It’s in Your Pocket

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For real-world applications of university research, look no farther than your phone.

 By Amy Gutmann | If you’re ever asked how complex, often hard-to-comprehend university research applies in the real world, do what I do: tell them the answer is right at hand. In fact, it’s in their pocket. Our smartphones wouldn’t exist were it not for basic research conducted in American universities.

Your phone’s central processing unit can be traced to pioneering work done by John Mauchly Hon’60 and J. Presper Eckert EE’41 GEE’43 Hon’64, University of Pennsylvania researchers who built ENIAC, the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer here on Penn’s campus. Other components—ranging from the touchscreen and multi-core processors, to random access memory, global positioning systems, and even the rechargeable lithium-ion battery—all originated in university labs across the country.

As transformative as those discoveries have been, they are but a prelude to new inventions and innovations happening at America’s research universities today. Penn is at the forefront of personalized medicine, veterinary medicine, vaccine development, robotics, nanotechnology, big data, urban design, and sustainable energy, to name only some of the important efforts underway by our faculty researchers. Expenditures on sponsored research exceeded $875 million this past year, bringing enormous resources into Philadelphia and fostering a larger community of entrepreneurs eager to translate Penn discoveries into products and services that will transform how people live and thrive.

Penn’s capacity for creative discovery is greater than ever. As a research university, we are first and foremost a bastion for the pursuit of new knowledge and deeper understanding. We fundamentally value great ideas no matter their marketability, and we embrace creative inquiry regardless of any immediate application. Basic research is absolutely essential to who we are. We know that if universities don’t undertake basic research, no one else will.

At the same time, we are committed to Pennovation, which is our ability to advance both basic discovery and the society-improving applications those discoveries may enable. This is true to our heritage of promoting things “most useful and most ornamental.” Our founder, Benjamin Franklin, was the scientist who famously flew a kite and discovered the electrical nature of lightning—and then invented the lightning rod to make practical use of that discovery.

At Penn, we work to strike lightning again and again. We empower our faculty to see their discoveries make a real difference in the world. We surround our students with myriad opportunities to apply what they learn. With these goals in mind, Penn concluded the year 2014 in a blaze of activities aimed at promoting a sustained culture of innovation across the university community.

At the end of October, we inaugurated our Pennovation Works campus on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill with a “Celebration of Innovation at Penn.” With standing-room-only crowds of students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and friends, as well as members of the region’s business and tech community, we breathed new life into this 23-acre former heavy industrial site. In addition to highlighting existing and planned entrepreneurial incubator space, the event showcased dynamic presentations by some of Penn’s outstanding faculty members.

To top off the festivities, guests gathered in a large white tent for the 2014 David and Lyn Silfen University Forum, “From Idea to Innovation: The Impactful University,” a wide-ranging conversation with New York Times bestselling author Walter Isaacson [“Gazetteer,” this issue]. If you read his blockbuster biographies of Steve Jobs and Ben Franklin, then you know just how insightful Isaacson is when it comes to identifying innovative thinking that changes the world. Isaacson had this to say about Penn: We are poised to discover the next great innovations in areas such as nanotechnology, medicine, and energy. The pioneering work in these fields—and many others—will be done by the great minds at Penn. We couldn’t have asked for more from the writer dubbed “the biographer of geniuses.”

Just two weeks later, we were joined by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter W’79 and innovation entrepreneurs from across the region at the launch of PCI—the Penn Center for Innovation. PCI provides a new, more effective model for organizing and maximizing Penn’s efforts, with satellite offices in each of our Schools. It’s a superconductor for our boundless creative energy, unifying Penn’s researchers and inventors and carrying their great ideas back out into the world with visionary partners in the business community.

We take more than a little inspiration from the city of Philadelphia. At the turn of the last century, the US Census Bureau set out to create a comprehensive account of all the manufacturing plants that existed in America. In doing so they discovered that various kinds of manufacturing tended to concentrate in specific areas. In Massachusetts, textiles were made in Lowell, paper in Holyoke, and shoes in Lynn. There was a remarkable consistency in the findings—certain specialized manufactures took place in certain areas—until the Census Bureau looked at Philadelphia. Here they found nearly 90 percent of their entire list of industrial activities was taking place in this city. Philadelphia did a lot of everything, which is why it became known as “The Workshop of the World.”

In the world today, no other single institution surpasses our major universities when it comes to sheer variety and scope of research. And Penn is one of the highest concentrations of intellectual discovery located anywhere. Indeed, we are truly “The Workshop of the World of Ideas.”

In the last six years alone, we have seen a meteoric rise in our commercialization agreements—they’re up more than 600 percent, from 46 to 327. At the same time, the number of Penn startups has more than doubled, and we confidently expect to continue to grow those numbers going forward.

On Valentine’s Day in 1946, ENIAC, the Penn-built first general-purpose computer, was announced to the public. Rumor had it that when ENIAC was switched on, lights across Philadelphia dimmed. The massive computer covered 1,800 square feet, contained 17,468 vacuum tubes and 70,000 resistors, and consumed 150 kW of electricity. Its computational power combined with programmability was unprecedented.

In 1946, it would have been beyond imagining that one day, in the not-so distant future, we would all carry ENIAC’s exponentially more powerful and efficient descendants in our pockets. In 1946, it would have been difficult to conceive the staggering range of world-changing applications that would follow from ENIAC’s circuitry.

That is the promise and the power of Pennovation. Graphene, plant-based vaccines, nanoscale engineering, individualized cancer treatments, advances in brain science, new tools for teaching, learning, and creating: By bringing together the best people and the best resources at Penn, we can confidently expect great discoveries. By making the commitment to translate more and more of those discoveries to useful applications—indeed, world-changing applications—we can confidently imagine a future transformed. For proof of incredible Pennovation to come, look no further—it’s right there in your pocket.

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