At PCI, new discoveries for societal benefit

John Swartley, managing director of the Penn Center for Innovation, talks about the Center’s success.

Penn Center for Innovation's Executive Director John Swartley

The Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) is “the premier university innovation, venture creation, and commercialization center,” says Associate Vice Provost for Research and Managing Director John Swartley.

The center helps translate discoveries and ideas created at Penn into new products and businesses for societal benefit.

“I am truly excited about the future, and the opportunity and privilege of helping Penn innovators translate their ideas into real world solutions,” Swartley says. “It’s been a huge amount of work, but I’m 100% confident that we have the right team and structure to continue to accelerate innovation at Penn.”

The Penn Center for Innovation’s Celebration of Innovation on Tuesday, Dec. 6, will honor the patent recipients from this past fiscal year, as well as select partners, inventors, and startups that made exceptional achievements. The event will take place at the Glandt Forum in the Singh Center for Nanotechnology at 3205 Walnut St. from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

The Center also recently released its annual Year In Review. Inside this report, readers can learn more about the different ways that PCI catalyzed another record-breaking year for commercialization activity at Penn across multiple different technology sectors, further extending and expanding the University’s already prodigious global innovation impact.

Swartley talks to Penn Today about what the Penn Center for Innovation is and some notable accomplishments and highlights.

Penn ICorps team with a poster describing their startup idea
At the December 2021 Celebration of Innovation, the Penn ICorps team describes their startup idea. (Image: Penn Center for Innovation)

What is the Penn Center for Innovation?

Formally launched in 2014, we help faculty, staff, and student innovators translate the discoveries and ideas they create at Penn into new products and businesses for societal impact and benefit. Unlike most licensing and commercialization offices at other universities, PCI differentiates itself as a one-stop shop for virtually every type of potential business relationship between Penn innovators and their partners in the commercial sector. The expert staff at PCI is highly adept at helping to structure mutually beneficial business arrangements across a wide range of industries and technology development interests. Every day at PCI, we help convene a variety of deals and commercial partnerships, including startup companies, corporate alliances, and technology access agreements that result in the translational advancement of important technologies and innovative business ideas created at Penn, frequently inclusive of significant inflows of sponsored research funding.

One of the things that I often say to help explain the key difference between PCI and other more typical university technology transfer offices is that while traditional offices focus mainly on the ‘patent license’ transaction itself, PCI is more concerned with creating meaningful partnership connections and business relationships between Penn innovators and the private sector. Our philosophy is that if you get these types of vital connections right, the optimal business structure, transactional needs, and contractual agreements will naturally follow.

Talk about some of the major accomplishments highlighted in this year’s report.

We hit record levels in numerous categories across our key metrics dashboard in FY22. To me, this is absolute validation of the philosophical underpinnings of PCI and our single-minded focus on providing world-class client service to all our stakeholders across the University and building productive relationships with external partners. The number of executed commercial agreements is a great example of this. Prior to the launch of PCI, Penn typically entered into 200-250 commercial agreements per year, but nowadays that figure has nearly tripled, and we routinely enter into more than 700 agreements per year. These agreements are with startups and established companies alike, and they now form a broad, robust, and diverse pipeline and portfolio of commercial and translative activity.

That is extraordinary growth, and the results of unleashing so much commercial activity is increasingly evident in the number of Penn startups that are launched and receive professional investor capital, as well as the substantial and transformative flows of licensing income back to the University that is available to further support a broad range of research activities at Penn. It’s a truly virtuous cycle that we hope will generate lasting returns for the University for many years to come.

What is a key highlight for this fiscal year?

There are so many highlights to choose from, but the one that really stands out for me for FY22 is the patient impact story. Penn expertise and technologies licensed from the University are key components in nearly two dozen FDA-approved drugs and devices, directly impacting and improving the lives of more than a billion human beings. These approved treatments include numerous small molecule and cell-based cancer therapies, gene therapies for genetic diseases, and a recently approved surgical device. This ever-growing list of approved treatments also includes the two most widely deployed COVID vaccines currently available, Comirnaty® and Spikevax®, both of which rely upon foundational mRNA technology discovered at Penn by Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó.

How does PCI help provide Penn innovations and inventors with the best chance to advance the University’s strategic goals and impact the world at large?

The incredible and ever-expanding Penn mRNA story mentioned previously is a perfect example of how the technology nurturing, protection, and commercial partnership support provided by PCI is so vitally important to the overall innovative process at the University. At the time of Weissman’s and Karikó’s fundamental mRNA discoveries nearly two decades ago, it would have been virtually impossible to predict the immense and unprecedented impact their invention would eventually have on worldwide health, and in the midst of an unforeseen global pandemic to boot. But that is precisely what is so important about academic technology commercialization in direct support of promising early stage technologies at world-class research institutions like Penn. By encouraging, protecting, and seeking development partners for hundreds, if not thousands, of discoveries and inventions before it has become fully apparent that they will actually become products and make a societal impact, University programs like PCI play a critically important role in the overall continuum of technology development and eventual social impact

PCI’s model facilitates an efficient and comprehensive service for faculty through a variety of means. Talk about some of those initiatives.

At PCI, we’re always interested in refining and expanding the range of services and products we offer to our many different innovation clients. During FY22, we were pleased to support complementary innovation efforts across the University, including programs and centers in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), the School of Dental Medicine, and Wharton. We supported a SEAS-led initiative focused on the internet of things for agricultural technology development, and we entered into a new drug-development accelerator program with Autobahn Labs. These are just a few examples drawn from many, but they emphasize our commitment to understanding the diverse needs of our clients across the entire University and bringing new business connections and solutions to the table to meet those needs.

Anything else you would like to add?

I would like to take a few moments to specifically recognize my amazing staff and team at PCI who do the heavy lifting every day and deserve a large share of the credit for PCI’s achievements. I’d also like to express my sincere gratitude to my predecessor Mike Cleare, my visionary boss Dawn Bonnell, former President Amy Gutmann, and Penn’s entire executive leadership team and Board of Trustees. Their consistent support and encouragement over the last decade has been absolutely vital to ensuring the success of this groundbreaking new model in support of innovation at Penn. Of course, none of this would be possible without the amazing creativity, inventiveness, and relentless energy of Penn’s world-class faculty and research community.