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2021 IEP Talent Award Finalist Spotlight: Pennsylvania State University

By Dr. Lora Weiss, Senior Vice President for Research

Penn State University, Pennsylvania’s only land-grant university, touches every corner of the state and is a top-ranked Research-1 university. As such, supporting jobs, helping researchers commercialize life-changing innovations, and driving positive economic impact across the Commonwealth is central to the work we do.

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The Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network, embedded within 21 Pennsylvania communities, has created more than 150 jobs and assisted thousands of entrepreneurs in getting their startups off the ground. As we continue to grow, we remain committed to providing the entrepreneurial resources and educational opportunities each individual community needs to prosper.

The Network began in 2015 when five Penn State campuses were awarded grants from Invent Penn State’s seed grant program to create community innovation hubs. During the next three years, Invent Penn State expanded the Network to 21 campuses, which now provide communities access to no-cost coworking spaces, makerspaces, accelerator programs, pitch competitions, speaker series, experts and mentors, business advice, legal and intellectual property advice, micro-grants, and community engagement spaces.

Each LaunchBox and Innovation Hub provides resources specific to the needs of their communities and collaborates internally with the network, sharing programming and best practices. In the first five years, the network has engaged more than 10,000 students and faculty, assisted more than 3,300 entrepreneurs, and provided free legal and intellectual property consultations to more than 1,500 ventures. During this time, more than 160 startups have formed with help from Invent Penn State.

LaunchBox accelerator programs like the FastTrack Accelerator, Idea TestLab, and Idea DesignLab have graduated tech startups with innovations that range from protecting the environment to improving access to healthcare, all while enhancing student career success and growing the Pennsylvania economy.

One of the early startup successes of the LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network is State College-based Phospholutions, a sustainable fertilizer, aquatic management, and environmental remediation startup founded in 2016 by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences alumnus Hunter Swisher. Phospholutions has recently raised $10.3M through an investment round led by Continental Grain Company (CGC) Ventures to support the development and growth of their RhizoSorb® technology, which originally stemmed from a Penn State professor’s research. Phospholutions currently has 20 employees.

As a statewide Network, we recognize that the needs of each community vary based on industries in the region, the proximity of existing resources, demographics of the surrounding area, and much more. By understanding that no two Pennsylvania communities and economies are the same, each LaunchBox and Innovation Hub is purposefully set up to provide resources specific to the needs of their community.

For example, the Hazleton LaunchBox supported by Pasco L. Schiavo Esq., located in a predominantly Latinx community, offers bilingual programs to help local entrepreneurs make their business ideas a reality. The programming includes accelerator programs and educational sessions, with topics ranging from idea design and test labs to business skill improvement and – starting in 2020 – ways to help entrepreneurs address issues from the COVID-19 pandemic. Hazleton LaunchBox has supported more than 200 community members and provided a range of services for more than 30 businesses.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the LaunchBoxes and Innovation Hubs were forced to close their facilities. However, the Network swiftly pivoted to provide online mentoring, webinars, virtual speaker series, and virtual Idea TestLabs.

Harrisburg LaunchBox adapted quickly to the remote environment and supported entrepreneurs and startups in the Capitol Region with a series of entrepreneurial webinars. The original multi-part webinar series focused on company creation, stimulating creativity to drive Big Ideas, and a workshop on design thinking.

The quick and effective response our Network had during the pandemic showcased how our 21 locations are able to anticipate and respond to the needs of their communities and work together as one interconnected system. Now, as physical locations begin to open again, we are more prepared than ever to support Pennsylvania entrepreneurs – students, researchers, and community members alike – with the highest quality and most accommodating resources there are to offer.

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