Officially launched in January of 2016, Penn State Behrend’s Innovation Commons is already beginning to spark Innovation throughout Erie County.
Innovation Commons is a result of the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority’s “Ignite Erie” strategy for economic development and the “Invent PSU” initiative. Both programs are designed to spur small business development and advance industry innovations. Unlike traditional economic development initiatives, the “Ignite Erie” strategy encourages university and industry collaboration and encourages the public to access innovative, entrepreneurial resources that have been made available by its financial support.
Innovation Commons at Penn State Behrend is one of the central places in the region that supports entrepreneurial activity. In an open, collaborative setting, key stakeholders throughout northwest Pennsylvania are invited to participate.
The facility offers resources for entrepreneurs and established, innovating businesses alike. It is especially designed for those looking to deploy new product or design ideas. These resources include a Maker Lab, which consists of 3-D printers and 3-D scanners to prototype and/or test an idea, an Innovation Beehive, staffed with volunteers who are experts in law, accounting, banking, marketing, venture capital, etc., free of cost. There is also an Ideation Lab for meetings, brainstorming sessions, and conference calls.
For students, Innovation Commons provides a key educational resource. This includes not only access to advanced equipment, but in some cases the opportunity to collaborate with entrepreneurs and business leaders to develop new products. This experiential programming augments Behrend’s already innovative curriculum that co-locates the college’s Black School of Business and School of Engineering.
Innovation Commons: A Resource for the Erie Community
So how does it all work?
Let’s say you have developed an innovative new product design. Even without any affiliation to Penn State Behrend, you can go to the Maker Space and have your idea prototyped with a 3-D printer. During most hours of the day, the Maker Space is staffed with a student specialist who can assist you.
With guidance from an administrator or faculty member, you can even collaborate with a team of students who can help conduct market research, develop software, devise a go-to-market strategy, or even work with you to apply for government funding for your project.
A number of these collaborations are now underway, launching almost immediately after Innovation Commons opened its doors in January. These collaborations are exploring the startup and scale-up of innovative business ideas. As these ideas go through the rigorous market research and product design process, over time they might blossom into successful businesses that spur the regional economy. What if they don’t? Well that’s okay too. The process provides students with experiential learning that is highly sought after by their future employers. Students become armed with experience in business that they can take with them after graduation.
Projects now underway include new technologies for civic safety, using recycled materials to manufacture a product with a social and environmental benefit, and development of a niche information sharing platform for university students.
As the community pauses to consider the impact of the “Ignite Erie” economic development strategy and the Innovation Commons, a consistent narrative emerges: Economic development should seek to provide open access directly to individuals so they can launch or grow their businesses. The more inclusive the process is, the more value it will provide to the multiple stakeholders throughout the region.
Meet Wes Hall, He’ll Prototype Your Product Idea
One of the early champions of the Maker Lab at Innovation Commons is Interdisciplinary Business with Engineering Studies student, Wes Hall. Wes began volunteering at the Maker Lab almost immediately after it was opened. As Innovation Commons has fully come online, Wes has taken on the position full-time, helping students and community members use the equipment.
When we consider product manufacturing we often don’t consider the versatile role of the product designer who acts as artist, engineer, and marketer to make inventions useable and palatable on a large scale. Wes has a lifelong passion for product design and after speaking with him for just a few minutes one quickly realizes he possesses this rare diversity of skills. His favorite designer is Leonardo Da Vinci, whose drawings and schematics are still functional when re-created today.
Wes’s story exemplifies the value of Innovation Commons for the community. His senior capstone project allowed him to work with a local entrepreneur who is developing a new product. This entrepreneur identified a novel solution to a challenge that he experienced in his own life.
Wes is working as lead engineer with a team of business and engineering students to bring this product to market. His responsibility is to design and prototype the new product. In addition, he will help to apply for a patent for the solution as the lead technical writer.
For Wes, this represents a career milestone that he didn’t anticipate achieving in college. In addition to providing Wes with the opportunity to achieve a personal milestone, the community also benefits. Increased patent activity has been identified as a critical economic development need for the Erie region.
Igniting an Innovation Movement
As Innovation Commons gets on its feet after receiving grant support from “Ignite Erie” and “Invent PSU,” it is easy to see the potential for transformative impact on the Erie community. Innovation Commons captures a new phase of Erie’s economic development that seeks to lower the barriers of entry for all members of our community to participate in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Our community is well on its way to a brighter economic future, thanks to programs like this! From the perspective of the Innovation Collaborative, we hope to see several more programs sprouting up across the region in the coming months and years!