well, that was transformational."

His biggest challenges along the way were typical for new startups: not a lot of capital and not a lot of manpower. He also had to break into an industry--turf management--that's been around for a while. To do so, he strategically partnered with the Penn State Golf Courses to test RhizoSorb on several plots. The testing was so successful that some roots were observed to have doubled in length just three months after application. "You have your doubts. You wonder, 'Is my product going to perform?'" says Swisher. "But every milestone gets you one step closer. And my confidence grew as the company grew." The young entrepreneur also networked with the graduates of Penn State's turf management program, asking them to try RhizoSorb on their golf courses; fifteen superintendents around the country agreed to do so. By May of his senior year, Swisher was exclusively licensing the patents from Penn State, and by summer, he was celebrating his first sale.

Get Busy Growing

It's safe to say that there's never been a better time for research and creation at Penn State, thanks in large part to President Eric Barron's Invent Penn State initiative that launched in 2015. Azzara describes the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program in the college as a moving part, or a module, that fits within the larger University-wide initiative of Invent Penn State: "We function at the beginning of the pipeline and Invent Penn State picks up the idea at a point where it has a viable opportunity to be commercialized." Throughout that process, the University's Offices of Technology Management, Industrial Partnerships, and Entrepreneurship and Commercialism are all integral in identifying the needs of startups and working to solve those needs, whether it's navigating contractual negotiations or securing potential sponsors. "We see the college and Invent Penn State working together as a real strength," says Azzara. "It's part of the reason that Penn State is successful."

We're hired to explore new things, but sometimes at the point where you have a discovery, you wonder how to take it closer to a company.

Entrepreneurial support has been simmering in the College of Agricultural Sciences for a decade or so through various course work offerings and initiatives like the annual Springboard competition. The last five years, however, have been pivotal. "The year 2012 was one of those inflection points," says Gagnon, explaining that was the year alumnus Earl Harbaugh and his wife, Kay, made a gift to not only endow his position but also champion other ways to support and develop budding entrepreneurs in the college in order to create jobs and boost Pennsylvania's economy. Often referred to as the father of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program, Harbaugh is credited by many with wanting his alma mater to, in his words, "get those ideas out of the lab and into the hands of people who can use them."

Due, in part, to Harbaugh's inspiration and generosity--as well as an earlier gift from area food manufacturer Alan Warehime to create the Alan R. Warehime Professor of Agribusiness, a position held by Azzara--a new culture has emerged where students can minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation or be paired up in the mentor program for invaluable advice. "It's an evolving culture," says Gagnon. "We are trying to move into new ways of thinking, new ways of organizing, so that we can answer the big challenges in agriculture."

This culture doesn't just support entrepreneurial-minded students--it also gives faculty members an opportunity to apply their research to serve the common good. Research Applications for INnovation (RAIN) grants, championed by Gary Thompson, associate dean for research and graduate education in the college, have been helping faculty members commercialize their research since 2013. According to Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, the grants have been instrumental in helping faculty members think about how the solutions they discover in the lab can be applied to address real-world problems. "Gary Thompson pushed for those grants and led the college--if not the University--in creating a program for faculty members to take a meaningful step," he says.

Jeffrey Catchmark

Catchmark received a pair of RAIN grants in 2015--one for a medical biofoam used as a material for wound care and another for an edible and insoluble coating, or food barrier, that can be an alternative to plastic packaging, among other purposes. Although he had successfully demonstrated both bioproducts in the lab, Catchmark needed funds to further develop the materials and processes. "We're hired to explore new things, but sometimes at the point where you have a discovery, you wonder how to take it closer to a company," says Catchmark. "The RAIN grants help to bring that innovation to something that will impact society. If our products are successful, they could contribute to a more sustainable world by reducing the use of plastics."

Nina Jenkins

Nina Jenkins, senior research associate in the Department of Entomology, is also a recipient of a RAIN grant. Her discovery? A fungal-based biopesticide spray that effectively kills bed bugs. Through the Office of Technology Management, Jenkins secured a patent for her new idea. Then, she took a crash course in "thinking like an entrepreneur" at the local TechCelerator.

Jenkins says it was the RAIN grant, however, that really allowed her to move forward. The nearly $50,000 she received in 2013 gave her both the ability and the capital to commercialize her bed bug spray, called Aprehend®. It helped to cover the necessary and costly expenses of hiring a regulatory consultant and getting it through the required safety testing for EPA registration. "I couldn't perform all the necessary testing myself, nor could I afford to," Jenkins says. "The RAIN grant got us over those hurdles." Aprehend®, approved by the EPA in 2017, saw sales of $45,000 during its first two months of production. Jenkins is already seeing repeat orders from original customers. By this spring, Aprehend® will officially be registered and sold in 48 states--all but New York and California--furthering the product's impact and payoff.

Right At Home

"Agriculture has always been rooted in entrepreneurship--running a farm, bringing products to market. There's a spirit around this that inspires students and faculty members in the college to think creatively," says Azzara. "Today, we're seeing agricultural entrepreneurs focused on technology." Azzara says he usually sees three outcomes for entrepreneurs in the college: they can license their technology to an industry partner, join a big company and bring their entrepreneurial spirit with them (sometimes dubbed an "intrapreneur"), or start their own company.

As for Phospholutions, it may have launched in the golf industry, but Swisher says his company is now focused on an even bigger goal: reducing the environmental and economic impacts of fertilizers. Swisher has filed a patent for a product that binds fertilizer to the soil, thereby reducing runoff into important waterways--the same kind of pollution that is causing problems like the big algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay. "The U.S. will collectively spend $32 billion on applying fertilizer this year, yet research shows that 60 percent will wash away before ever being used," explains Swisher. "Our product has been proved to prevent up to 98 percent of the phosphorus from washing away."

To execute this vision, Swisher plans to stay in State College, where he benefits from the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the area. He and Nason have set up headquarters in town and still spend a lot of time working out of the LaunchBox. "There are so many experts here who are happy to provide the help that I need. I wouldn't be where I am today without the Invent Penn State initiative and its support," says Swisher, whose company has already created two part-time and two full-time jobs. He says he will soon hire another full-time employee to take over some of the administrative responsibilities, in addition to possibly another part-time person for the summer. While Swisher will still be heavily involved in sales, the extra help will allow him to pursue new markets and further develop the technology.

Swisher, Jenkins, Catchmark, and many others in the college have seen great success as a result of their interactions with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program and Invent Penn State. "Our greatest strength is in the collaborative culture we have created across the college and the University," says Catchmark. "Penn State really understands that interdisciplinary collaboration is the most effective path to discovery." In fact, it was during a seminar where Catchmark was presenting that Peter Dillon, head of surgery at Hershey Medical Center, said, "Do you realize what you have there? That foam could be a new wound-care material." Catchmark thanked him for that observation and they proceeded to talk about what they could do about it. "Entrepreneurship is not just about business development or licensing or a startup," Catchmark concludes. "It's about the spirit of being a person who wants to create opportunities in unbounded ways."

Investing in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Future

A foundational part of the University's past, the College of Agricultural Sciences is playing a critical role in Penn State's future as well. Through the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program, students and faculty members are taking their groundbreaking solutions from the lab to the market.

Two philanthropic gifts will allow both the program and its impact to grow.

The John and Patty Warehime Entrepreneur in Residence was endowed with a $1 million gift from John Warehime '64, chairman of Hanover Foods, and his wife. Their gift, matched 1:1 by the University, will help the college recruit an expert to share experiences as an entrepreneur or venture capitalist, and will improve the quantity and quality of commercially relevant technology being developed in the college. The Warehime Entrepreneur in Residence will educate faculty members, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students about intellectual property and technology transfer, and will identify potential industry sponsors and investors.

The second endowment was established by Ditch Witch Midwest founder and "father of E&I" in the college Earl Harbaugh '61 and his wife, Kay. They added $750,000 to a previous gift of $250,000 to endow the Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar. The University also matched the Harbaugh gift.

The Harbaugh Scholar will support E&I efforts through course work, forums, and student and/or faculty engagement opportunities; activities related to commercializing and innovating college research; and mentoring, networking, professional development, and contact management for the college's students, faculty members, and alumni.

-- Amy Strauss Downey
Photography by Michael Houtz