Students, Entrepreneurs, Local Manufacturers Driving Innovation in the Erie Region
At Penn State Behrend’s Innovation Commons lab, students, industry, faculty, and community members collaborate to solve real business challenges and deliver solutions that improve lives, support student career success and spur economic development.
Located in the Burke Center on campus, Innovation Commons is one of 20 innovation hubs that received funding from Invent Penn State. The lab is equipped with AutoCAD modeling programs, scanners, and 3D printers for prototyping. The hub provides services, such as product design, computer-aided drafting, electrical component design, no-cost 3D printing of prototypes, laser cutting and engraving, 3D scanning, and product feasibility consultation. It also offers 3D printer technical support for elementary and high schools in the region. The facility is configured so ideas can be explored from technical and business perspectives simultaneously. Since January 2016, Innovation Commons has helped 120 innovators move their ideas forward, supported more than 180 industry projects, developed more than 80 products – 11 of which are already on the market – and helped launch 13 new business startups.
The Innovation Commons – Where Students Lead
Students manage the lab and work directly with manufacturers to solve problems. For example, a local rubber manufacturer recently wanted to expand revenue opportunities by developing new products. Students helped digitally design and prototype rubberized pet toys, which are now sold nationally. The prototyping service decreased the manufacturer’s risks and reduced the cost of market entry since past product development practices required multiple, expensive molds.
Other projects include developing a 3D printing technology that allows users to print highly flexible material and helping a local contractor with a patented product to help stabilize wallboard during installation. (The contractor sold the building system.) Penn State Behrend students have even been named as co-inventors on 10 new patent applications for products developed at Innovation Commons.
“The lab is an ideation, product development, and prototyping center staffed by skilled students who guide innovators and entrepreneurs through early development stages,” said Jacob Marsh, the industry relations coordinator at Penn State Behrend.
Regional Collaborations Thrive
In 2018, Penn State Behrend formalized a collaborative agreement with nearby universities and the Erie County Public Library to create the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network, which provides an expanded range of free services for entrepreneurs and businesses. The network includes Gannon University, providing business planning services; Mercyhurst University, providing market intelligence and research; Edinboro University, offering branding and marketing; and Penn State Behrend’s Innovation Commons, offering product design and prototyping. Erie County’s Blasco Library provides access to a makerspace, which helps foster creativity and enables experimentation in a de-risked environment before an entrepreneur gets serious about moving to the next step.
Research shows entrepreneurs who receive help early in their startup journey are more likely to establish roots – and jobs. Evidence supporting that research can be found in some recent Behrend graduates who have used the Innovation Commons as an entrepreneur Bootcamp, helping them launch their Erie-based businesses. As a result, Erie’s future is bright as more innovators awake to the opportunities Innovation Commons and the broader entrepreneurial network provide.