Students and researchers test new ideas at Innovation Café

At the Innovation Café fall forum event, organized by Penn State College of Medicine’s Office of Technology Development, engaging conversation and great ideas, were on the menu. Innovation Café is a networking program, held quarterly to encourage collaboration between investors, entrepreneurial faculty, students and industry professionals committed to building a vibrant startup community in central Pennsylvania. A portion of the recent program featured the Penn State Innovations Program, a four-week course based on the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps curriculum that helps researchers and clinicians discover the commercial potential for their technology. Faculty from the Penn State College of Medicine's first cohort in the program were on hand to talk about their experience, including: Dr. Elias Rizk, neurosurgery; Dr. Will Hazard, anesthesiology; Dr. Tolulope Falaiye, pediatric gastroenterology; Dr. Rena Kass, breast surgery; and Dr. Kristine Widders, breast surgery.

The Innovation Café also was the perfect opportunity for graduate students in Penn State Harrisburg’s Professor of Practice of Entrepreneurship Kevin Harter’s Management 897 Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital class to conduct research on their own innovative ideas. With a guest list of more than 40 professionals, Harter's MBA students and undergraduate students from the college's Entrepreneur Club had the chance to discuss their business ideas with a new audience. Harter, who serves as director of Penn State Harrisburg’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, urged students to share their idea, but take a different approach. “We were not supposed to tell them about our idea, but instead we had to find out if there is a need for the product or services we want to offer,” said Stephen Orr, an MBA student with undergraduate degrees in physics and engineering. Orr explained that the class was divided into four teams. He and three other classmates were on one team that circulated among the guests to get a feel for whether or not their business idea had merit in the marketplace. They had to ask questions, listen carefully to the responses and discover if they were on the right track. “An innovative business concept has to meet a need or solve a problem, not the other way around,” said Orr. Orr's group, which included Josiah Owhe and Edward Stum, envisioned a year-round vertical greenhouse that would grow and supply fresh heirloom tomatoes, vegetables and herbs for restaurants. Based on the team’s Café research, the idea shows promise.

Another team, with members who included Chalwe Diallo and David Lucaassen, also received positive feedback during their research. “It [their idea] has to do with security in the workplace,” explained Diallo. “Without giving too much away, we needed to find out if there is a perceived need for an advanced security system for schools and businesses that is easy to use and effective.” MBA student Liping Qin had teamed up with Vasudha Bharatula and two others to research the need for quick and easy access to information on brand name vs. generic prescription drugs. “It’s more of an educational tool that would give people information on choosing whether a brand name or generic drug would be their best choice,” said Qin.

Members of the Penn State Harrisburg Entrepreneur Club also shared their ideas with Café guests. One idea related to software for ordering drinks at a bar, while another was for renewable energy home systems. Still another was for pre-sliced peanut butter and jelly (think cheese slices). “Attending the Innovation Café was an opportunity for students to come up with solutions to problems by asking questions,” said Harter. “That’s how successful products and services come about, by fulfilling needs and solving problems.”