By Holly Riddle
In industry and research over the last decade, the term “brain belt” has grown in popularity as a way of describing regions where the cost of doing business is relatively low, but resources like those offered by a research university are ample. In many instances, these regions boast a low cost of business because of existing infrastructure from traditional manufacturing – turning the locations from Rust Belt into Brain Belt assets from Upstate New York to North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Right in the middle is Happy Valley. Happy Valley has Penn State — one of the greatest research universities in the United States with its abundant resources, from facilities to labor, available at a fraction of the price of what companies could get elsewhere.
Just a quick look at Penn State’s resources and research superiority shows that the university boasts:
- 204 invention disclosures received in 2022 alone
- $5.5 million in tech transfer revenue in 2022 alone
- 344 patents issued since 2015
- $1.03 billion in research expenditures for the 2022-23 fiscal year
- A status as #2 highest university in the country for producing future CEOs
How can Happy Valley become even more of a Brain Belt powerhouse? We spoke with several experts to get their thoughts.
David Fecko is director of industry research collaborations at Penn State’s Materials Research Institute (MRI), so a large part of his job is connecting industry with the university’s resources, including materials-oriented facilities, faculty or research. According to Fecko, Happy Valley is most certainly a brain belt destination in terms of materials.
“Access to truly high-end facilities draws companies that are interested in materials to this area of Pennsylvania,” he said. “As an example, Penn State has always had a strong presence in the area of electroceramics, things like transducer materials for ultrasound. This region has a lot of companies that manufacture medical ultrasound devices and that’s all due to the fact that Penn State has had a very strong program in ceramics for years.”
Without the university, State College would not be the town that it is. It’s a good, symbiotic relationship, and there’s a lot of extra room for growth here when it comes to high tech.
Like Fecko, Sven Bilén — professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering at Penn State, as well as the former head of the School of Engineering Design and Innovation — has unique insight into Penn State’s status as a brain belt destination, as a faculty member as well as the systems engineering lead for X-Hab 3D, his latest foray into commercializing research he’s advanced. Over the years, Bilén has also worked on an in-space thruster that was commercialized by a “new space” company in Silicon Valley; an “indoor GPS” system for retail stores; and “prosumer” 3D printing technology.
To Bilén, Happy Valley’s emergence as a brain belt destination relies heavily on Penn State.
“Without the university, [State College] would not be the town that it is. It’s a good, symbiotic relationship. Obviously, the university relies on the town, too, but without the university here, this would not be a place with high-tech industry … and there’s a lot of extra room for growth here when it comes to high tech,” he said.
Tony Picardi, marketing communication specialist inthe Penn State Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization, calls brain belts “geographic centers for innovation that push our world forward in technological advancements that further our overall quality of life.”
The quality of life here is incredible. We don’t have traffic. We have access to high-quality outdoor sports, whether you like golf, fishing, hiking, bird watching or hunting.
“Driven by Invent Penn State resources, Happy Valley has and is continuing to push forward in innovation and technological advancements,” he added. “In November 2021, Penn State cut the ribbon on the state-of-the-art Eric J. Barron Innovation Hub. The Innovation Hub houses Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank and OriginLabs — both of which provide essential resources and services to entrepreneurs, startups and innovators. Happy Valley LaunchBox provides no-cost resources, including coworking, legal and IP services, and specialized programs to help launch startup companies. OriginLabs, which held its own ribbon-cutting ceremony on March 22, 2023, is a 7,000-square-foot prototyping and fabrication space that holds state-of-the-art equipment community members can use to prototype and test solutions to their products or ideas.”
There’s still more the region can do to grow as a powerhouse and compete against similar destinations across the country (places like Detroit, Pittsburgh or, most famously, Research Triangle in North Carolina), who are vying for the same industry opportunities.
Bilén noted, “It’s currently more difficult to raise venture capital here in central Pennsylvania … That’s one of the challenges particularly for a high-tech, hardware-based company like X-Hab 3D. It’s capital-intensive. We’re designing and building machines that are going to cost hundreds and thousands of dollars.”
In Fecko’s experience, for companies looking to work in Happy Valley or with Penn State, air travel has room to improve.
“When I hear about negatives for why companies might not be interested in relocating here, I hear about access … Expanding the airport and the connections we can get to from the airport would be a big help,” he said.
The future of innovation is bright in Happy Valley. Innovative businesses are calling State College their home, and the region has seen recent funding and investments that support innovations.
Fecko also touted one of Happy Valley’s biggest draws for companies and talent: quality of life.
“The quality of life here is incredible,” he said. “We don’t have traffic. We have access to high-quality outdoor sports, whether you like golf, fishing, hiking, bird watching or hunting. It’s a great place to live for those types of activities, so we do have a big draw from that perspective.”
Fecko noted, “We’ve got a pretty good thing going here. It would be nice to further fan the flames and provide even more opportunity for companies to come in and expand, and capitalize on the facilities we have, capitalize on the quality of life. This has to be kept in the backs of our minds as we move forward with planning, zoning laws — all the things you have to prepare for downstream growth, so that you’re ready as people want to move to State College.”
Picardi is likewise looking forward to the future success of Happy Valley’s growing status as a brain belt and all the benefits that come with it.
He said, “The future of innovation is bright in Happy Valley and throughout the region. Tens of thousands of Penn State students have enrolled in entrepreneurship and innovation-centric courses over the past 10 years. The Invent Penn State LaunchBox and Innovation Network has assisted nearly 6,000 entrepreneurs across Pennsylvania. Innovative businesses are calling State College their home, and the region has seen recent funding and investments that support innovations.”