Hands on his hips, Daniel Powell glances out the window—he’s in his office at the Smilow Center for Translational Research. Mesmerizing and inspiring, it’s a glimmering view like no other, overlooking Philadelphia’s unique, growing skyline.
He looks down, then turns: “Penn is the place to be,” he says.
Joining the University in late 2007 was a no-brainer for Powell, an international expert in cancer immunobiology and translational immunotherapy.
“When I considered my options to join another group, there really wasn’t another choice,” he says. “I came to the University of Pennsylvania because I could see that the vision of innovation was shared from top to bottom.”
For the past decade, Powell, an associate professor in the Perelman School of Medicine, has helped lead discoveries out of his own lab, the Powell Lab. Working on numerous inventions, he and his 10-person team—made up of medical and postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, a lab manager, and a project manager—have improved T-cell manufacturing, and created novel therapies for treating T-cell lymphomas, new CAR-T therapies for ovarian cancer, and universal CAR-T cells, an innovation that makes CAR-T cells more regulatable and versatile.
“The reason that I find the Penn environment so appealing is that it’s provided this fertile ground for me to be innovative, to make discoveries, and to perform high-risk, high-reward experimentation that we think will create the next wave of effective therapies,” he says. “Essentially, you can say, without risk, there is no reward.”
That reward, he adds, is impact.
Amy Gutmann, who has weaved innovation into the University’s strategic mission since her earliest days as president, calls Penn’s influence “perfect impact.”
“It’s that moment when daringly original ideas, unparalleled scholarly resources, and a transformative culture of innovation all meet,” Gutmann says. “Impact is perfect when it can save lives; when it can change how we think or improve how we live.”
Today, Penn is booming. The same research enterprise that created ENIAC in the late 1940s, the world’s first all-electronic computer, earned approval this past August by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a gene therapy treatment for cancer—an achievement never seen before.
“For the first time outside of clinical trials, young patients suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia could access lifesaving immunotherapy that transforms their own T-cells into cancer-killers,” says Gutmann. “After more than 20 years of hard work, perseverance, and pioneering research, our own Dr. Carl June and his brilliant team at Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had successfully shifted the paradigm in cancer research.”
Less than four months later, in December 2017, the FDA approved a gene therapy developed by Jean Bennett and her team, which can help to restore sight for patients suffering from an inherited form of retinal blindness. The decision marked the nation’s first gene therapy approved for the treatment of a genetic disease, and the first in which a new, corrective gene is injected directly into a patient.
“These are just incredible accomplishments with real patient impact,” says John Swartley, associate vice provost for research and managing director of the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI), the University’s very own hub for innovation, venture creation, and commercialization. “And neither of them would have happened without the sustained effort of an army of people, researchers, clinicians, animal handlers, technicians, clinical trial specialists, administrators, my own team at PCI, Penn leadership, and many, many, many others.”
But Penn’s impact from innovation touches far beyond the medical field. Every day, University researchers are on campus and at the Pennovation Center—a business incubator and lab space at Pennovation Works—designing robots to advance our lives, breaking new ground in nanotechnology, and turning ideas from basic science into applications that will affect the greater good. They’re on the ground preserving endangered history, setting standards that improve education for children, and fighting for what’s right one injustice at a time.
You name it, if it’s cutting-edge, the University’s researchers have their hands in it.
“From the very beginning, dating back to our founder Benjamin Franklin, it’s been at our core to be inventing,” says Dawn Bonnell, Penn’s Vice Provost for Research. “And we’ve always been about having inventions that actually help people.”
Inherent in Penn’s DNA, “innovation is part of the University’s culture,” Bonnell adds. That goes for the students, too.
In 2016, Gutmann created the President’s Innovation Prize, which awards a graduating Penn senior, or a team of graduating seniors, $100,000 (plus a $50,000 living stipend per team member) to envision and implement an innovative, commercial venture that makes a positive difference in the world. William Fry, a student of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, earned last year’s prize to grow his early stage software company, SolutionLoft. This year’s winner, or winners, along with the President’s Engagement Prize awardees, will be announced in the coming month.
“We have an emphasis on campus of encouraging and enabling any students—undergraduates included—who want to carry out research,” says Bonnell. “And the whole ecosystem of taking ideas from labs to commercialization has really expanded throughout the years.”
Just weeks after the FDA announcement approving June’s breakthrough, Penn placed fourth in Reuters Top 100: The World’s Most Innovative Universities, up from No. 8 last year. Penn also moved up to No. 3 from No. 17 in the most recent National Science Foundation Education R&D Survey.
These rankings come as a pleasing affirmation, says Gutmann, but no surprise.
Penn’s impressive, $1 billion research budget, intertwined with the University’s own $430 million commitment, and paired with funding from industry and foundations, often goes toward paying for salaries of investigators, trainees, and workers in labs, costly equipment and supplies that go into experiments, and the infrastructure and facilities that keep everything top-notch.
“There are very few institutes in the world that can conduct the type of cutting-edge translational research being performed here,” says Powell. “At this point in time, our potential for impact is only limited by our imagination and creativity; Penn provides the infrastructure and resources necessary to make impact a reality.”
Penn’s investment in innovation strengthens everything the University does, says Gutmann.
“It is a necessary evolution of higher education, advancing both a culture and an ecosystem of discovery,” she explains. “Fostering innovation gives us insight and tools for teaching better, researching more creatively and daringly, and sharing our findings more effectively with people everywhere.”