Penn State provost and serial inventor: "technology is transformational to both people and the world"


By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger

Dr. Justin Schwartz will be recognized as a fellow at the National Academy of Inventors later this year. Photo: Pennsylvania State University.

In 2022, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering Dr. Justin Schwartz began serving as the interim executive vice president and provost for Penn State. Later this year, Schwartz will be recognized as a fellow at the National Academy of Inventors, when the organization hosts its annual meeting. The professional distinction is the highest awarded to academic inventors.

“I was always interested in and drawn to the next new wave of technology that would be transformational to both people and the world."

Schwartz has published over 250 peer-reviewed articles and holds seven patents related primarily to superconducting, magnetic and multiferroic materials and the systems they enable. He also serves as CEO of Lupine Technologies which he founded in North Carolina. The company moved into the Technology Center Incubator at Innovation Park about a year ago. Lupine Technologies integrates optical fibers into high-temperature superconducting magnets as distributed sensors, and also has developed thick film ferrites (a ceramic compound consisting of a mixed oxide of iron and one or more other metals) for microwave antennae.

So how did Schwartz get here?

“I was always interested in and drawn to the next new wave of technology that would be transformational to both people and the world,” he said, though he can credit his upbringing for his success as well. The Penn State faculty member grew up in Illinois with a mother who worked in special education, a father who worked in engineering and a stepfather who worked in the psychology field, all of whom were role models. “I suppose you could say that they were all high performing in their own domains,” he commented.

A balancing act of innovation

Schwartz explains his work with superconducting magnets by using an MRI machine as an example.

“The MRIs use very low-temperature superconductors, but when we’re envisioning superconducting magnets for fusion reactors, or to support wind energy and other applications, it helps to know that the magnets store a lot of energy. If something goes wrong, that energy has to go somewhere,” he said, explaining that when MRIs malfunction, that energy can be dumped elsewhere. “The machine also has enough mass to absorb it, but with high temperatures, things happen much more slowly and when things go wrong, it’s hard to detect. The worry is that when that happens with traditional sensors, by the time the problem is detected, it’s too late.”

Part of Schwartz’s work involves heading such problems off at the pass. “Our most recent patents are all related to using optical fibers as sensors within the magnet to detect issues before they manifest themselves,” he said, adding that clients include the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.

"The entrepreneur tinkering in the garage is a really challenging path."

However, Schwartz’s job is more than just solving big-picture problems. He’s also constantly balancing paper publishing and registering patents, a balancing act that he says can be fraught with frustration for academics.

“The pressure to publish is always there, but one must be realistic about time frames on patents,” he said, explaining that one might have an idea in 1995 and realize that a commercial market with new materials might not exist for a decade, yet students might need to work on a thesis with information that is in the public domain. “Publicizing these ideas can mean that one can no longer pursue a patent, so it’s tricky,” he added.

Finding resources and community at Penn State

Over his highly accomplished career, Schwartz has picked up on a few things that he can now pass on to Penn State students, especially those who likewise want to pursue a life as an inventor.

To students, he said, “Ask yourself what you’d like out of the process. To operate as an entrepreneur? To monetize your invention? Knowing this is key to taking the appropriate path…”

He also reiterates the importance of finding the right resources and community.

“We have a large pool of fantastic students who are very focused on having an impact."

“It’s a really complicated world and you need resources. Learning the system is important and, ideally, you need to have a partner, an angel investor, a university, a company, perhaps, to give you some stock in exchange. The entrepreneur tinkering in the garage is a really challenging path,” he said.

Luckily, resources and support are something that Happy Valley offers entrepreneurs, researchers and inventors in spades. So far, Schwartz has spent nearly six years living in Happy Valley and he says the time has been “extremely rewarding.”

“We have a large pool of fantastic students who are very focused on having an impact,” he said.

He also said that he’d be remiss not to mention those who work with him at Penn State, as well as the resources Penn State offers inventors and academics like him, as well as the students. “It really is a team,” he noted. “Granted, one has to pay to use some of the machines for doing experiments and imaging and so forth, but Penn State really does have some of the best equipment in the world.”

And, of course, he agreed that Happy Valley is an appropriate moniker for the area.

“Apart from the college resources, State College really is just a great place to live,” he said with a smile.


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