Penn Center for Innovation Is Expanding University Commercialization

Three years ago, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann launched the Penn Center for Innovation with the goal to provide infrastructure, leadership and resources to transfer promising Penn inventions, know-how and related assets into the marketplace for the public good.   

Since then, PCI has expanded commercialization within the University, helping to make alliances with industry and translate promising ideas, product concepts and discoveries into things that provide a benefit back to society.

PCI replaced the Center for Tech Transfer, becoming a more strategic organization, integrating other functions at Penn so it could become a “one-stop shop” for corporate contracting and corporate outreach.

“The pieces that were CTT are still in there, but it's much bigger,” said John Swartley, Penn’s associate vice provost for research and managing director of the Penn Center for Innovation. “It’s licensing and patenting, but it's also new-venture creation, corporate-alliance formation, corporate contracts and corporate outreach. All of these different facets of the commercialization continuum are now housed in one unit, and that's a big change because technology transfer offices are traditionally thought of as transactional organizations. They patent intellectual property and enter into licenses. PCI is much more relationship based. It’s all about how we can bring the creators of the ideas and technology together with the investors, entrepreneurs and companies that want to take them further.”

Recently, PCI was recognized in the Milken Institute’s report on technology transfer in the higher education sector. The Center performed strongly and consistently across all four categories: IP protection, licensing, venture creation and successful commercialization of Penn technology assets.

​​​​​​​Laurie Actman, chief marketing, communications and program officer at PCI said, “Penn’s performance in the Milken report reflects the strong leadership and consistent support from President Gutmann, the trustees and other members of Penn leadership towards expanding our commercialization and innovation activities as articulated in the Penn Compact 2020 and through the launch of PCI and the Pennovation Center.”

PCI has allowed Penn to do more significant product development in joint collaboration and partnership with the private sector. Since its launch, the Center has built relationships with companies such as Novartis, Biogen and Celgene, helping to accelerate the rate of commercialization. The percentage of R&D support that now comes in to the total Penn enterprise from corporate sources has risen from 6 to 15 percent.

​​​​​​​“We’re being innovative about the way we innovate,” Swartley said. “We're really starting to learn how to flex our muscle as an institution in this space. I think our reputation with the private sector is very strong, particularly in our ability to enter into and participate in these broad-based research and development alliances as well as our ability to start companies.”

PCI was also directly involved in the planning and execution that led to the creation and opening in 2016 of the Pennovation Center, a business incubator and laboratory which Dawn Bonnell, the University's vice provost for research, said is a physical embodiment of the Penn Compact 2020, connecting innovation and impact, two of its major tenets.

It’s important, Bonnell said, for students to be educated in an environment in which this is intrinsic.

“The pathways to take academic research into the commercial sphere,” she said, “have evolved pretty dramatically over the last seven or eight years. I think the culture has changed so that students and faculty and even society in general are more attuned to those mechanisms. Penn has been way out in the front in terms of providing the services and the expertise that enables these new mechanisms and so that's why we have just risen up the ranks.”

“When I think of the Penn Compact 2020, I think of the prescience of moving in this direction as a big academic institution without necessarily having all your peers with you,” Swartley said. “That takes some courage and a significant amount of leadership. There's this virtuous matrix that's created because of this broader concept or philosophy that's espoused in Compact 2020 that pervades the whole institution.”

According to Swartley, there's a growing recognition of how necessary it is for academic institutions not only to be good at research and education but also to be directly involved in helping to translate the ideas, discoveries and product concepts that are created there into things that actually provide a benefit back to society.