Ben Franklin's TechCelerator turns promising research into startups with promise

Research-to-startup program helps build entrepreneurship

Professor Tony Jun Huang's work in using acoustic waves to sort cells on a chip formed the core of start-up company Ascent Bio-Nano LLC, with assistance from the Ben Franklin TechCelerator program, which helps Penn State faculty bring their research to the commercial marketplace. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Two years ago, the entrepreneurial landscape at University Park looked markedly different than it does today. There were 28 fewer startup companies in existence, 70 jobs had yet to be created, $1.3 million in revenue had not been generated, five spots in the business incubator in Innovation Park were still vacant, and 18 research projects at Penn State were not commercialized.

 What "accelerated" all this new activity?

Stephen Brawley, president and CEO of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania, points to the very first Research to Startup seminar, a 90-minute program held in 2012 that explained how to commercialize promising research.

"Research to Startup was sponsored by Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a Penn State program that has been investing in technology startups for more than 30 years," says Brawley. "That first seminar was so popular that another one was added the following week." 

Building on that early success, Ben Franklin's team worked with Penn State's Small Business Development Center to devise a comprehensive business training "Boot Camp" that maintained the research-to-startup theme and became an integral part of the services provided by the Ben Franklin TechCelerator @ State College -- a partnership that includes the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County and Penn State's Office of Technology Management.

Boot Camps provide one-on-one mentoring to researchers, students and faculty members, as well as entrepreneurs from the community at large, on how to start a business based on University-owned intellectual property. To date, the Boot Camps have been offered five times and 30 teams have participated. Successful graduates have the opportunity to pitch their business concepts to a panel of outside business professionals and potential investors, including Ben Franklin, as well as win a cash prize.

Using sound waves to sort cells on a chip makes possible the development of inexpensive portable devices to screen cells for such diseases as leukemia and HIV without the negative side effects associated with other methods. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

"In just two years, 18 companies have been formed around Penn State technology, and several are hiring employees and generating revenue," says Donald McCandless, Ben Franklin program director.

He cites Ascent Bio-Nano Technologies LLC as an example of one that is already gaining a foothold in the market. Ascent Bio-Nano formed around the bionanotechnology research of Tony Jun Huang, professor of engineering science and mechanics and an affiliate of Penn State's Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences. The Ascent Bio-Nano team, which includes company CEO Lin Wang, successfully developed a technology that uses acoustic waves to sort cells on a chip. By changing the frequency of the waves, a researcher can alter the path of the cells and sort them into several channels. The chips can produce three-dimensional focusing of a stream of cells, thus making it possible for inexpensive portable devices to rapidly screen cells for diseases such as leukemia or HIV. Using sound waves for cell sorting is much less likely to cause damage to the cells than other techniques and will not produce gases that require extra handling precautions.

To date the Ascent Bio-Nano principals have filed for seven U.S. patents and been awarded two invention disclosures. Not only has the company received a National Science Foundation grant, but it also has signed R&D contracts with two industry partners and is negotiating a potential license agreement. 

"That type of activity and attention for an emerging startup is amazing, but for the graduates of Ben Franklin's TechCelerator Boot Camps, it's becoming the norm," says McCandless, who offers additional examples of success.

A California-based foundation, Vodafone Americas, made an award to Zhiwen Liu, associate professor of electrical engineering, and Perry Edwards, CEO of Atoptix, who jointly developed an affordable, high-performance optical spectrometer. Their innovation -- the G-Fresnel Cell-Phone Spectrometer -- is not only compact and affordable, but has a broad range of applications, such as breast cancer detection, monitoring surgical wounds and color analysis for assisting people with color blindness.

Nina Jenkins and her business partner, Giovani Bellicanta, both researchers in Penn State's Department of Entomology, developed a patent-pending, non-toxic bio-pesticide aimed at a market that is estimated at about $11 billion. Jenkins and Bellicanta are in discussions with a large pest control organization. Their company, Conidiotec, has an option signed for manufacturing space in Centre County and has its first investors lined up.

In June 2014, Ben Franklin's TechCelerator graduated another class, and among companies sharing in the prize money was Trans Cell Conversion Technology, which has patent-pending technology that effectively treats brain injuries and neuro-degenerative disorders. Trans Cell was formed by Gong Chen, who holds the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Life Sciences in the Department of Biology. The company's gene and small-molecule therapy regenerates specific sub-types of neurons in order to target a variety of disorders including Alzheimer's disease and the effects of a stroke.  

"The dozens of Penn State researchers, faculty members and students -- as well as potential entrepreneurs from the local community -- who came to any of Ben Franklin's TechCelerator programs and seminars in the past two years, should receive a hearty round of applause," says Brawley. "It takes guts to put your ideas out for criticism, even when it is constructive."

Boot Camp participants had research and business interests ranging from the development of diagnostic tools, to pesticides, to gene therapy, and innovative farming equipment. Regardless of the spectrum of industries represented and the myriad backgrounds of the potential entrepreneurs, the graduates came away with one thing in common -- they all have gone from Research to Startup.

About Ben Franklin's TechCelerator

Located in the Technology Center at 200 Innovation Boulevard in State College, the BF TechCelerator @ State College is a partnership among several of the area's premier business service providers that offers budding entrepreneurs loan and investment programs, one-on-one business mentoring, designated workspace and entrepreneurial training all housed in one location. For more information, visit

Ascent Bio-Nano CEO Lin Wang and Ph.D. candidate Ahmad Ahsan Nawaz confer in a lab at the Millennium Science Complex. Start-up company Ascent Bio-Nano, formed around the work of Professor Tony Jun Huang, exemplifies how the Ben Franklin TechCelerator program can assist Penn State faculty in bringing their research to market. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated August 10, 2015