Finding Pennovation

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Among faculty and students alike, innovation is alive and thriving on campus.


By Amy Gutmann | Although it’s been bubbling below the surface and somewhat out of sight for several years now, an ongoing controversy simmers through Silicon Valley about which almost everyone seems to have an opinion: Has peak innovation come and gone? Has the gas tank of good ideas run dry, leaving us riding on the fumes of great discoveries gone by?

An underlying critique in the recent NY Times bestseller The Rise and Fall of American Growth is championed vociferously by PayPal co-founder and Facebook first investor Peter Thiel, who lamented, “We wanted flying cars; instead, we got 140 characters.” Expecting by now to find ourselves zipping around in the world of The Jetsons, instead we get Snooki on Twitter. To this way of thinking, world-changing innovation and discovery is all but at an end.

“I couldn’t disagree more,” responds Bill Gates, who counters that the advance of science today is even more profound than in the past. He points to “invisible innovation”—less flashy, but ultimately more important—as the real story of progress today. As an example, Gates notes “the private sector builds better hybrid maize seeds every year, and we’ve had 2 percent compound growth.” Such unheralded advances in agricultural productivity mean, as a practical matter, that although the world’s population is expected to surpass 9 billion people by mid-century, we will in fact be able to feed everyone. Invisible innovation is often overlooked, but for our planet and species to survive and thrive, what we don’t immediately see in media headlines may matter most.

Universities like Penn are very much in the business of creating and advancing such innovation. Arguments about whether we are on track or at the end of the road are anything but merely academic. From our very first days, Penn has recognized that advancing new knowledge in support of humankind’s needs is fundamental to what we do. It remains central to our mission today, and it occupies a good deal of my time and attention.

One of the greatest and most important opportunities that come with my job is this: over the course of each and every day, I get to learn firsthand about the myriad ways discovery takes place at Penn. Innovation is alive and thriving across Penn’s campus. You can see it at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, where advances in materials science, including the quantum physics world of graphene, are opening profoundly new possibilities in everything from tissue engineering to improved photovoltaics to water desalination. A short walk away, at the Perelman School of Medicine, advances in genomic medicine, life-saving breakthroughs in immunotherapy, and the rapid advance of Precision Medicine—more commonly known as Personalized Medicine—all point to a coming paradigm shift in cancer treatment and health care more generally in the next decade. At our School of Social Policy and Practice, researchers are using new capacities of computing power (an advance that falls under another increasingly important frontier of Big Data) to discover actionable intelligence that supports real progress against currently intractable challenges in health and economic mobility in neighborhoods.

These are just three examples among dozens of centers of innovative research and discovery underway across Penn today. The overwhelming evidence puts me in the Bill Gates camp on this issue. What I see at Penn—and across the knowledge frontiers of our world—makes clear that innovation is a defining characteristic and increasingly vital economic engine of our world. John Swartley, who leads the Penn Center for Innovation, points out that the entire field is driven by things that are novel, non-obvious (before they prove successful), and, yet, useful for some important purpose. A big challenge is figuring out how to identify what innovations will prove effective. Innovation is much more than traditional patenting and technology transfer. It is about creating an innovation ecology that fosters a fluid exchange of ideas and expertise across a broad spectrum of new and established knowledge.

Creating a great innovation ecosystem has been among our chief areas of focus at Penn, and the numbers bear witness to the success of our approach. In the last seven years, we’ve seen a meteoric 1,000 percent rise in our commercialization agreements. The number of Penn startups per year has more than tripled. The combined annual revenue from tech transfer agreements has grown from $4 million to $42 million. We expect this level of activity to accelerate further this summer when our new Pennovation Center opens. This 58,000-square-foot, three-story facility is located in the heart of the Pennovation Works, Penn’s 23-acre site along the southern bank of the Schuylkill River and adjacent to the University campus. Focused on promoting intellectual and entrepreneurial initiatives for advancing knowledge and generating economic development across the Philadelphia region, this cutting-edge—and edgy—building will serve as both business incubator and laboratory that will align and integrate researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs for the commercialization of research discoveries.

With all this underway, I thought that we should do something uniquely more for our amazingly innovative students. In October, we launched the President’s Innovation Prize as a way of highlighting the vital role of our undergraduates in Penn’s innovation ecosystem. Competitively awarded, the annual Innovation Prize advances the high priority we place on educating students to put their innovative entrepreneurial ideas to work for the betterment of humankind.

The President’s Innovation Prize is awarded to a graduating Penn senior, or group of Penn seniors, in the spring and carries a cash award of $100,000, plus a one-year $50,000 living stipend per team member. It is the largest opportunity of its kind in higher education today. More importantly, it represents an unparalleled opportunity: it provides our graduating seniors a unique path to be inventive and think broadly about cutting-edge commercial projects that also have social impact.

Owing to the exceptional quality of this year’s applicants, I chose not one, but two winning teams for the inaugural President’s Innovation Prize. This year’s winners are Sade Oba EAS’16 and Alfredo Muniz EAS’16, whose project XEED is a network of four wearable devices designed to track and record the movements of Parkinson’s disease patients; and William Duckworth EAS’16 and Aaron Goldstein W’16, whose project Fever Smart is a simple yet powerful medical device that monitors core body temperature over time.

With a million-and-a-half Americans suffering from Parkinson’s and an additional 60,000 new patients diagnosed each year, there is immense need for new therapeutic options for this incurable condition. Physical therapy is one of the few avenues of effective treatment for Parkinson’s patients, and XEED is designed to improve the efficacy of therapy while building a large database of physical therapy treatments and outcomes that can help refine and improve treatment protocols for all patients.

Fever Smart marries a monitor on a patch to a sophisticated cloud information system that addresses a problem faced in many areas of medicine. It enables patients and healthcare providers to monitor a patient’s temperature in real time and receive alerts when their temperature begins to rise to unsafe levels.

XEED and Fever Smart are disruptive, ingenious, and pioneering. Both projects have the potential to transform the distance monitoring landscape in healthcare. These two projects were among a score of exciting proposals in this inaugural year of the Prize, all of which demonstrated remarkable insight and imagination in addressing daunting problems and real human needs. My warmest congratulations go to Sade and Alfredo and a hat tip to their advisor, Olga and Alberico Pompa Professor of Engineering and Applied Science Jonathan Smith; and to William and Aaron, who are being mentored by Matthew Grennan, assistant professor of healthcare management in Wharton. The President’s Innovation Prize is off to a tremendous start, and like the future of innovation across Penn—and across our country—there is abundant reason to be optimistic about what the future will bring.

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