Eric Barron: University innovation, investment keys to Pa. growth

Within the current state budget cycle, governors across the country are investing more heavily in higher education. This is encouraging to those of us who firmly believe that colleges and universities have the power to elevate individuals, as well as society overall. Progress is born from innovative ideas, diverse perspectives and access to the right resources.

We know that universities play a central role in educating students in areas of economic need, are major area employers, and advance the economy through research and partnerships with industry, for example. But America’s colleges and universities also have the ability to make vital contributions to the economy as business incubators and catalysts for entrepreneurism, which are vital to our economic future.

Multiple studies have borne out the influential role that entrepreneurship has in economic development, the standard of living in a country, innovation that opens doors to new markets, and various other positive indicators that the commonwealth needs.

Invent Penn State — a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success — today is meeting that need by infusing curriculum across many majors with entrepreneurial studies and providing resources and support to budding student, faculty and community entrepreneurs.

Launched in 2015, we now have an Invent Penn State innovation hub within 30 miles of 96% of the Pennsylvania population. In his annual budget address Feb. 8, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a proposed state budget for 2022-23 that includes $2.35 million in new funding to expand Invent Penn State and build upon its progress. The governor’s proposal recognizes the potential to leverage university programs like Invent Penn State to help spur an entrepreneurial economy.

The recent extraordinary shifts in the workforce that have occurred over the past two years of the pandemic have had a significant impact on the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans. At the height of lockdowns in July 2020, applications for starting a business increased by 96% year-over-year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The resulting shift toward entrepreneurship led to the opening of startups and small businesses, along with a wave of “solopreneurs” turning their passions, insights and even quarantine hobbies into full-fledged occupations.

While the pandemic may have given many people the courage or even the permission to make the leap to entrepreneurship, these self-starters still require a safety net in the form of resources, education, support and an ecosystem that not only champions their personal success, but also helps grow Pennsylvania’s economy and contributes to maintaining sustainable communities. This is where higher education can play a vital role, not only in cultivating entrepreneurship but also in igniting and incubating innovation.

The university’s 21 Invent Penn State innovation hubs offer no-cost entrepreneurial services in communities adjacent to our campuses and have partnered with individuals, corporations and foundations to maximize investments. The hubs are becoming a connected, cohesive virtual network, giving entrepreneurs at all locations free access to accelerator programs, legal and intellectual property advice, mentorship, rapid prototyping, pitch competitions and funding.

While there is no direct revenue for universities when working with student entrepreneurs and community members, unlike with faculty invention, Penn State views its open programming as part of its modern-day land-grant mission to serve communities, the state and our nation. Invent Penn State works with individuals whether they have a Penn State connection or not. Importantly, it has created more than 300 jobs, launched more than 200 Pennsylvania companies and served more than 7,000 entrepreneurs. These numbers will grow.

This investment in entrepreneurs by the commonwealth in concert with Penn State is a stellar example of how public universities in partnership with their states, outside investors, and others can boost their state’s economic position and create a cascading effect that stimulates invention, supports new ventures, creates jobs, and advances the workforce.

As governors and state legislatures across the country work through their budgets for the fiscal year that begins in July, it is an opportune time to think about how higher education fits with the goal of creating statewide value and an ecosystem that fosters innovation, diverse perspectives and access to the right resources.

For institutions of higher education, the key to setting students up for success is giving them applicable skills and resources to be agile, collaborative and connected. We are facing a profound moment where the institutions that are ready to support the diversity of perspectives coming forward and to provide the resources, knowledge and infrastructure that will enable their students, faculty innovators, alumni and local community members to be active participants in the changing economy, have the potential to move us all toward incredible advancements.

Eric Barron is president of The Pennsylvania State University.

Author: Eric BarronPublication: Trib Live