Innovation education at Weiss Tech House is spawning new companies

Let others focus on election day tomorrow or dread the employment report coming up on Friday.

I’m looking forward to a week of events that celebrate entrepreneurship. Starting Tuesday, the two-day Mid-Atlantic Capital Conference at the Convention Center is expected to attract 1,000 people to learn about 40 area companies, including TerraCycle Inc., of Trenton, and iPipeline Inc., of Exton.

More intriguing is what’s happening on the University of Pennsylvania campus that celebrates ideas at a much earlier stage. It’s Innovation Week at the Weiss Tech House, a student-run organization that’s proof a little money, a little structure and a lot of teamwork can produce amazing things, including new companies.

We all remember that guy in college who sold dormroom carpets out of his trunk. Well, this technology-steeped generation has grander ambitions.

Begun in May 2003, the Weiss Tech House at 33d and Walnut Streets began as a 3,000-square-foot space where Penn undergraduates could pursue their ideas. The ground floor is called the lab, but it’s more like a workshop with paint sprayer, band saw, drill press and other tools.

Upstairs are conference rooms outfitted, not with cocktail napkins on which to sketch ideas, but whiteboards, including one that runs wall-to-wall and was partly filled with hieroglyphic-like scribbling in brown marker on the day I visited.

Anne Stamer manages the day-to-day activities of the Weiss Tech House, but she stressed that this is very much a bottom-up organization. Students run the six committees, including the Innovation Fund committee that decides on the merits of student ideas.

The Innovation Fund is an in-house, mini-venture capital fund that provides cash but doesn’t take equity stakes in student projects. If accepted, the student and his team receive a $1,000 grant and access to the Tech House’s technical, legal and business mentoring resources.

From the start, the goal has been to teach people how to turn an idea into a product. “We try to let people know that their ideas could be valuable,” Stamer said.

While commercialization is not mandatory, many students find they want to see how far they can push their projects, she said.

Certainly, there’s been no Google or even a that’s emerged from Weiss Tech House. But a number of companies have been formed around innovations born there. They include:

* First Flavor, now in Bala Cynwyd, which makes edible film strips that taste like a food or drink that are used in advertising campaigns. It’s worked with big companies such as Campbell Soup, Diageo and Bacardi.

* Humanistic Robots Inc. , a Bristol company developing a device to clear land mines. It was awarded a $2 million Defense Department grant in February to turn its prototype into a commercially viable product.

* Innova Materials, an advanced-materials company in West Philadelphia that is providing its IonArmour antimicrobial technology to other companies for use in health-care and consumer products.

Alexander Mittal, the CEO of Innova who will give a talk about his entrepreneurial experiences Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Huntsman Hall as part of Innovation Week, called the Weiss Tech House a “very valuable program” at Penn.

Through Weiss Tech House, he built a team that helped him develop the antimicrobial technology that helps inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungus and mold on product surfaces. Now his Innova Materials employs eight people from its offices in the University City Science Center.

What impresses Stamer the most is the youthful fearlessness of many of the Tech House participants. “They are students, but they say, ‘We can do anything,' ” she said.

Whether it’s new solar panels or a new rowing machine, that’s just what they’re doing at Weiss Tech House.