ERIE, Pa. — At Penn State Behrend’s Innovation Commons — one of 21 innovation hubs embedded within Penn State campus communities — students, industry, faculty, and community members collaborate to solve real business challenges and deliver solutions that improve lives, support student career success, and spur economic development.
Since January 2016, Innovation Commons has engaged 424 students and 117 faculty/staff, assisted 170 entrepreneurs, supported more than 200 industry projects, developed more than 110 products, and created more than 20 jobs.
Innovation Commons is equipped with AutoCAD modeling programs, scanners, and 3D printers for prototyping. The hub provides services, such as product design, computer-aided drafting, electrical component design, no-cost 3D prototype printing, laser cutting and engraving, 3D scanning, and product feasibility consultation. It also offers 3D printer technical support for schools and businesses in the region. Innovation Commons is uniquely configured so ideas can be explored from technical and business perspectives simultaneously.
The Innovation Commons – where students lead
“The lab is an ideation, product development, and prototyping center staffed by skilled students who guide innovators and entrepreneurs through early development stages,” said Jacob Marsh, the industry relations coordinator at Penn State Behrend.
At Innovation Commons, students work directly with manufacturers to solve industry problems. When local company Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing wanted to expand revenue opportunities by developing new products, students helped digitally design and prototype rubber pet toys, which are now sold nationally. Since implementing and growing the product line, the company has gained publicity, appearing on a recent episode of Undercover Billionaire. The project led to several more with Lake Erie Rubber, including improving parts for a particle accelerator and enhancing their factory’s data analytics.
Other student-led projects include developing a 3D printing technology, which allows users to print highly flexible material, and helping a local contractor with a patented product to help stabilize wallboard during installation. So far, Penn State Behrend students have been named as co-inventors on 10 patent applications for products developed at Innovation Commons.
Eli Thompson, a student studying mechanical engineering, was connected with Wm. T. Spaeder, a construction technology company located in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania, during his time at Innovation Commons. This relationship first developed into an internship before leading to a future full-time position with a local startup upon his graduation.
“I would recommend any person who likes doing this hands-on technical work to come to Innovation Commons,” Thompson said. “Any time someone asks if we take volunteers, I explain what we’re doing and get them into the process to start working. Learning about 3D printing, learning about scanning technology and virtual technology – these things are going to be so heavy in the industry for the next 10 years.”
Regional collaborations thrive
In 2018, Penn State Behrend formalized a collaborative agreement with nearby universities and the Erie County Public Library to create the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network, which provides an expanded range of free services for entrepreneurs and businesses.
The network includes Gannon University, providing business planning services; Mercyhurst University, providing market intelligence and research; Edinboro University, offering branding and marketing; and Penn State Behrend’s Innovation Commons, offering product design and prototyping. Erie County’s Blasco Library provides access to a makerspace, which helps foster creativity and enables experimentation in a de-risked environment before an entrepreneur gets serious about moving to the next step.
The Appalachian Regional Commission recently provided the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network with a $1.5 million grant, allowing it to expand its service area to about a 100-mile radius.
“This is a shared mission that we collaborate on,” Marsh said. “We’ve decided that we’re going to share the entrepreneurial ecosystem component of our work between the universities, and this opens a lot of doors for a lot of new projects.”
Throughout the pandemic, Innovation Commons has found ways to support its community. The hub recently helped a local high school create improved facemasks for its football team so the team could start its season. The center also adapted quickly to a remote environment, allowing student workers to take equipment home and set up virtual client meetings.
More recently, Innovation Commons has delved into providing app development services and more engineering assistance in areas such as data analytics and sensor integration for clients. The first app out of the app development pilot program, a locally funded mental health app, has launched successfully giving people a new way to track their emotional health and learn coping mechanisms for stressful situations like COVID-19 isolation. The team also published a journal article about the project so others can replicate it.
“That means more student work, new skills, new offerings and a broader impact,” Marsh said, “which is very important to us.”
Research shows entrepreneurs who receive help early in their startup journey are more likely to establish roots – and jobs. Just look at Behrend graduates who have used Innovation Commons as an entrepreneur bootcamp, helping them launch their Erie-based businesses. As more innovators awake to the opportunities Innovation Commons and the broader entrepreneurial network provide, Erie’s future will continue to flourish.
About Invent Penn State
Invent Penn State is a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success.
The Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network is made up of 21 hubs embedded in Penn State campus communities offering no-cost co-working space, makerspace, accelerator programs, pitch competitions, speaker series, access to experts and mentors, and legal and IP advice through Penn State Law clinics. Five years since opening, the Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network has supported 3,325 community entrepreneurs, created 194.5 jobs, and helped to launch 164 new Pennsylvania companies. Gifts to support the network, as well as select economic development initiatives across the commonwealth, are a priority of the University’s current fundraising campaign, “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence.”
To learn more about how to make a gift and secure a match before the campaign concludes on June 30, 2022, please contact Heather Winfield at [email protected]. Information about the campaign is available at greaterpennstate.psu.edu.
To find a location near you, visit invent.psu.edu/programs/pa-innovation-hubs