Right now, in labs all over the country, academic researchers are making the advances that will fuel the next generation of economic growth.
Those at large Tier 1 universities will have technology transfer departments to help them bring those discoveries to market. Those at smaller schools, however, mostly will be on their own.
Except in the midstate.
Here, for the past six years, the Innovation Transfer Network has helped midsize colleges and universities connect with the business community.
The program, based at Penn State Harrisburg and funded primarily through grants, counts 12 midstate colleges and universities as members.
That makes it unique, said director of business development Jennifer Hammaker. She said she knows of no other multi-school consortiums in the field of technology transfer.
“This is a pioneering model,” she said. “This region is on the forefront in this area.”
In January, the ITN entered into a partnership with the Greater Reading Keystone Innovation Zone, adding five institutions, she said.
Promoting entrepreneurial activity is crucial to economic growth, researchers say, pointing to its role as a catalyst of new jobs.
Since 1980, firms less than five years old have produced virtually all net job creation in the U.S., according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a think tank that focuses on entrepreneurship.
ITN projects have energized students at Millersville University, science and mathematics dean Robert Smith said.
One project involved a Carlisle company, Cruzstar, whose software lets restaurants offer online ordering to their customers. Cruzstar worked with Millersville’s Software Productization Center to develop Cruzcourt, which combines online ordering with a delivery service to provide an alternative to onsite company cafeterias, Smith said.
A half-dozen students and two faculty members helped Cruzstar develop the Cruzcourt software, plus marketing, branding and graphic design.
The interdisciplinary work gave students’ insight into each other’s areas of expertise — at the launch, art students were fluently describing flow charts, Smith said.
“We’re giving students experiences that they just simply could not get otherwise,” he said. “The students get very, very excited.”
Last year, Millersville University students conducted market research for Middletown-area HydroWorx International Inc., which makes therapy pools and underwater treadmills for rehabilitation and sports medicine facilities.
“They did a fantastic job,” HydroWorx President and CEO Anson Flake said. Their work supplemented HydroWorx’ findings and helped the company craft a sounder, better-targeted marketing program, he said.
In some cases, students have gotten jobs with companies for which they did projects, Smith said.
For the Greater Reading KIZ, it made sense to bring in the ITN rather than developing a program from scratch, said KIZ coordinator Jennifer Leinbach of the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
Businesses and universities “speak different languages,” and establishing collaborations between them is difficult, she said.
“There’s a thousand ways you can mess up,” she said.
On the other hand, the two camps have much to learn from each other, and having a facilitator such as ITN makes all the difference, she said.
Four joint projects have been launched through the program since January, she said.
“We’re the eHarmony of businesses and colleges,” she said.
ITN’s back story explains why it dovetails so well with the Greater Reading KIZ: Two midstate KIZs were instrumental in its creation.
All KIZs are charged with facilitating corporate-academic cooperation. Believing a cooperative regional approach had better prospects for viability, the Lancaster and Harrisburg KIZs invested in the ITN rather than building up independent programs, said Lisa Riggs, president of Lancaster’s James Street Improvement District, a community and economic development nonprofit, and Linda Goldstein, vice president and chief operating officer of Harrisburg’s Capital Region Economic Development Corp.
“We had always planned that type of model,” Goldstein said.
Among other factors, organizers knew the state’s seed grants to start local KIZ programs were temporary and would run out, taking along any programs that had not found other funding sources.
Thinking regionally was a smart move on the KIZs’ part, said former Lancaster KIZ coordinator Ramon
Escudero, now the head of the Elizabethtown Area Chamber of Commerce. Having ties to so many schools is helping the ITN flourish, and Hammaker has the vision needed to make it grow, he said.
Hammaker described inheriting the KIZ’s mission as more of an informal process than an explicit goal. Nevertheless, “I think this has been a successful piece of the KIZ plan,” she said.
The ITN continues to evolve, and may in time become an independent nonprofit, Hammaker said.
This summer, it is launching a program in which university researchers whose work has commercial potential will give presentations to investors and other interested parties. The first session is scheduled for June 24 at Penn State Harrisburg, ITN Executive Director Jill Edwards said.
“It promises to be a very interesting experience for both sides,” she said, adding, “These are not money pitches.”
When all is said and done, organizations like the ITN are about economic growth, organizers said.
“Our ultimate goal is to help develop new products and services,” Hammaker said. “We can provide an important piece of the puzzle to accelerate growth.”
Harrisburg, Lancaster suspend KIZs; York stays active
Two of the midstate’s three Keystone Innovation Zones have wound down their activities to a large extent, organizers in Harrisburg and Lancaster said.
The state’s seed grants for the programs have run out, said Lisa Riggs, president of Lancaster’s James Street Improvement District, and Linda Goldstein, vice president of the Capital Region Economic Development Corp.
The midstate’s third KIZ, York’s, started later, and its funding continues through the end of this year, said coordinator Aeman Bashir of the York County Economic Development Corp.
The Rendell administration established the KIZ program in 2004 to encourage startup companies in emerging industries. Firms in designated zones could receive technical assistance from local colleges and universities and would be eligible for tax credits.
The state envisioned KIZs transitioning to local funding. However, few companies fit the program’s criteria, limiting the potential appeal, Riggs said.
“It was really hard to make a strong case to seek corporate support or other philanthropic support for something that had such a narrow definition,” she said.
Eligible companies can continue applying for state tax credits, but the Lancaster and Harrisburg Market KIZs are fairly quiet otherwise, Riggs and Goldstein said.
That doesn’t mean the KIZ mission has been abandoned, Goldstein stressed. The Innovation Transfer Network has taken over the task of building connections between companies and academic institutions and is enjoying great success, she said.
Also, CREDC continues to run the Experience Harrisburg job fair, which began as a KIZ project, she said.
The York KIZ is continuing to seek new companies and intends to carry on into 2012 and after, Bashir said.
“We are still making it a priority,” she said.