Invent Penn State Nurtures Entrepreneurs

By Frank Ready
Centre Daily Times.

WWR Article Summary (Tl;dr) When it comes to women as leaders in business, Mary Elizabeth McCulloch is an inspiration. McCulloch has invented a device to help people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities communicate more effectively. Her company is being supported along the way by Invent Penn State, an initiative to help entrepreneurs.

State College, Pa.

Mary Elizabeth McCulloch is a senior and biomedical engineering student at Penn State, and she already has her first job lined up — in fact, she’s already the CEO.

McCulloch is the founder of Project Vive, a startup company she founded with the goal of creating a low-cost product that could help people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities communicate more effectively.

Project Vive is starting small. The company ranks are limited to five people working on retroactive pay, and up until now, they have been sharing office space in the same building as McCulloch’s father near Howard.

It’s a locally based group that’s small in stature but looming large with potential, which is exactly the kind of enterprise that Invent Penn State was created to nurture.

The Invent Penn State initiative was implemented in 2014 to help take the campus’s most precious natural resources — the knowledge, ideas and entrepreneurial spirit of its students and faculty — and help develop them to fruition.

Neil Sharkey, vice president for research at Penn State, said that the initiative is not only about giving the students and faculty a chance to drive the economy, but also serving the university’s constituents, the people of Pennsylvania.

“We could use a bunch of new businesses that are on a growth trajectory,” Sharkey said.

Traditionally, faculty research has been geared toward becoming published in peer-review papers. One of the primary ideas behind Invent Penn State is to take some of the knowledge and discoveries already being facilitated and put them to use in the marketplace where they can benefit the most people.

“Penn State is really well known for its basic science research,” Sharkey said.

So far, Sharkey estimates that they’ve placed maybe a half a dozen people from the private sector into the Penn State environment and said that they would love to have a lot more.

Jeff Catchmark is an associate professor in Penn State’s department of agricultural and biological engineering. He’s also a biomaterials engineer who spends a lot of his time working to replace plastics with compostable materials.

In the course of trying to find a substitute for Styrofoam, Catchmark realized that he had developed a material that also had potential applications in the medical field.

He met with doctors at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, who confirmed that it was worth exploring the foam’s use in the healing of surface and deep wounds.

The question facing Catchmark was a simple one.

“Could we develop this foam material into something that is useful to people?” Catchmark said.

To understand the business aspect of his potential endeavor, Catchmark enrolled in Invent Penn State’s Ben Franklin TechCelerator program, a 10-week boot camp designed to assist faculty and other blossoming entrepreneurs with turning ideas into entities.

Catchmark found the experience to be a rewarding one that impressed upon him the value of building a strong network of people and finding the right customer for his product.

“They teach you about what it means to get technology into business,” Catchmark said.

He has yet to decide if he’ll forge ahead with a company of his own or license the product elsewhere, but knows that he’ll ultimately have to be his own champion.

The same is true for McCulloch, who was inspired to pursue the development of her Project Vive device after getting to know children with nonverbal cerebral palsy at the orphanage where she worked in Ecuador.

Her startup’s product uses small movements from a wrist or a finger to compose full sentences, an ambitious idea that got its start during the Summer Founders Program. McCulloch and her team were given $10,000 to work on building their product and business.

Perhaps more importantly, the program also offered guidance and support from a variety of different entrepreneurs.

“We met every Thursday night and talked about problems we were having with our startup,” McCulloch said.

McCulloch is practically the poster child for the Invent Penn State model. The Bald Eagle Area High School graduate is locally based and intends to stay that way should her company take off.
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Project Vive was recently named one of the six inaugural startups selected for Happy Valley LaunchBox, a 10-week Invent Penn State program that will provide the fledgling enterprises with free legal and marketing consulting and office space close to campus.

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