Former CEO wants to turn PSU Harrisburg students into entrepreneurs
Kevin Harter wonders what happens to all of the “stuff” that Penn State creates with the $800 million it spends on research every year.
“We're making lots of interesting things, apparently, but what are you going to do with it if you don't have people with the entrepreneurial experience that's needed to develop it and do something with it?” he asked.
That's a question that could soon be answered by Invent Penn State, the university's $30 million initiative to launch entrepreneurship centers around the commonwealth to help convert students' ideas, innovations and research projects into business startups and eventually jobs, he said.
Harter, the former president and CEO of Bethlehem-based Saladax Biomedical Inc., was recently selected to lead the still-unnamed entrepreneurship center at Penn State Harrisburg in Lower Swatara Township as the school's first “professor of practice.”
One of his first priorities, he said, will be to invite local business leaders — “people in the community who've done it” — to serve as mentors to students while they develop their ideas, do the necessary legwork and build their companies.
As someone with 35 years of experience in new business development himself, Harter said he wishes someone had been around to do the same for him when he attended Penn State Harrisburg years ago.
“I'm not sure I could even spell 'entrepreneur' back then,” he joked.
Q: Why did you accept a full-time position at Penn State Harrisburg at this point in your career?
A: I came here because I've always liked this place. I got my bachelor's and master's degrees here, plus I've been a volunteer in various capacities for about 17 years, so I've had a great experience at Penn State Harrisburg. And the campus is obviously expanding. I think we had about 2,500 students when I joined the board of advisers in the late '90s, and now it's closer to 5,000. So the timing is right because the Invent Penn State program is going to focus on taking the research dollars that the university spends and creating interesting things that will help the whole community. We have smart people who do smart stuff, and we want the region to benefit from that, so that's a very attractive thing for me.
What are some of your primary goals for the entrepreneurship center?
I want to see students from Penn State Harrisburg, Penn State Hershey and Dickinson Law — whether they're in business, law, technology or medicine — come here to hang out, draw on my experience and figure out how to start businesses and create jobs around innovative ideas. I want to be able to say, “Let's look at what this company did,” and “Tell me about the marketplace that this company is in,” and “You go do the legwork,” and “Take a law student and go find out how to do a clinical trial.” There will be all kinds of opportunities for collaboration. For example, right now we're designing an entrepreneurship course for the spring for MBA, Ph.D. or JD students where we'll put together multiple-discipline teams to give them experience creating a business plan. This is a float-all-the-boats initiative.
Can you offer an example of how you teach entrepreneurship?
"I'm looking at how we can tap into what's going on out there. One of the ways is to teach people to find a need and fill it themselves."
When I taught a class on bio-entrepreneurship at Lehigh University, I walked in one time with a vial of something that looked medicinal, slapped it on the table and said, “OK, you've just created a cure for cancer. Now let's build a business around it.” So they had to figure out what clinical trials they wanted to run. “Do you want to run breast cancer? Colon cancer? Brain cancer?” And they said, “Let's do all of them.” I said, “Let's do the math — 2,000 patients times $40,000 a patient, and that's just one cancer type. So how many billions is that to do all of the cancers you have on the board?” It's really an eye-opening experience that there's a lot more to business than just the technology side. You need a team of people — management, financial, marketing. And if you're going to create a for-profit business, you need to raise money and provide a return to shareholders.
What's different about entrepreneurship today? Is there more of a do-it-yourself culture, especially with the millennial generation?
There's more of an entrepreneurial spirit today than there used to be. Admittedly, part of it is the “I made a fortune on the Internet” mentality or the “Shark Tank” influence in popular culture. But also, back in the 1960s if you had an engineering degree you could practically write your own ticket; then in the late '70s when industrial America was suffering, it was harder to get a job, and you saw this whole class of entrepreneurs rise up — people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They felt that if people weren't going to offer you a job, you needed to create one. And the same thing seems to be happening today. We're getting a glut of college students who are saying there aren't any big industries hiring tons of people and they don't know what they're going to do with their education. So, I'm looking at how we can tap into what's going on out there. One of the ways is to teach people to find a need and fill it themselves.
Southcentral Pennsylvania is known for manufacturing, for state government and for being a transportation hub, among other things. Do you think we'll ever reach a point where one industry really dominates and gives the region a “brand”?
I don't know if we'll ever break out as a single industry brand like Silicon Valley, but Bloomberg recently ranked us as one of the top 100 science and technology locations to watch in the next decade or two. As I've been looking at models for the entrepreneurial center, I've looked at MIT and places in California like Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo, and I see a very eclectic mix of agriculture, technology, engineering and so on. Plus we have the energy industry and logistics. So I see us having that same kind of mix, and there are a lot of good programs that can be built around that.