From the lab to the customer: Penn State excels at research-industry collaboration

Written by Cara Aungst

September 21, 2021

CEO Dr. Birgitt Boschitsch and CTO Dr. Tak-Sing Wong researching in an academic laboratory prior to founding spotLESS Materials

Penn State is called Materials Valley for a reason. It’s home to one of the largest Materials Research Institutions in the United States and ranked number one in research expenditures in the U.S. But as I interview innovators and researchers, they keep pointing to something else that puts Penn State at the apex of materials breakthroughs: It’s very good at building bridges between collaborative research and industry, between laboratories and delighted customers. It’s a signature blend of IQ and EQ that’s creating solutions and writing success stories around the world.

When Birgitt Boschitsch traveled to Penn State from her New Jersey home, she was interested in advancing her degree in mechanical engineering. On her first visit, she was introduced to Dr. Tak-Sing Wong and his Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering. “When I saw the kind of things Tak-Sing was working on, I wanted to do it right away. He convinced me in 15 minutes,” she says. 

Birgitt Boschitsch

From that initial shock-and-awe meeting, Dr. Wong would become her academic advisor and eventually co-found advanced materials company SpotLESS Materials with Boschitsch, solving “sticky problems” in the home and in industry.

On her first visit, she was introduced to the Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering. “When I saw the kind of things Tak-Sing was working on, I wanted to do it right away. He convinced me in 15 minutes,” she says.”

“I was in the Mechanical Engineering department, but much of my research focused on materials,” Boschitsch explains. “My office and our lab was in the Materials Research Institute — a space that promoted collaboration. I was able to engage in highly collaborative and interdisciplinary work and research nature-inspired surface engineering. Our lab focused on studying natural surfaces: We would often study the micro- and nano-scopic features of plants and insects to understand the physics governing their macroscopic properties, such as liquid repellency. Then we’d use those learnings as design principles for materials we’d design in the lab.”

That nature-inspired research eventually led to the development of advanced slippery coatings

“The coating developed in our lab requires less effort to keep surfaces clean,” Boschitsch says. The coating can be applied in a multitude of markets, from automotive to marine, on everything from medical equipment to toilets. “Surfaces get dirty and cleaning them costs time, water, cleaning chemicals, money and energy. In some cases, surface contamination is an aesthetic problem, but, in many cases, cleanliness can be a matter of life and death (e.g., in medical applications) or serious environmental concern (e.g., in marine applications). At SpotLESS, our goal is to keep surfaces clean without all this waste.”

“Having access to advanced characterization equipment and agreements that allow companies to retain their intellectual property is critical to supporting commercialization.” 

SpotLESS is located in Innovation Park and Boschitsch says the proximity to Penn State has been a huge benefit for the growing company. She notes, “It is incredibly helpful to us to have the Materials Characterization Lab (MCL) and facilities available to us on a pay-per-use basis. The MCL provides equipment that most startups don’t have the resources to buy themselves. Having access to advanced characterization equipment and agreements that allow companies to retain their intellectual property is critical to supporting commercialization.” 

She embraces the benefits of growing SpotLESS Materials within the Happy Valley ecosystem, yet also sees room for improvement, saying, “When I went through Y Combinator in the summer of 2019, I experienced the benefits of being in an area with so many startups and startup founders. Every interaction with someone was an opportunity to grow and learn. Ben Franklin Technology Partners, LaunchBox, Invent Penn State and other Happy Valley organizations are making this happen, and I’d like to see more grad students, post docs and professors being part of programs like these.” 

“Penn State is brimming with talent that produces a substantial amount of intellectual property and I think the best people to spin out that technology are the people who spent years researching it.”

“Penn State and President Barron have been promoting and nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship at Penn State,” she continues. “Penn State is brimming with talent that produces a substantial amount of intellectual property and I think the best people to spin out that technology are the people who spent years researching it. I’d like to see more graduate students and postdocs bring technology from bench to market and view entrepreneurship as a real next step after graduate school. At Penn State, it’s common for PhD students to ask each other if they’re pursuing a career in industry or in academia and, for me, it was neither. That’s still unusual at Penn State, but it doesn’t need to be.”

“In Silicon Valley, starting a company is far from unusual,” she concludes. “For Penn State technology to realize the impact it is capable of achieving, we need to embrace startup culture. One way to do this is to incentivize faculty, postdocs and graduate students to commercialize their lab’s technology. I think it would help specifically for Penn State to reward faculty by considering entrepreneurship in the tenure and promotion process… Outside of Penn State, Happy Valley can become a uniquely attractive region for materials startups by normalizing simple agreements for future equity (SAFEs), which have standardized founder-friendly investment terms for young startups.” 

What do you think? Can Happy Valley do more to become an attractive destination for startups?  

Cara Aungst writes about industry, innovation and how Happy Valley ideas change the world. She can be reached with story ideas and comments at Cara@AffinityConnection.com

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