Where Ideas Go to Work: Penn Celebrates Grand Opening of Pennovation Center

Describing it as an “unprecedented” project, an “iconic new landmark,” and Penn’s “window into our future,” University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, joined by David L. Cohen, chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, and with the assistance of a four-legged robot “Minitaur,” cut the ribbon on the new Pennovation Center, the University’s new hub for innovation and new business ventures at 3401 Grays Ferry Ave. on Friday, Oct. 28.

The highlight of the grand opening celebration brought Gutmann to the main stage in discussion with Penn alums Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa, co-founders and co-CEOs of Warby Parker, which culminated in the ribbon cutting.

Before an audience of more than 1,200 Penn students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and friends, as well as members of the region’s business and tech community, Gutmann said the Pennovation Center and the campus of Pennovation Works offers a window into our future.

The highlight of the grand opening celebration brought Penn President Amy Gutmann to the main stage in discussion with Penn alums Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa, co-founders and co-CEOs of Warby Parker

“Yogi Berra used to say, ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’ With all the incredible teams of engineers and entrepreneurs, dreamers and doers who are calling this place home, they all can say this: The future ain’t what it used to be—it’s better—and that’s what we’re out to show with the Pennovation Center and Pennovation Works,” Gutmann said. “When it comes to reshaping the future of an entire industry, who better to talk about this with us than the runaway eyewear and lifestyle business success, Warby Parker? Founded just six years ago, Warby Parker has grown into a more than billion-dollar socially conscious business that has provided—wrap your minds around this—more than one million free pairs of new glasses to people who need them most around the world.”

Penn has always been about knowledge. We advance it for its own sake, but we also use knowledge to serve society with new medicines and therapies, new technologies and products. You can only do this when you are able to attract the very best and brightest.

Penn President Amy Gutmann

The new three-story, 58,000-square-foot Pennovation Center is designed to bring together entrepreneurs and researchers from within the University and from the private sector to explore ideas that will advance knowledge and generate economic development for the city and state. The facility includes a full service business incubator: Penn Center for Innovation’s PCI Ventures, basic wet and dry laboratories; private offices, inventor garages, as well as a coworking space for up to 200 members, operated by Benjamin’s Desk.

The Center has already attracted 20 different startup companies and more than 100 individuals, entrepreneurs, and inventors looking to be part of a unique community of innovators, including IT biotechnology startups having spun out of Penn, Liquid Biotech USA, Blue Pen Biomarkers and CytoVas; robotics startup COSY; Fortune 500 companies such as Hershey and Qualcomm, and a host of technologists, researchers, and venture capitalists.

Pennovation Center

The third floor houses PERCH, the Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub, designed to accelerate the University’s lab-to-market technology transfer pipeline in robotics, the “internet of things,” embedded systems, and other emerging areas of interdisciplinary engineering.

The third floor houses PERCH, the Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub, designed to accelerate the University’s lab-to-market technology transfer pipeline in robotics, the “internet of things,” embedded systems, and other emerging areas of interdisciplinary engineering focused on applications of immediate social and technical value.

The Pennovation Center’s design by New York-based architects Hollwich Kushner has transformed the former industrial facility on the Schuylkill River into an extraordinary piece of modern architecture. The Center’s northern façade radically reconstructs the entrance with angular juxtaposing panes of glass, a reflection of the robust research, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity taking place inside. The glass façade also offers views of the Schuylkill River, Penn’s campus, and the Center City skyline.

The festivities that marked the official launch offered guests the opportunity to tour the Pennovation Center, meet and hear from Center architect Matthias Hollwich and landscape architect David Rubin; 2016 President’s Innovation Prize winner William Duckworth of Fever Smart Technologies Inc.; Henry Daniell of Penn’s School of Dental Medicine, a leader in innovative solutions to plant-based medicine; Daniel Mellinger of technology giant Qualcomm and Jonas Cleveland of Philly startup COSY; musical performances by Penn acapella group Counterparts; and demonstrations by Penn Vet‘s Working Dog Center along with PERCH robotics.

PERCH also had a hand in the design of the grand opening events. Terry Kientz, who runs thePERCH Design and Fabrication Facility worked with graduate student Jeremy Wang to make the 18-inch pair of scissors using a 3-D printer on-site. The 3-D printing took about eight hours and additional time in the design and finishing before they were ready to hand off to Minitaur, the ground-based quadruped robot who took to the stage on Oct. 28 to deliver the scissors to Gutmann.

Pennovation Center

Minitaur is the first product of Ghost Robotics, a PERCH spin-off company. Avik De and Gavin Kenneally, the graduate students who created Minitaur are members of the Kod*Lab, working under Daniel Koditschek, the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor and director of PERCH. Tech transfer and spinoffs like Ghost Robotics is the start of what is expected to be a long line of new discoveries to come.

Completion of the Pennovation Center, and the first phase of the 23-acre Pennovation Works site improvements, are part of a $37.5 million investment by Penn aimed at supporting a more dynamic culture of innovation by aligning individual entrepreneurs and startups from the University with the private sector.

  • Text by Amanda Mott
  • Photos by Eddy Marenco and Scott Spitzer