University Economic Development Association


Award Category: Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Project Site: Innovation Café
Submitted By: Penn State University College of Medicine
Contact: Keith Marmer, 717.531.8496

Case Study


The Innovation Café© was created by Penn State College of Medicine to meet a definitive need in the commercialization of university innovation — to provide access to resources required to bring an idea out of the lab and into the marketplace.

The Innovation Café©, or iCafé©, is an exciting focal point for expanding and sustaining the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Central Pennsylvania. The centerpiece of the initiative is a reoccurring networking forum featuring high profile guest speakers discussing industry innovations, business trends, regulations and their impact on the ecosystem. Each event also features a start-up company introducing regional stakeholders to entrepreneurs, intellectual and investment capital, and commercialization opportunities. iCafé© is a platform to engage investors, entrepreneurial faculty, students, government and industry professionals committed to building a vibrant start-up community in Central Pennsylvania.

Building on the Innovation Café© brand, Penn State and its partners has expanded the platform to include educational programming, access to capital and entrepreneurial mentorship.  Educational programs include entrepreneur forums and topic-specific lectures for early entrepreneurs all the way through advanced year-long programs for high growth CEOs. Earlier this year, College of Medicine launched an Innovation Fund to invest in promising technologies striving to achieve proof-of-concept. Start-up companies within the ecosystem also benefit from working with the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program. These and other programs are delivered with partners including Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Life Science Greenhouse of Central PA, PA Department of Community & Economic Development, Capitol Region Economic Development Corporation, Hershey Center for Applied Research, ExecuStar and Penn Venture Partners.


Penn State has sought to commercialize innovative research for decades. The economic impacts of those efforts, however, have lagged significantly behind most comprehensive research universities. In 2009, Penn State ranked 75th in the nation for licensing revenues from intellectual property yet ranked 11th among all university systems in total research expenditures. In terms of impact, this resulted in 0.02% of Penn State’s economic potential relative to the top 50 licensing revenue-generating universities. Within the College of Medicine, only a handful of faculty and students were pursuing entrepreneurial efforts and doing so with little to no university support. In 2009, College of Medicine accounted for only 15% of Penn State’s inventions whereas medical schools often account for more than half of a university’s inventions. In addition, College of Medicine had generated only one new startup company during the previous nine years.

At an operational level, the reasons why entrepreneurship lagged at Penn State are numerous and cut across several areas of the organization. The challenges included a weak culture of innovation and entrepreneurship; a bureaucratic approach to an entrepreneurial process; a lack of meaningful engagement with the entrepreneurial ecosystem; inflexible, passive policies and practices towards commercialization and, with respect to the College of Medicine, geographic isolation from the other colleges (and therefore innovative students and faculty) within Penn State.


In order to change the status quo, the Office of Technology Development at Penn State College of Medicine (PSCoM) addressed the notion that great ideas are like seeds – they need the right amount of nurturing and the right environment to grow into something vibrant and fruitful. Accordingly PSCoM established an initiative – Innovation Café – where innovations had the proper environment to foster their commercial growth.

Initially, a meeting was convened with regional stakeholders. PSCoM recognized that in order for this initiative to be successful, it could not actually be a PSCoM initiative. In fact, during the initial stakeholder meeting it was agreed that this initiative, Innovation Café, should not be ‘owned’ by any organization or individual. While PSCoM would champion Innovation Café, its structure, goals, objectives and success would be determined and achieved as a unified effort.

Stakeholders that convened represented academia, local and state government, chamber of commerce, economic development authorities, investors, entrepreneurs, industry and service providers. These stakeholders formed an advisory board to shepherd the development of the initiative. Innovation Café was structured to become the regional engine for the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The primary vision for Innovation Café was to create a place to meet; where entrepreneurs, researchers, investors and business people can get together to share ideas and opportunities and ultimately foster innovative new technologies and companies.

The advisory board deemed that in tangible form, Innovation Café would have four main components. The first component would be a recurring networking event, ideally on a monthly basis, where introductions are made and business is transacted. The events would feature a speaker of prominence as well as showcase technologies that are ready to enter the commercialization process. The goal being to establish Innovation Café as the ‘can’t miss’ event on stakeholders’ calendars.

The second component would provide for delivery of educational content. The content would need to vary and target different stakeholder groups. For example, one educational series was designed to target researchers, to promote innovation and invention disclosures within the academic environment. Another series was created to provide in-depth training on entrepreneurship and new venture creation. While Innovation Café was to cultivate a strong educational programming function, the advisory board noted to take care to ensure timely and appropriate content and not to ‘overload’ the community.

Investment opportunities would be the basis of the third component of Innovation Café. This included regular events for showcase presentations to investors. Beyond the showcase itself, these events would also provide a forum for investors to interact with technologies even before they are ready for investment as well as to interact with each other.

The fourth component of Innovation Café was a physical presence. A physical hub was identified as a necessary foundation to support regional entrepreneurship and economic development as well as provide a sense of place for Innovation Café; where people from various stakeholder perspectives can interact on both a spontaneous and organized basis.

The advisory board established a six-month window to organize prior to hosting its first event. By employing tactics such as lean startup and open innovation, Innovation Café was formally launched and held its first event in January 2012. Given the lack of available resources, Innovation Café initiative was treated much like a startup company and was launched as a ‘minimum viable product, or MVP.’ In other words, a grass roots initiative to gathering the ecosystem together was taken. The first event was managed on a bare bones basis and attracted a handful of participants. As word spread, attendance at events has gone from a small gathering to routine attendance of more than 100 at most events. This has led to Innovation Café taking on a branding effort to support other regional innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives. Innovation Café now lends its brand cache to events sponsored by other organizations. The open innovation approach to Innovation Café has required that the name and events be freed from university bureaucracy. To accomplish this, the advisory board is continually tasked with bringing ideas and issues impacting on the ecosystem to be incorporated into events and related programming. Innovation Café openly invites stakeholders to participate and shape the initiative.

Innovation Café is unique in that it established a regional ecosystem without ‘gatekeepers’ to access investors and key decision makers. In addition, Innovation Café did not employ a local perspective. Rather it capitalizes on its proximity to the Philadelphia region and its assets, as well as geographic positioning on the western border of the Boston-Washington DC corridor. While the members of the advisory board represent a number of key stakeholder groups within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, there was recognition that broader engagement was required.  In effect, Innovation Café sought to become the ‘Innovation Concierge’ for stakeholders across the regional ecosystem, providing navigation and access to further ones’ pursuits based on individual needs.


The positive impact of Innovation Café can be seen and measured in many ways. Examples include:

  • Six new startup companies in FY 2013 (compared to just one startup formed in the previous nine years combined).
  • 217% increase in inventions disclosed.
  • Over $1.3 million in follow-on sponsored research from startup companies and related initiatives.
  • Over $1 million in follow-on investments in startup companies.
  • 211% growth in number of faculty involved in innovation.
  • Creation of technology commercialization seed investment fund.
  • Events attended by more than 500 members of the regional ecosystem in the past year.

In addition to these objective measures of growth, Penn State College of Medicine innovations are for the first time competing regionally and nationally in the innovation ecosystem for investment and entrepreneurs. Early successes include multiple commercialization competition awards and investment funding and job creation in our startup companies.

Future Considerations

Future plans include the addition of dedicated entrepreneurial and investor events. As scale is achieved, entrepreneur boot camps and investor pitch events are being added under the Innovation Café brand. In addition, an annual Innovation Awards dinner, launched two years ago, is now being brought under the Innovation Café brand as well. Medical device and digital health accelerators are also being considered. Care has been taken to invite participation at new types of events only once each event could be sustained.  The Innovation Café initiative is completely scalable. The centerpiece events as well as the associated programs have been scaled to accommodate participation across the regional ecosystem which includes 11 partnering organizations as well as 15 local colleges and universities. The collective regional commitment and participation ensures sustainability.

This model can be replicated in almost any ecosystem. The initiative and related programs are likewise sustainable because they have become embedded within the ecosystem. The low dependence on financial sponsorship, on a single organization and on a key individual has made Innovation Café a highly scalable, sustainable and reproducible initiative for ecosystems of any size.

Finalist Presentation

UEDA Awards of Excellence Finalists presented at the Annual Summit in Pittsburgh on October 28, 2013. Summit attendees then voted for the best initiative in each category.