On Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, Penn President Amy Gutmann and David L. Cohen, chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, welcomed more than 750 Penn students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and friends, as well as members of the region’s business and tech community to the “Celebration of Innovation at Penn,” showcasing Penn’s South Bank, a hub for innovation and new business ventures.
The guests gathered in a large white tent for the 2014 David and Lyn Silfen University Forum, “From Idea to Innovation: The Impactful University,” a conversation between Gutmann and special guest Walter Isaacson. The annual forum is named for David Silfen, a 1966 Penn alumnus, and his wife, Lyn, and brings experts to campus to weigh in on topics of the day.
Isaacson drew on his most recent book, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” to discuss women in technology, translational research, and how Penn founder Ben Franklin was, as Isaacson said, “a total geek” who would have loved the information age.
Gutmann said the accidental invention of Saran Wrap by Dow Chemical Company in the 1930s is an illustrative example of inventive thinking.
“We can bring the best people together with the best resources, as Dow did in the 1930s, “she said, “but we can’t predict what the outcome will be.”
What is certain, Gutmann said, is that universities are stimulators and innovators of great research.
Isaacson, too, underscored the important role of universities in innovation, and relayed the story of ENIAC—the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer that was developed in the 1940s at Penn. Six women Ph.D. students were tasked with programming the machine, but when the computer was unveiled to the public on Valentine’s Day of 1946, Isaacson said, the women programmers were not invited to the black tie event after the announcement.
“Let’s listen up and never forget this,” Gutmann responded.
Isaacson also discussed Steve Jobs, who said in an interview with the author that Apple was the invention of which he was most proud.
“History is made not just by singular individuals, but by social and collaborative movement,” Isaacson said. “Teamwork is the key to creativity.”
The Silfen Forum closed with a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Pennovation Center (2016), which will be a central component of the South Bank’s mission to advance innovation at Penn and across the region. The Pennovation Center will repurpose 52,000 square feet of reinvigorated industrial space as a hub to facilitate and accelerate entrepreneurial activities, creative collaborations, and new approaches to the commercialization of research discoveries at Penn.
Earlier in the afternoon, four faculty members—the School of Arts & Sciences’ A.T. Charlie Johnson, the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Katherine Kuchenbecker, the Perelman School of Medicine’s John Trojanowski and the Wharton School’s Karl Ulrich—gave “Pennovation Talks” in a neighboring tent that was abuzz with student exhibitors. The posters and exhibits offered a snapshot of the range of student interests, and examples of innovation and programming across Penn’s schools and centers.
Participants were invited to take tours of two of the South Bank’s facilities, the Penn School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center, and the School of Dental Medicine’s Research Greenhouse. They also heard from members of KMel Robotics—a company founded by Penn graduates with headquarters at the South Bank—before enjoying a networking reception in the future home of the Pennovation Center.