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Administrative Support Systems Help Researchers in Many Ways

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Science Journal, Summer 2001

Not many people work harder than Gary Weber at changing the landscape of Penn State. He builds bridges every day.

As assistant vice president for research and director of technology transfer, those bridges might not be as visible as the overpass between Davey Laboratory and Osmond Laboratory or as much of a landmark as the planned pedestrian walkway over North Atherton Street at Pollock Road, but they are no less important. In fact, as Weber works to change how the University goes about its business in science and technology, his administrative and interpersonal bridges might effect more change than any of the concrete-and-steel bridges on campus.

“We try to get our faculty coming at a problem from one side and the business community coming at it from another,” Weber says. “We want to get useful technology into use. We do not want it gathering dust in the back of some laboratory because nobody can think of a use for it.”

For years, Penn State has been a research powerhouse, but it has not been as adept as its peer institutions at commercializing the results of that research.

Pulsed-laser Deposition photoSome scientists use pulsed-laser deposition to fabricate oxide-thin films and heterostructures.

On the job a little more than a year, Weber’s responsibilities include slightly altering and expanding Penn State’s approach. Licensing agreements and patents no longer are the final step or the only avenue for faculty members whose research has produced an innovative idea or product. While those traditional means work well in some instances, the University has substituted another model that encourages Penn State’s participation as an equity-holding partner in companies co-founded by faculty members in other instances.

Often, Weber works to facilitate interactions between faculty members and the business community, seeking answers and options for addressing sometimes complex problems. Such an approach provides more opportunity for interested faculty members and some money for the University, but Weber insists the bottom line for him is not the financial bottom line.

“To me, it’s less about making any particular start-up company profitable—we do not want to put our faculty members in a position where there might be a conflict of interest—and more about getting technology commercialized that otherwise would not,” Weber says. “Sometimes it is hard for people to really get their arms around the concept. Even among administrators, they have to see that it does make the interested faculty members more engaged and more productive.”

Such a soft-sell business approach takes time to gain acceptance in a higher-education setting. Not all faculty members who develop business-friendly or patentable devices or techniques want to commercialize their results.

After earning both his doctoral and his bachelor’s degrees at Penn State, Weber understands the importance of academic pursuits and the value of academic research. At the same time, as a former vice president and deputy chief executive for technology and machinery at General Electric-Tungstram and as the former head of all science and technology for PPG Industries , he brings a business perspective to his position.

Really, the lure of building those bridges when faculty members are interested was the main reason the western Pennsylvania native returned to Penn State last year.

While some scientists have no interest in intellectual property and patents, the potential rewards do appeal to others. For them, Weber and his office provide a valuable means of support by working through intellectual-property challenges and providing flexibility in regard to licensing and equity options.

“We treat every case, every researcher, on an individual basis,” Weber says. “In one instance, licensing might be the right route. In another, it might be an equity position that works best.”

Such support has become a necessity at a major research university. Administrators know faculty members want such options, and the faculty members appreciate having support for their ideas when those ideas are ready to move out of the laboratory.

At Penn State, the University’s commitment, in terms of manpower and resources, such as Innovation Park , has grown greatly in recent years. Often, potential faculty members ask to meet with someone from the Intellectual Property Office when they visit Penn State during the interview process. While not all faculty members utilize the assistance of the office, those who do see it as a plus for them professionally—as well as for the University and the economy.

Invention Disclosures chart

Since 1986, the number of invention disclosures at Penn State has increased nearly 200 percent, with a significant number of those in the Eberly College of Science.

“You cannot underestimate the value of intellectual property and supporting faculty members whose work can be patented,” says Vincent Crespi, Downsbrough Associate Professor of Physics. “Not everyone wants to pursue those things, but having an option to do so in the right situation improves the work environment. Personally, it is not a matter of trying to get every little thing patented. That would just be padding your resume. At the same time, some things can benefit the department and University, and, in some cases, they can benefit the local economy.”

Administrative support goes beyond intellectual property or technology transfer. It also includes a separate staff dedicated solely to support researchers who seek grants—and such support has been integral in recently funded programs such as the Center for Collective Phenomena in Restricted Geometries (CPRG).

While all such proposals get judged mostly on their scientific merits, the contributions of the staff help to provide a business-world perspective in terms of leveraging the proposal with other programs on campus and positioning the proposal to increase its appeal to funding agencies.

“You have to understand that no such center becomes a reality without some of the world’s best scientists,” says Paul Hallacher, director of research program development. “We’ve been successful recently because they’re at the top of their fields. At the same time, if we can demonstrate a value-added contribution it only makes the proposal stronger.”

So, Hallacher helps with most of the non-science aspects of a proposal—things such as the budget, cost sharing, human resources, and public outreach.

He helps by outlining how the proposed project addresses issues such as diversity and minority hiring and how it branches out to elementary schools and high schools. He also helps by coordinating site visits when representatives from funding agencies arrive on campus.

“We’re asking our professors to do cutting-edge research, to teach, and to fulfill many other duties and responsibilities,” Hallacher says. “When it comes down to cost sharing on a proposal—something that includes money from a funding source, money from the University, and maybe money from the state—there’s no reason the faculty should have to be experts at all those intricacies, too. We’re just here to help.”

Faculty members clearly appreciate the assistance. Both Moses Chan, Evan Pugh Professor of Physics and the CPRG’s director, and Jayanth Banavar, professor and head of the Department of Physics who participates in a grant for an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program, cited Hallacher’s contributions to their proposals.

Although Hallacher himself remains most impressed with the science described in the respective proposals, he does admit staff support might play a role in eventual funding success.

“When the National Science Foundation whittles down the field to the final nine proposals, that’s all based on science. Once you’re at that point, all the science is tremendous,” Hallacher says. “Going from nine to the six that get funded might rest on other little things, and we can play a role in making the proposals as sound as possible and making site visits go as smoothly as possible.”

When that happens, as it has recently, it represents the completion of another bridge-building project and another achievement for materials science at Penn State .

 

-- By Steve Sampsell

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