Top Talent: How Penn State is Developing its Students into Future Entrepreneurs


Decades of Dedication to Entrepreneurship

Penn State has been fostering talent, leadership and innovation for decades. Jamey Darnell, clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship and assistant director of the Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship notes that entrepreneurship has been a focus at Penn State for much longer than it has at most other universities.

Darnell notes, “The Farrell Center for Entrepreneurship, within the Smeal College of Business, was created 25 years ago when academic entrepreneurship centers were unheard of.”

Penn State’s most recent commitment to entrepreneurship began when Eric Barron came on board as the university’s president in 2014. Barron made entrepreneurship a strategic priority on a university-wide level. Dr. Shawn Clark, director of the Farrell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Michael J. Farrell Endowed Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Smeal College of Business, explains the effect of Barron’s efforts.

“There’s an emphasis on entrepreneurship in almost every college, with courses in entrepreneurship in almost every college, accelerators across the Commonwealth at the various Penn State University locations. The school has also created a minor in entrepreneurship so students can move across college boundaries. It’s generated a lot of interest at the undergraduate level.”

An Ecosystem of Entrepreneurship

“There’s a lot going on from an education standpoint at all the college to support entrepreneurship, especially with the available minor, which allows students to pick up clusters in Engineering, IST or Smeal,” adds Clark.

“Meanwhile, we have a major in Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship where students can come in and focus on starting their own business with us as undergraduates. That just speaks to the undergraduate level. There’s certainly activity on the graduate level as well.”

This all contributes to an ecosystem of entrepreneurship, which is a big factor in why Darnell believes PSU is so successful at producing entrepreneurs and innovators. “The Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI) minor is housed in the undergraduate education office and facilitated by the cooperation of nine different colleges within the university. That sort of cooperation is unheard of in academia.”

Darnell also notes, “We’ve had students from 133 different majors take classes in the ENTI program. Such a wide variety of knowledge, viewpoints, perspectives, etc., fosters more creativity and innovation, resulting in successful ventures.”

Providing Ample Resources and Experience

Penn State provides invaluable resources to foster entrepreneurship, as Darnell points out. “There’s a vast array of resources that students have access to for free. These resources would cost thousands of dollars for an entrepreneur that didn’t have access to PSU’s vast resources, not to mention the amount of time it would take to find all these resources on their own.”

“For example,” he continued, “PSU students can get free legal advice on filing patents. PSU’s size and resources allow us to offer such a wide variety of resources in one easy to access place – the resource navigator.”

Further, many of the courses that students take in entrepreneurship provide hands-on experience.

Dr. Clark notes, “Many of these courses have an experiential learning component where we’ll take a company project from a startup and our students will work on it. That could be anything from a marketing plan to starting a website to brainstorming new products.”

The Farrell Center also funds an “Experienceship” program, where it pays students to work at startups for the summer. Clark says, “We had five students working during the summer of 2020, where they worked for the startups; we cover their salary and that provides a resource to the company, while students gain experience.”

On top of that, the College of Engineering has what’s called The Learning Factory. This phenomenal resource has its own giant laboratory, with equipment, which enables students to take on capstone projects for companies. Although there’s a sponsorship fee for these projects, they can prototype and conduct 3-D printing, and engineering students can work on company innovations and provide support.

Investing in Students

Years ago, the Smeal College of Business invested in a small startup called DiamondBack through its venture capital fund. What started as a project in an engineering entrepreneurial class back in 2003 has morphed from a small company making truck accessories to a large and thriving company located in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. Clark notes that DiamondBack is, “doing well and paying back the investment, which then goes toward investing in other companies.”

More recently, several Smeal undergraduates attempted to launch a dry-cleaning business last year. The business school invested $25,000 through the same venture capital fund. The business handles dry-cleaning for students by the pound, with pick-up and drop-off service. In addition, the business is exploring photographing customers’ laundry to create a digital portfolio, to let people know what they have in their wardrobes.

“We want to do more investing in our students’ ideas,” Clark emphasizes. “In our undergraduate Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship major at Smeal, we provide scholarships to help students pay for registering their business, registering a website and covering other small expenses. We’re doing what we can and there’s a lot of experimentation going on to support our students.”

Innovation Initiatives That Drive Happy Valley’s Spirit of Entrepreneurship

In early 2020, Governor Wolf made headlines after announcing a proposition to boost funding to Pennsylvania initiatives as part of his plan to attract and keep talented individuals right here in the state. Although the proposal still has to pass as part of upcoming budget discussions, a portion of the funding is slated to benefit Happy Valley and Penn State initiatives.

As part of his news conference, Wolf said, “A strong community and entrepreneurial network are crucial for success.” That's a concept that Penn State understands well, as evidenced by its multiple initiatives, both on campus and in the community. A few of the key innovation initiatives you’ll find here in Happy Valley include:

  • LaunchBox: President Barron made entrepreneurship a priority at the university, but he’s also responsible for the establishment of the Happy Valley Launchbox, in downtown State College. That’s a resource where anyone can walk in off the street to tap into resources, which include a legal clinic, finance clinic, training and funding.
  • Invent Penn State: Invent Penn State connects researchers and innovators with the people and tools to bring ideas to market.
  • Innovation Park: This 118-acre space brings research, education, business and manufacturing together. Innovation Park's resources are designed to support everyone from fledgling entrepreneurs to established businesses.

“We don’t just read and talk about entrepreneurship at PSU, we engage in it,” says Darnell. “That, combined with the resources students are exposed to, gives our students a leg up on the competition from other college grads.”

As Clark notes, “If you’re an undergraduate and you want to learn innovation and entrepreneurship, this a great place to come.”


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