BY KEN THOMPSON
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY PURDUE RESEARCH FOUNDATION
David Ross’ impact upon Purdue University goes far beyond the football stadium that has had his name for nearly a century.
Ross, a president of the Purdue University Board of Trustees and a prolific inventor, noticed that industry did not have access to Purdue’s knowledge and aid like farmers were provided through the Purdue University Extension Service.
So in the fall of 1930, Ross found a way to get around the limitations created by Purdue’s status as a public institution. With board member Josiah K. Lilly, of Eli Lilly and Co., matching Ross’ $25,000 in starter money (nearly $363,000 in today’s dollars), the nonprofit Purdue Research Foundation was created on Dec. 30, 1930.
“I think the bottom line is he wanted to make it easier for businesses to interact with the university,” says Greg Deason, Senior Vice President of Entrepreneurship and Place Making for the Purdue Research Foundation.
“I think the essence was that he thought this could be a vehicle that would allow the foundation to make and take actions that would benefit the university but could do it rapidly at the speed of business.”
Ross died in 1943 but Deason believes much of today’s PRF was part of his original vision. Deason notes that Purdue Research Park was the third great research park in the world in 1961, following the path of Stanford in 1952 and the Research Triangle Park (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina) in 1959.
“It is most likely he was concerned about creating the framework for which great things could occur,” Deason says. “I think he could have easily, based on the efforts he was making, conceived of clusters of businesses that began to operate near the university so they could benefit from these relationships that he had conceived. In many, many ways I think he could have conceived of (research parks) and I think in addition because of his background as an inventor and an entrepreneur it’s quite likely he could have conceived of a key function that we do where we license our patents. I think he would have come up with many of the things we are doing.”
The Purdue Research Foundation may be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2020 but it has changed with the times. The impetus for change began when former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels became university president in 2013.
“I believe because President Daniels brings the experience he’s had in both government and industry, he has been very helpful and supportive of making sure that the foundation did move into the direction of focusing in on the commercialization of Purdue’s technologies,” says Brian Edelman, who became president of the Purdue Research Foundation in 2017.
“Before President Daniels’ administration, the foundation really was somewhat of a real estate trust. We still are but … what we do as far as real estate and making building places is no longer the focal mission. We do it to make sure we have what’s needed to commercialize Purdue’s technologies.”
Simply put, the PRF’s mission is focused on improving the world through its technologies and graduates.
“That is why the office of technology commercialization is so core to our mission,” Edelman says. “It’s why The Foundry that helps create the startups around Purdue technologies is so critical.”
The Purdue Foundry’s mission statement says its existence is to help Purdue students, faculty and local alumni move ideas to the marketplace more quickly.
One of those startups is Akonacure Pharmaceuticals, which developed a platform to produce natural cancer therapies.
Sherine Abdelmawla, a Purdue pharmacy alumnus who earned her Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology in 2007, founded that startup with her husband; both work with The Purdue Foundry.
“They helped us at the beginning to learn all aspects of the business,” Abdelmawla says. “They helped us transition from a technical team to a management team. Perfecting the investors’ pitch. Putting together a business plan. It’s a great resource.”
Abdelmawla says Akonacure’s original investors were all from The Purdue Foundry and it continues to help the startup. “The Foundry doesn’t just connect me with people within the boundary of PRF, they will connect us with all the Purdue alum network,” she explains. “PRF has a big network of investors they can connect you to. They will be helpful throughout the life of the company.
“The best thing about the PRF is you’re almost immediately treated like you’re a part of the family. It feels a lot more personal than a business relationship. We’ll always feel very grateful, very loyal to The Foundry and Purdue.”
Johnny Park calls himself “a major beneficiary” professionally and personally of the Purdue Research Foundation. Park earned bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering at Purdue. He became a research assistant professor in the school as well.
With the PRF’s investment and a grant from the United States Dairy Association in 2008, Park started Spensa Technologies in 2009 with the vision of agricultural innovation that will reduce reliance on manual labor, foster eco-friendly farming and enhance crop production efficiency.
“As a young faculty member who had never started a company and really did not understand many aspects of the business, The Foundry and PRF was extremely helpful in not only mentoring me as an entrepreneur but also connecting the company to all the relevant customers, stakeholders, potential partners and investors,” Park says. “All those connections were very, very helpful.”
Spensa was acquired in 2018 by DTN, which continues to operate Spensa in Purdue Research Park. Meanwhile, Park remains in West Lafayette as CEO at the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network.
“I didn’t think I’d still be here but the opportunity Purdue provided us in this ecosystem was very wonderful,” Park says. “What Purdue has built in this town, the Purdue Research Park and all the office spaces that are available is incredible. At the cost, we’re getting quality. It’s not often talked about but it’s a tremendous value for a startup to have the infrastructure to take advantage of.”
Dr. Byron Pipes, the John L. Bray Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Purdue, had experience in the business world decades before coming to West Lafayette in 2004. As co-founder and director of the Center for Composite Materials at the University of Delaware, Pipes developed an industrial consortium of more than 40 corporate sponsors from nine different nations. Pipes also was president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York from 1993-95.
Pipes’ research, involving composite materials used in aviation and technology, is patented through the PRF’s Office of Technology Commercialization. He also took the lead in creating the Indiana Manufacturing Institute (based in Research Park), and is executive director of the Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center.
“It was mutually beneficial for the relationship to happen,” Pipes says. “From my perspective from all the years I’ve spent in leadership and research is that having a place that is almost off campus gave the industry a view that maybe we weren’t so ‘ivory tower.’ Companies are attracted to us because we’re out in Research Park. We’re accessible.
“Whenever I get a company where the high-level people are coming to see me, I make a quick appointment with the president of the Purdue Research Foundation. He explains all about Research Park and what we’re doing to build relationships. It has an effect on them. ‘Wow, you guys are different.’”
One of the PRF’s newest partnerships is with the city of West Lafayette. Mayor John Dennis uses one word to describe his relationship with PRF.
“OUT-STANDING, with capital letters all the way through,” Dennis says.
Dennis remembers in his first term getting a lesson in what he calls “PRF 101” from then-PRF executive director Joe Arnett.
“It wasn’t just enlightening to me as a newly elected guy, it was enlightening for me as a tool to better understand how to improve relationships with Purdue,” Dennis says. “That was sort of the precursor to some of the great things we’ve been able to do over the past five or six years, including annexation and the explosion of development in the Research Park.”
Dennis uses the recruitment of Saab as an example of how the collaboration between the Purdue Research Foundation and the city has benefited Greater Lafayette.
“We were looking at a way to have an incentive package that would make us stand out amongst all the communities that were competing for a high-end development,” he says. “Purdue was in a position to provide some incentivization, and the city of West Lafayette was in a position to provide incentivization. Also, which is completely unheard of, the city of Lafayette participated in the recruitment of Saab financially. If you look anywhere else in the country, you will never find two cities that are going to do the same thing to benefit one city.”
The State Street Project had modest beginnings before a conversation between Dennis and Mitch Daniels changed the scope of the project.
“We had an urban corridor that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the days of the horse and buggy,” Dennis says. “It basically excluded anything involving Purdue University. The storefronts were ignored, parking was ignored, traffic flow was ignored. It basically inhibited any type of business development.
“Our original plan was to take State Street from University down to the riverfront. Basically, we would spend a few million dollars on it, dress it up pretty and make it more accessible. Hopefully improve our business corridor so that people would be more inclined to utilize it.”
Dennis felt obligated to share that plan with Daniels and his staff. It must have been some presentation because Daniels wanted Purdue to be a part of the State Street Project.
“OK, sure, bring your checkbook,” was Dennis’ response. “By golly, he did.”
“That’s when the project changed from being a local project to being a project that incorporated the university all the way to the point of its furthest west barrier, out to connect what was eventually going to be (U.S) 231.”
Daniels’ enthusiasm for the State Street Project led to Purdue’s annexation by West Lafayette, which when the students are on campus swells the population to more than 80,000.
“Which makes us one of the most densely populated cities in the state of Indiana,” Dennis explains. “That allowed us to give a lot of assurances to developers at getting a quick return on their investment.”
Edelman says Purdue’s nearly $100 million obligation to the State Street Project prompted the PRF to make a $40 million land swap with the university to be able to develop the Discovery Park district and the aerospace district.
“But we should have been doing that on our own,” he says. “The reason we should have been doing that is because having the land open has led to the expansion that is going on right now at the Rolls Royce building, the building of the Saab plant, the Schweitzer Engineering Labs. The real jobs that are coming to the Greater Lafayette area through that development is huge.”
Those jobs will bring in people looking for high-end housing, which PRF is providing with Provenance, a single-family home development planned for the former Black and Gold athletic fields.
“When we look to get a development, if we have a developable parcel somewhere in the city or on the west end at Purdue Research Park, people line up because they know they are going to be in good company,” Dennis says. “It makes the recruiting really easy. When it comes to hiring, they will get really high-quality workers.
“We’ve got advanced manufacturing, we’ve got one of the best universities in the country. We’ve got great leadership, Tony Roswarski on the east side and Mitch Daniels as president. We all have a unified understanding of what’s best for this community, not on just the short term but long term. We share resources and work collaboratively together. The Purdue Research Foundation has been pivotal in that.”
Dennis’ vision fits hand in hand with Edelman’s outlook for the future.
“I hope that we can get more captains of industry and captains of capital to land their G-IV jets at the Purdue Airport and visit what we’re building,” Edelman says. “I believe that the very expensive costs of starting a business and having employees on the East and West coast, maybe the false views that the only good ideas come out of the Bay Area or Boston would be shattered if we could get these captains of capital and industry to see what is going on in our part of the prairie at Purdue.
“What I want to do is get them to land their jets instead of flying over that so-called ‘flyover’ state of Indiana and see what we’re building in the Greater Lafayette area.”