Success Story

  • Jim Pietropaolo, Associate Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization, kicks off a Startup Leadership Network event.

"Every company came out of the event more knowledgeable about the industry they plan to enter. Three CEO positions have been formalized and approximately 10 advisor roles are in place or in various stages of development."

 Jim Pietropaolo
Associate Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization

Pilot Program Matches Penn State Tech Startups with Executive Talent

One of Invent Penn State’s strategic goals is to increase the quantity and quality of the startup companies emerging from Penn State. With significant effort and investment in startup support and education programs over the last few years, Penn State faculty startups now have a strong support system to help them as they test new technology and explore viable business ideas. Once they launch, though, they need an experienced management team to help guide them through growth. University startups located in metropolitan areas enjoy a large pool of nearby talent to assist in this process. For startups coming from geographically isolated Penn State, finding this talent is a challenge.

In 2018 the Startup Leadership Network (SLN) was piloted to address this challenge. The program was first envisioned by a group of successful Penn State alumni interested in sharing their executive experience with Penn State startups. Tasked with bringing the program to life, James Delattre, associate vice president for research, pulled together a team of startup specialists to explore ways to increase access to executive talent, a key ingredient to startup success. Drawing from Penn State’s alumni network of experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders, the Startup Leadership Network matches startups in need of management help with seasoned executives who are interested in giving back.

“We did considerable benchmarking against universities similar to Penn State who recognize the importance of strong leadership and quality mentoring in startup success,” says Delattre. “Programs like the Startup Leadership Network are key to connecting visionary inventors with talented business people.”

Jim Pietropaolo, associate director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization, was hired to build and grow the SLN. The program facilitates profiling and categorizing companies, making introductions, matchmaking and relationship building through a series of industry specific pitch-like events, as well as through email and telephone communications. It’s a highly technical, detailed and communications-intensive process.

“Our companies have a wide range of management skillsets they are looking for, often times tied to the stage of development of the company,” said Pietropaolo. “At the same time, SLN members have a range of ways in which they are interested in engaging with the companies.” The SLN connects them.

The SLN looks for executives with success in the startup world as well as experience with established technology companies in four broad industry domains, including Medical Sciences, Food and Agricultural Sciences, IT and EdTech and Engineering/Materials/Energy.

The experts are thoroughly vetted and selected based on their ability to provide management and expertise to startups because they can play a variety of roles. Initially, they act as advisors, providing strategic feedback and guidance. They may also act as technical experts, giving product and manufacturing feedback or senior management advice more in the role of a CEO, COO or CFO. Confidentiality agreements are required by all who participate.

For the industry experts, participation in SLN is a way for them to give back to Penn State, help to further innovation, and contribute to the success of others within their industry. Some are interested in a formal role within a startup, and the SLN is a great way for them to get acquainted

Participant startups are identified from a number of Invent Penn State related organizations and activities such as the Penn State Office of Technology Management, the Fund for Innovation, LaunchBoxes and Innovation Hubs, the Ben Franklin TechCelerators, the Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference, and others.

Initially, participating startups meet with the industry experts who provide them with strategic feedback. The SLN held three events in its pilot year and was successful at creating connections between startups and experienced management.

“Every company came out of the event more knowledgeable about the industry they plan to enter,” said Pietropaolo. “Three CEO positions have been formalized and approximately 10 advisor roles are in place or in various stages of development.”

“We are excited about the program, and continue to focus on pipeline development,” says Dr. Delattre.

To learn more about the SLN contact Jim Pietropaolo, SLN director, at