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.