Social Entrepreneurship Takes Root In Happy Valley
PowerPoints and prototypes ready, teams of young entrepreneurs are eager to pitch their ideas to angel investors and venture capitalists. There's a website
for Penn State students looking for the perfect roommate and off-campus apartment. A set of headphones
embedded into a headband so you can use your digital music player to lull yourself to sleep.
Welcome to Penn State Demo Day, a showcase of the university as a hub of innovation.
Happy Valley may have a reputation for football, active research labs and Penn State's perennial status as one of the nation's top party schools, but a significant community envisions State College being known to the world as a center of new enterprise. Think Silicon Valley, but with a Nittany Lion twist.
These entrepreneurs don't just want to make a million dollars before their peers pay off their student loans. Their primary goal is to create good for the world.
That's the philosophy behind the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship
(HESE) initiative. It’s not a degree program, but an academic initiative for freshmen, doctoral students and everyone in between. Students in the program sign up to work on a specific project to improve life in a developing country, some earning class credit along the way. About 500 students from a variety of majors are taking part this year.
Khanjan Mehta, one of the initiative's faculty leaders, stresses that HESE isn't about affluent collegians sweeping into poor communities, completing service projects and flying home with a warm fuzzy feeling. Rather, the initiatives grow out of long-term relationships in the communities Penn State works, and are part of a growing movement toward using business expertise to solve society's challenges.
"A phrase we use pretty often is 'self-determination.' That's critical," Mehta says. "We don't talk about going over and helping them or empowering them. We talk about co-creating."
For example, a HESE venture called Mashavu
places medical testing equipment at computer kiosks in remote parts of Kenya. Trained locals measure patients' pulse, lung function and other metrics. The information is then transmitted to doctors over cell-phone lines. The devices are inexpensive since they require little more than a sensor.
Other projects are based in Tanzania and India. In their students, HESE coordinators hope to spark an entrepreneurial way of thinking and international mindset. And Mehta says students aren't willing to wait until graduation to turn their passions into action.
"They want to make a difference and they want to do it now," he says.
Nittany Lion entrepreneurs don't necessarily have to get their start in class, either. In April, two members of the Beta Theta Pi
fraternity launched Innoblue
, the driving force behind Penn State Demo Day. Innoblue provides business resources to startups launched by Penn State students, faculty and employees, and aims to work throughout the State College region. About 20 startups have applied to the program so far. Co-founders Jon Tornetta and David Adewumi initially wanted to focus on ideas to improve civic life, but now Innoblue encompasses ventures with social and business aims as well.
The fraternity brothers bring plenty of business acumen to Innoblue. Adewumi, a senior, wrote for innovation news website VentureBeat
and launched short-lived online storytelling platform Heekya
. Tornetta's a junior who interned at healthcare payment firm InstaMed
while in high school and is currently pursuing an MBA and a bachelor's degree in chemistry.
Innoblue is looking at locations for a co-working space it plans to open next year. Beyond Happy Valley, it plans to launch student chapters at other Penn State campuses throughout the commonwealth and has already tapped a junior to run a chapter at the main campus. The idea is that Innoblue would be a non-profit overseeing the individual campus chapters.
While founded and run by students, Innoblue isn't an entirely new idea at Penn State. Lion Launch Pad
, which began in 2007, helps students move their ideas from the classroom to the real world. Co-director Liz Kisenwether says it's not enough for students to have a great idea for a product – they also need to know how to form a successful business. So Lion Launch Pad helps students polish their business ideas and point them toward resources to facilitate growth.
"I bump into teams, probably every three weeks, I knew nothing about," Kisenwether says.
Why do so many new ventures start at Penn State?
Christian Brady, dean of the university's Schreyer Honors College
, says that's because it's a massive research institution that taps into students' creativity. Part of the explanation also lies in the fact that 36 percent of Penn State undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college. By definition, these students are especially driven.
Kisenwether also points to the poor economy. Students know they're not as likely to get hired right out of college as they would have a few years ago, so they figure they may as well make their own jobs. Even if students don't want to start businesses right after graduation, developing entrepreneurial skills in college makes them more valuable to employers.
One venture getting assistance from Lion Launch Pad is Altag, formed around a detachable system to convert standard bicycles to electrically-powered vehicle. Matt Barnes, in his second year studying mechanical engineering, explains that Altag grew out of a summer research project with his professor, Dr. Sean Brennan, but now they're trying to produce it commercially.
Next year's plans for the device include a port to charge electronics and a smartphone application to show riders how fast they are going. Lion Launch Pad is funding the product's next prototype. Brennan and Barnes aren't looking for outside investment yet. But thanks to a venture capital fund
whose investments are chosen by MBA students, they did connect with a graduate business student who is joining the team.
Joe Barron of BlueTree Allied Angels
, a Wexford investment group, says student entrepreneurs often need help figuring out how they're going to make money from their great ideas. That, of course, is one of the most important steps toward getting outside funding. "I invest in companies because for every dollar I give you, I want $10 back or $20 back," Barron says.
That being said, he says Penn State certainly has the seeds of an entrepreneurial culture. But those aiming to build that culture should do more to reach out to investors beyond Pennsylvania and make more of them aware of the university's research and business resources. Penn State could host an event showcasing prototypes developed in the lab with federal grant money, for example.
Students from HESE are also seeking money for their projects, like WishVast
, which capitalizes on the ubiquity of cell phones in certain African countries, coupled with the fact that phone calls there are expensive while text messages are cheap -- and free to receive. So far the venture has received $40,000 in private grants, and the team is waiting on another $150,000.
Laborers who sign up for WishVast can use it to find jobs, while customers can use it to find contractors. For example, a woman who needs her roof fixed can use WishVast to find a reputable repairman. The whole thing operates with text messages.
Part of the WishVast team that traveled to Kenya this summer to try out the system and more than 300 people signed up in 12 days. Now the team is working to appropriate WishVast to connect tourists and resident hosts in South Africa.
Barnes, whose focus is electrically powered bicycles, says in some ways college is the perfect time to start a business. Students working on their bachelors' degrees generally don't have to worry about mundane matters like working full-time and supporting families, so they can afford to take risks. And the course Barnes is on now means he may have created a job for himself to take when he graduates.
"I'm not reliant on another company having a position open that's exactly what I want to do," he says.
Rebecca VanderMeulen is a freelance writer who lives near Downingtown. As she tells friends out of state, that's between the cheesesteaks and the Amish. Send feedback here.Get Keystone Edge delivered to your inbox free each week by clicking here.
PHOTOS:Penn State University Engineering Professor Khanjan Mehta in his lab
Penn State University Professor Elizabeth Kisenwether, founder of the Lion Launch Pad, an independent, non-profit business accelerator for Penn State undergraduates
Attendees at the first annual Demo Day 2010 at Penn State University listen and record video on their cell phones the presentations of a dozen student entrepreneurs
Professor Khanjan Mehta holds in his hands the $10 pulse oximeter he and his students devised in Kenya during their Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program
Mithilesh Ranganna, a member of the Innoblue team, takes a call between meetings
Penn State University's Christian Brady, dean of the Schreyer Honors College, gives his opening remarks at Demo Day
David Adewumi (left) and Jon Tornetta of the Innoblue team
All photographs by BRAD BOWER