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Central PA's Innovation Matchmaker

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Keystone Edge - April 1, 2010

Joel Kline worked at Lebanon Valley College for 2 years before he ever heard of InnerLink. Located just a short drive from the Annville campus, the unassuming information technology firm keeps a low profile, quietly making valuable medical information more accessible to children, communities and young adults. As a professor of Business and Digital Communications, collaboration between InnerLink and Kline’s students seemed like a no-brainer. But somehow this star-crossed cohesion eluded them both. 

What they needed was a matchmaker.

Enter the Innovation Transfer Network, a new agency out to create productive collaboration between colleges and corporations in Central PA. Think eHarmony for talent and technology. But these entities aren’t merely becoming Facebook friends or exchanging business cards. They are creating internship programs, applying for grants and getting students and schools noticed. 

“Many companies just don’t have the staff or the time to go to universities, meet with faculty and understand what they are doing,” says ITN director Jennifer Hammaker. “So we provide that front door for them, doing that research and evaluation.”

ITN is the product of two Keystone Innovation Zones combining to achieve greater economic impact. Capital Regional Economic Development Corporation (CREDC) director Linda Goldstein and Lancaster Keystone Innovation Zone’s Lisa Riggs decided that, in order for the smaller universities in South-Central PA to compete in getting their talent to companies and their technology to stores, they needed one central development hub. Add a little grant funding from Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development and you have a full-fledged agency helping retain graduates, create spinoff companies and increase the visible talent pool across Pennsylvania.

“We represent 13 smaller colleges and universities, which is awesome because this network equals the size of a giant research university like Penn State,” says Hammaker, “but the talent comes from 13 different schools as opposed to just one.”

How ITN achieves these goals largely depends on the project. Some collaborations are as simple as getting everyone together in the same room. At the EnerG Symposium at Penn State-Harrisburg last fall, assistant biology professors Sairam Rudrabhatla and Shobha Potlakayala got the chance to share their biofuels research with a panel of interested regional thinkers from schools like Franklin & Marshall College and Dickinson College. ITN was there as well and concocted a grant proposal that could bring all these alternative energy concepts together in one place. The result was a bid for $75,000 in grant funding for a regional biofuels research center. Naming Rudrabhatla as principal researcher and Potlakayala as his assistant, the proposal would create a biofuels think-tank for Pennsylvania’s smaller universities to explore the commercial potential of their research, combining the talent of several schools under one roof.

Some collaboration requires a lot more research and fact-finding. When Anson Flake, CEO of Middletown therapeutic pool manufacturer HydroWorx, called last fall about help with product rollout and graphic design, ITN acted as a scout, collecting research and finding the best students from Millersville University for pre-and-post design work. Hydroworx got their needs covered; from visual sales tools, company information, and graphic design before launch, to surveys and focus groups to gauge interest after. And students got to test out classroom theories and received valuable face time with potential employers.

“When students come in and do these presentations, it’s a great way for companies to see if they are future hires,” says Hammaker. “The companies can evaluate these students, say ‘hey, that’s a sharp kid,’ and keep them on the radar for when they graduate.”

But for faculty members at smaller universities, it goes much deeper than that. Pennsylvania educators have often bemoaned a lack of technology collaboration. Larger pharmaceutical and technology firms’ projects need resources and manpower that many smaller colleges can’t provide on their own.

“The larger schools have a whole tech transfer office. We don’t have an office like that,” says Kline. “Our product, if you will, is our students so ITN coming in and matching us with some of the small and mid-sized companies who are looking to do things at a more reasonable level really allows a small school like us to stay connected to technology transfer.”

Like any matchmaking service, ITN can’t do it all in person. So the team has spearheaded some online efforts and social media tools to facilitate connections. They produce a blog, an online newsletter and a Twitter feed that announce collaborations, projects and exciting research grants as they become available. But their most successful effort has been the website’s registered member community. This real-time community allows faculty members and company owners to post their expertise and available projects, drawing in possible collaborators. Like many familiar social networking sites, users at InnovationTransferNetwork.org can sign up to receive e-mail alerts every time a community member updates their status or posts a new project, keeping collaborators connected.

Hammaker stresses that, while ITN is currently working on updating their website to enhance these online tools, nothing replaces face-to-face networking. Their events page is loaded with upcoming meetings designed to gather talented people working in niche markets to meet and exchange ideas. From gaming technology to healthcare, it’s all about who you know.

“Whether it’s a new division, a new product or a new company direction,” says Hammaker, “any time we can help grow, expand or start up companies, that’s a good thing for the state of Pennsylvania. It works for business, faculty and the students.”

Source:  Keystone Edge  4/1/10  John Steele