In Touch With: Jeff Fortin on Industry Partnerships

A new 'flex' building and progressive IP policy attract innovative commercial collaborators

Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research and director of the Office of Industrial Partnerships, enjoys the view inside the new 'flex' building at 310 Innovation Boulevard. The building was constructed without interior walls. Each tenant company can design its own space, including walls, hallways, and rooms of whatever size needed. The building can accommodate light production and prototyping as well as design and testing labs. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn StateCreative Commons

On Nov. 15, Penn State will welcome the U.K.-based corporation Morgan Advanced Materials to its brand-new, 30,000-square-foot building at Innovation Park. Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research and director of the Office of Industrial Partnerships, spoke with us about the new building and how the companies that occupy it will benefit the University and the state.

What’s special about the new building?

It’s what they call a ‘flex’ building. Tenants can design their own space and can use it for a variety of things, from research and development to light manufacturing and prototyping. We want this building to house true research partners of Penn State, not just a company that’s looking for office space.

Tell me about the first tenant, Morgan Advanced Materials.

They make sub-components for systems in the medical and transportation industries. They were looking for a location for a Carbon Science Center of Excellence, and they asked what our expertise is in materials. It turned out that over a ten-year period, we were number two in the volume of publications in that field, behind MIT. Our Materials Research Institute and the tools that we have in the Materials Characterization Lab appealed to them, too. That’s an amazing facility. Advanced TEMs, SEMs, every kind of technique you can imagine, just about, we have there.

How will the University benefit from having them here?

They’ll directly sponsor research with us. Our faculty love to work on real-world problems. With Morgan, they’ll be working on technology that could go to market in, say, five years. Ph.D. students who spend their thesis years working on a real-world problem, they’re going to get a job like that. Also, it’s economic development for the local area and the state, because all their jobs here—about 25 people doing research—will be brand-new. They’re also bringing us new industry contacts. Recently, Morgan brought 70 of their top scientists here from around the world for a conference on research and product development. While they were here, they visited campus and learned about our materials capabilities.

Will Penn State own a share of any new products they develop?

We handle intellectual property differently than a lot of other universities. Instead of charging them a license fee for any intellectual property that’s generated from research they sponsor with us, we tell companies that we can transfer ownership of those patents to them at no royalty—but if it does extremely well in the market, we would like a little bit back. That policy really is appealing to companies.

How will that policy help our researchers?

We’ve had a history of being leaders in research but not so much in translating that research out into the commercial world. A faculty member may come up with a product or a new technology that could solve a problem. They may have an interest in seeing their technology make it into the world, but translating something like that into a commercial product can be a little murky. We help them identify an industry partner or a team that can start a company with their technology.

Materials science seems to be a major emphasis in these partnerships, so far.

The whole state has this history of minerals and materials—powdered metal and ceramics in the northwest, steel and anthracite and coal in the southwest, and so on. There are already a lot of companies in the State College area based on materials, companies that are here because of technology that spun out of research here at Penn State. With all the materials expertise we have, I’ve been calling the area ‘Materials Valley.’ We’re not only Happy Valley and Hockey Valley!

What about other areas of research?

We’ve already engaged with Morgan in areas beyond carbon. They joined our center on ceramics, they joined our center on 2D materials. They asked, do you guys do much with batteries? And we said, we have a battery research center! These relationships start in one area, but they evolve. That’s one of the good things about Penn State—we have so much to offer. Sometimes I have to go find it, but I know it’s there.

What do you see as Penn State’s competitive strengths in attracting industry?

Industry often looks for broad expertise, and Penn State has that to offer. When companies come to us, they are greeted by a team that’s there to help them, and our structure brings people together from the colleges – for example, the College of Engineering, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the Eberly College of Science – to help companies solve challenges and develop technologies. We have the faculty, facilities and ability to do cutting-edge research, and our intellectual property policy is highly attractive to companies.

How do Penn State’s industry partnerships benefit student career opportunities?

We bring in companies that give students experience through real-world research projects. When students are done with their research, whether it’s undergraduate, Master’s or Ph.D. level, they have a much better ability to go out and get a job, because they’ve seen it and done it. Companies also sponsor internships and programs that promote student leadership and networking opportunities, such as the Engineering Ambassadors, the Learning Factory and Women in Engineering. They actively seek the talents of Penn State students. I’ve seen 75 Lockheed Martin recruiters at a single recruiting event.

Penn State’s Office of Industrial Partnerships connects companies and the university, with a focus on promoting research, helping companies solve their technical problems, and helping faculty members find business partners who can turn their ideas into commercially viable products, technologies, or services.

This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Research/Penn State magazine.

Last Updated October 23, 2018