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2016-11-01 / Features

Inward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

Boen Wang


In 8,000 BCE, Paleoamericans forged stone in what is now State College. In 1759 CE, a white man climbed Mount Nittany. In 1855, two ironmasters founded an agricultural school in its shadow. In 2016, local entrepreneurs and officials are working to better leverage the school’s economic potential — to continue the course of empire.


0. Past is Prologue
Every empire has a founding myth and Penn State has James Potter.

A Scotch-Irish American and lifelong Pennsylvanian, veteran of the French and Indian and American Revolutionary wars, namesake of Potter Township and Potter County who, in 1759 with his traveling companion William Thompson, leaving his post in Fort Augusta on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna (where Delaware and Iroquois and other tribes lived before the Pennsylvania government issued a general bounty for “Indian scalps” three years earlier), following the West Branch of the river along the Great Shamokin Path (which terminated at Kittanning Village where Potter had participated in a surprise attack in 1756 that took the lives of some 50 Delaware and 17 white raiders), traveling north, west, then southwest at Bald Eagle Creek to the lake where Bald Eagle ends and Spring Creek begins, crisscrossing the yet unbuilt overpass of Interstate 80, passing Milesburg and Bellefonte and Houserville and Lemont before such names and towns occupied even the imaginations of the Colonies’ cartographers, climbing atop a mountain named Nittany (from an Algonquian word for “single mountain”), standing very near the geographic center of William Penn’s woods, seeing a sea of seemingly untouched green that had, in fact, been inhabited as early as 8,000 BCE, observing a valley self-described centuries later as “happy,” being pulled temporally backward by unremembered memories of Native Americans and forward by the still-germinating idea of the United States of America, turned to his companion and said:

“By Heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire.”


1. Company Town
Every empire has a domain and Penn State has State College.

Population 42,161 as of 2015, State College was incorporated as a borough in 1896 and named after what was then the Pennsylvania State College. It’s the economic and cultural center of the Centre Region, where 59 percent of all employees work directly for Penn State, where USA and Penn State flags fly side by side over neatly maintained lawns, where condos, golf courses, bus routes, bike paths, Wal-Marts, Wegmans and Austrian bistros would not exist were it not for the University.

County Commissioner Mark HigginsCounty Commissioner Mark Higgins“You have to travel 50 or 60 miles outside of campus to see places that don’t receive positive benefits from the University, and those are places where deer outnumber people, where if you stumble upon some civilization it’s probably an abandoned coal mine,” says Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins.

Penn State is the economic sun around which Central PA orbits, generating a direct and indirect economic impact of $8.5 billion during the height of the recession in 2008 and employing 23,186 Centre County residents in 2014. For comparison, the county’s next largest employer, Mount Nittany Medical Center, had 2,289 workers. State College’s economic diversity, however, has declined in recent years, with the Centre Region’s private sector shrinking by 21 percent from 1998 to 2012.

“People don’t realize how much effort it takes to create jobs, especially jobs that are not directly dependent on the University,” says Higgins. “You need support systems in place, an ecosystem, people who supply services to startups, funding for startups — it’s a whole group of people that have to come together to make this happen.”

Higgins is far from alone. Elected officials, CEOs, local entrepreneurs, community members and Penn State staff, faculty and students have, in the past few years — haltingly and messily, deliberately and unintentionally — attempted to build a more balanced local economy that exists with and around and in addition to University Park. They are coming together, and they have stories to tell.


2. ‘A Little Behind the Eight Ball’Launchbox provides free office space for entrepreneurs.Launchbox provides free office space for entrepreneurs.
“Everyone makes the comparison to Silicon Valley. We’re not trying to be Silicon Valley,” says Lee Erickson, chief amplifier (“because ‘director’ is kind of stodgy”) of Happy Valley LaunchBox.
That much is obvious. There are no massive, antitrust-violating tech companies around, no billionaire angel investors, no shuttle buses equipped with high speed Wi-Fi. No Stanford, just Penn State. The occasional homegrown internet startup that does blow up usually leaves town; food delivery app OrderUp relocated to Baltimore in 2009, and website builder Weebly has been based in San Francisco since 2007.

Lee EricksonLee EricksonErickson thinks there are advantages to staying in State College. “In larger towns you actually have to know somebody to get to see them, there’s just too much competition,” she says. Resources may be more limited, says Erickson, but people are more likely to help out, not to mention all the experts at Penn State in every discipline imaginable. Instead of chasing after the next world-dominating app (and the $3,000 rent that comes with that), Erickson wants to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem suited to State College’s size and strengths.

LaunchBox is part of that ecosystem. A component of President Barron’s Invent Penn State program, LaunchBox aims to attract, retain and assist businesses in the Centre Region. After opening in the former Verizon Building this April, LaunchBox provides free office space and a 10-week business training bootcamp for selected startups. “I like to think of LaunchBox as the first stop on that entrepreneurial journey,” Erickson says. The past few years yielded several disparate initiatives, and Erickson sees LaunchBox as providing a centralized source of information for aspiring business owners.

Mike Black (far left) and his team get to work.Mike Black (far left) and his team get to work.Like Mike Black. A recent graduate with a degree in finance, Black and his team operate an app called Parking Bee out of LaunchBox. The app is a sort of online marketplace for State College parking spots; homeowners, for example, can rent out their driveways to students for a semester. The app launched in August, and Black plans to move onto bigger cities with more expensive parking in the near future.

“We’re not going to leave Penn State, but we have to move to wherever we can go next,” he says. “State College is fun when you’re a student, but I’d much rather live in a city.”

Erickson is sticking around, and she wants companies founded in State College to stick around, too. She was an entrepreneur for 25 years before coming to Penn State as a PhD student. She wants to shepherd new teams and set up a more formal mentorship program and reach out to community members.

LaunchBox, she says, is purposely located downtown and not on campus because it’s open to everyone. She knows State College is “a little behind the eight ball in terms of having all this put together.” She knows she has work to do. She started in July.

3. Progress and Profit
John Vidmar started a while ago. “We’ve been in the game of investing dollars in early-stage companies and then providing business support to those companies for quite a while,” he says. Vidmar, a co-founder of State College Magazine, is now director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, an economic development program that’s invested state money in tech and manufacturing firms throughout Pennsylvania since 1983, with an emphasis on tech transfer out of major universities.

That seems perfect for a research-intensive school like Penn State, where every backwards-walking tour guide points out the sloping right angle of the Millennium Science Complex, where one of the first Atoms for Peace nuclear reactors went operational in 1955, where anthropologists create 3D models of human faces from DNA and animal scientists fight avian flu and astrophysicists map the universe — where progress daily marches on.

Vidmar’s issue, however, was not the quantity of research being produced, but the fact that scientists rarely commercialized their work. “A lot of research was being done and it wasn’t eJohn VidmarJohn Vidmarncouraged that faculty try and find commercial opportunities,” he says. “We’re in a small town where they didn’t bump into business people, and they didn’t understand what it took to start a company.”

In 2012, Vidmar established the TechCelerator in Innovation Park, which provides funding and, like LaunchBox, a 10-week boot camp for selected startups.

Matt Woods participated in a TechCelerator boot camp this year. He founded X Material Processing Company the previous summer, working out of his apartment in State College before moving to Innovation Park. The company focuses on additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, and is developing a printer capable of printing multiple metals at once. “To a lay audience it might not be so easily explainable,” Woods says, reaching for a simile. “It’s like printing in color rather than printing in black and white.”

Woods graduated last December with a degree in mechanical engineering. By his own admission, his entrepreneurial success came from a combination of persistence and a ton of direct and indirect support from Penn State. Woods thinks there’s space for technical firms to set up shop in State College. “It’s just a matter of taking a step to reach out and taking these resources,” he says.

Vidmar agrees. “I don’t want to say the floodgates are open, but there’s a lot more activity,” he says. “In the last two to three years there has been tremendous visibility to both entrepreneurship and looking for promising technologies in Penn State — encouraging those people to look for and be supportive of commercialization.”

Not thMatt Woods’ company is based in Innovation Park.Matt Woods’ company is based in Innovation Park.at there’s not work to be done. In the 2015 fiscal year, research expenditures exceeded $800 million, while tech transfer from research generated $2.5 million of revenue. (Metaphysical questions about the fundamental purpose of science, the shifting role of the academy and the push/pull between public/private interests are probably better left to a more qualified writer.) Vidmar came to State College as an undergrad and has lived here since 1978; his kids went through SCASD and Penn State. He’s seen a few spinouts from the University like Videon and Minitab, but he thinks the region can sustain more tech companies. He thinks there can be more employment options beyond University Park.    

“If a younger person is either right out of school or marries someone at school and wants to find a meaningful living here, it’s often a challenge,” he says. “We’d like to do something about that.”

4. Risk and Reward
Whitney Polakowski traveled right out of school. It was 2007 and her friends were taking out loans for grad school while the global economy underwent a recession caused primarily by unpaid debts. “I never really had any debt before. I was confused by the idea of leveraging too much,” she says. She spent a year in Germany and Australia, then returned to State College and waited tables; she thought of loans and school and what her next move would be.

Polakowski was 17 when she came to Penn State from Pittsburgh as a Germanic linguistics major. “Most of my thoughts were of Europe, grad school, greater things I could do beyond the state of Pennsylvania,” she says. “I was very young, and you just don’t have a very great head on your shoulders at that age.” She took anatomy classes on the side and ended up spending a summer in a small room on campus (“you might call it a morgue”) dissecting cadavers.

Whitney PolakowskiWhitney PolakowskiWhen a waitressing colleague mentioned massage school, Polakowski was intrigued. She already had, after all, an in-depth understanding of the human body. After taking a nine-month course and receiving her certification, she rented out space in the fourth floor of a downtown office. Artemis Massage was open for business.

“I only had a few thousand bucks in my pocket. That’s barely enough to get some paint on the walls and a logo on the front door,” she says. Yet before LaunchBox and TechCelerator and other formal support systems for startups, before local newspapers and magazines ran stories on State College’s emerging entrepreneurial scene, before Entrepreneur magazine ranked State College 10th on its 2016 Best Cities for Entrepreneurs, Artemis Massage was a hit. First opened in 2010, the studio now occupies an entire floor, employing nine therapists and serving some 4,000 clients per year.

Polakowski makes sure to credit the State College community for her success. “If I tried to start anywhere else I would’ve struggled, it would’ve taken longer to achieve the same success,” she says. Artemis barely had to spend money on advertising, she says, since business spread almost entirely by word of mouth. “People aren’t as jaded, people are open to new ideas, people aren’t drilling you into the ground because of competition. They’re open to making deals,” she says.

She talks about State College with the hard-won affection of a student who planned on leaving and ended up staying. She talks about community and creativity and taking risks. She talks like someone who believes things will only get better, that people like her, armed with new ideas and fear of debt, have more resources than ever.

She talks like County Commissioner Mark Higgins, a fellow believer. Get him on the phone and he’ll breathlessly run through reasons to live in State College: kayaking and cycling and Arts Fest and top-ranking school districts and Penn State, of course, did he mention Penn State? “We have a world-class university and an unbelievable quality of life,” he says. He says this is just the beginning, that economic development doesn’t happen overnight. He’s excited. He loves this county.

“Look at any county that surrounds Centre County,” says Higgins. “If you’ve ever been to Clinton, Huntingdon, Clearfield counties — we’re surrounded by what Centre County would be like if our forefathers hadn’t campaigned hard for that Farmers’ High School and pledged some money to make it happen.”


5. Past is Epilogue
The Centre could not hold.

The year was 1855 and Centre Furnace was in its death throes. Established in 1792, namesake of Centre County and lynchpin of the 19th-century ironworks throughout the county, the furnace could not run much longer. Seemingly endless natural resources — timber and water and limestone excoriated from the earth — were not enough. Pig iron produced by PA furnaces would soon be supplanted by deposits in Minnesota Territory. Canals linking the Great Lakes would render transportation costs to and from Centre County unsustainably expensive. Deindustrialization arrived a century ahead of schedule. The nation’s destiny was made manifest. The course of empire lay westward, not inward.

But two years before he lost his savings in an economic panic, three before Centre Furnace would shut down for good, six before a nation was torn in two and seven before he died at the age of 62, James Irvin, co-owner of Centre Furnace with Moses Thompson, wrote a letter to the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society nearly a century after a white man “discovered” the empire he was born in, proposing a tract “pleasantly situated at the Junction of Penns, and Nittany Valleys near the Geographical Centre of the State” for the site of a new Farmers’ High School, a school which would be “productive of benefits to the community, the full extent of which time only can develop, and future generations only tell.”
What does a startup culture really mean for 21st-century State College? That, too, is a question for future generations. •SCM

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