Pennsylvania's universities are behind an impressive uptick in science and technology businesses.
By Teresa Masterson
A Chevy Tahoe decked out with lasers, cameras, radars and other hi-tech gadgets mounted on its fenders and roof ambles down a dirt road. It stops when the track intersects a highway, hesitates, then makes a slow left turn onto the paved road and continues on its way.
The vehicle is Boss, a fully autonomous robot developed by Carnegie Mellon University and General Motors Corporation under the moniker Tartan Racing. In November 2007, Tartan Racing won the DARPA Urban Challenge, a competition in which driverless cars navigate a 60-mile urban course in less than 6 hours. The rules required robotic vehicles to obey traffic laws, share the road with human drivers and navigate obstacles including an off-road dirt section. Boss managed the course with aplomb, bringing home the first place cash prize of $2 million for Tartan Racing.
Universities and colleges across the state have been translating science and tech projects like Tartan Racing into successful companies. In a 2008 report, the California-based think tank Milken Institute showed Pennsylvania on the upswing in science and technology assets, most notably in education and venture capital. According to the report, the state has risen in national science and tech rankings, from16th to 13th over the past four years.
Much of this is the result of colleges and universities commercializing inventions that result from government-funded research, making them huge drivers of economic growth.
Over the past two years, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute has helped create 20 new Pennsylvania businesses that are developing innovative products based on inventions and ideas cultivated at the institute. They call it “technology transfer.” Simply put, technology transfer spreads researchers’ knowledge into society by creating companies that put it to practical use.
“Universities and colleges are tremendous economic engines,” says Anne Watzman, PR director for the Robotics Institute. “Technology transfers are a very important part of the university’s mission.”
According to Robert Conway, senior manager of business development and licensing for Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation, the process for creating these businesses begins when researchers at the institute discover something and disclose it to the university. The university then determines whether or not it owns the idea, and if so, decides if an existing company can develop it or if a new company is needed.
“A great deal of university research is funded by government agencies, both on the federal and state levels,” says Watzman. “When we spin out a company based on the findings of this research, we’re returning our debt to society for funding it. It’s a tangible way for people to see what they get for their tax dollars—new, useful products and jobs.”
When creating a business, the institute does not simply hand over the idea and tell others to run with it. According to Conway, they help create business plans, connect the fledgling company with legal and accounting firms, help find office space and real estate, and assist them with finding the needed funding.
The Robotics Institute recently rolled out three successful technology transfer businesses, all based in Pittsburgh, Pa. Industrial Learning Systems, Inc. is a company that enhances the performance of automated controllers in refineries and power plants to improve overall productivity by two to four percent, creating millions of dollars in annual savings. WorkHorse Technologies, LLC engineers robots that allow people to safely explore and operate in hazardous environments and subterranean voids and caves. Sensible Machines builds robots that do outdoor landscaping on a large scale for agricultural and recreational markets.
“Our goal is to disseminate knowledge to society as a whole,” says Conway.
Technological and scientific advances at schools in Pennsylvania have also crossed over to the healthcare industry. In January 2008, the University of Pennsylvania obtained a cyclotron, a 220-ton cancer-fighting laser that will be a major part of the upcoming Roberts Proton Therapy Center set to open in Philadelphia in 2009.
The center, which will be housed in University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, will be the largest proton therapy center in the world and one of only six such centers in the country.
According to Tricia Bruning, executive director of development for the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center, there has been a steady increase of philanthropic donations and government funding toward local cancer research for the university since the $100 million contribution to start the Abramson Center 10 years ago.
“We were able to recruit 20 to 30 of the nation’s top scientists,” says Bruning. “There are amazing things going on here, from stem cells to vaccines to Roberts Proton Therapy. Every day a new thing comes across my desk.”
Assistant Dean of University of Pennsylvania’s Arts and Sciences Dr. Hocine Fetni says he has seen a steady increase in students wanting to earn degrees in the sciences in the past few years.
“The market drives it,” says Fetni. “Students think they have to be practical if they want to get a job.”