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What does the rise in remote work mean for research-based innovation?

While some parts of the tech industry can thrive with remote work, scientific research has always relied on in-person collaboration — and will continue to do so, these experts from the Penn Center for Innovation argue.

A scientist working in a wet lab (Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels)
Correction: In Bhavana Mohanraj's discussion of whether research-based innovation hubs will endure, she says therapeutics companies might start in the Pennovation Center, not the Penn Center for Innovation, as previously reported. (6/13/22, 3:25 p.m.)

Universities have always been sources of innovation. They’re research-driven, collaborative spaces where experimentation is expected and new concepts are allowed to grow. The high ed-based hubs of today launch companies, and patent and license inventions that are created there.

But with the rise of remote work, these research centers have had to do some evolving, along with the rest of the tech industry.

Executive Director John Swartley and Associate Director of Ventures Bhavana Mohanraj for the Penn Center for Innovation, the technology transfer office at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed how these hubs are changing — and how they’re staying the same — as part of the Introduced interview series.

Remote work’s impact on research-based innovation hubs

These hubs are highly collaborative, and remote isn’t ideal — and in some case, it’s even impossible to get the same work done remotely, especially in the life sciences. Some good has come out of connecting virtually, however.

“The pandemic forced us to go virtual for so long and we started to build relationships in that way,” Mohanraj said. For one, it’s easier than ever to meet with non-local folks: “It gave us access to resources that we might not have been able to access before, in terms of our investors and partners that our companies worked with.”

Still, she said, at its core, research-based innovation needs in-person relationship building.

“It is sector dependent, but in life sciences, you need people to be able to collaborate and communicate in person and look at data and results and plan together,” she said. “And I think it’s so much more effective, sometimes, than being on Zoom and having these calls remotely, because that innovation and that creativity isn’t necessarily always captured on the screen. It’s in the brainstorming sessions where you’re putting up ideas on the wall, and you’re having that live, lively debate and discussion around the topic.”

Does place still matter?

The hubs at Penn have always had an aim to build out the innovation ecosystem in the Philadelphia region, and that hasn’t changed. While it’s not a requirement that the companies that spin out of the university stay there, most do, according to Swartley.

“I think there’s a pretty compelling reason for that,” the director said. “They can draw upon each other’s resources. It builds on itself, and certainly our observation has been that there’s definitely a strength because of the geography and having Penn as a kind of resource in the middle of it all.”

Will research-based innovation hubs endure?

Innovation is about change — and the technology industry is continuously evolving, too.

And yet, “I absolutely think these research clusters will endure,” Mohanraj said. “I think what you see, especially in these early-stage companies, is this need to be able to talk with the founders, the inventors, and be able to do deep dives into how we will bring this out of the lab and into the product development cycle.”

In many if not most cases, those conversations will be in person, and in Penn’s case will draw from a local pool of talent.

“All of those talented individuals see the growth and innovation in Philadelphia, and they see opportunities to stay here and to contribute to the exciting things that are happening,” Mohanraj said. Biotherapeutics companies, for instance, might start in the Pennovation Center as they develop cell therapies to treat cancer. Then, “they’re able to now go from the incubator space into their own 17,000-square-foot lab space in the main lab building. You can see how they’re growing their team.”

Watch the full video:

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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