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PNW building ecosystem to drive economic development for Northwest Indiana

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A key role of a strong metropolitan university in a region as diverse as Northwest Indiana is to proactively stimulate economic growth, leveraging talent and resources to support new and expanding businesses. In short, an ecosystem that creates and innovates economic development can and should be anchored at a higher education institution.

We at Purdue University Northwest (PNW) were very excited in early October when the Higher Learning Commission, our federal accrediting body, approved PNW to begin offering a doctorate degree in Technology — known as a DTech. This was the final step in a very long process that included approvals from the Graduate School at Purdue-West Lafayette and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. This advanced degree, focused on applying existing technology for innovative purposes, will be an economic driver for Northwest Indiana especially when paired with the Roberts Impact Lab at PNW.

This “applied” doctoral degree differs from a Doctor of Philosophy in that the DTech explores existing technology, while a Ph.D. in Technology would focus on creating new technologies. The work accomplished by PNW graduate students during their degree studies will expand existing technology or apply existing technology for other purposes. Of most importance is the possibility that these students’ work will create new commercialization opportunities here in Northwest Indiana that will drive economic development.

The bigger picture

The new degree program is part of a much bigger picture of economic development for our region. When the Northwest Indiana Forum conducted a study on economic development, one of the recommendations for future success in NWI was to invest in commercialization and innovation. Specifically, the recommendations for both an incubator/accelerator for new and existing businesses and the development of applied doctoral degrees in Technology and Engineering were paramount to moving our region forward.

PNW has already been working on the development and commercialization of many projects through our Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center (CMEC) in Hammond, led by Niaz Latif, dean of the PNW College of Technology, and Mont Handley, entrepreneur in residence and the associate director of CMEC. Between 2017-2021, PNW received about $5.2 million from industry to fund projects. While the full list of partners includes 35 companies or industries, I want to mention a few: ArcelorMittal/Cleveland Cliffs, Citgo Petroleum Corporation, Dwyer Instruments, First Midwest Bank, Hammond Group and U.S. Steel. To help inventors, PNW has worked on 48 patent applications that have been submitted for approval.

Doctoral students in technology will now be able to work on these projects and also generate new innovations. With eight to 10 new DTech students starting every year, the odds are strong that multiple new ventures will be launched every year, creating new jobs and bringing outside investment to the Region.

Through the success of CMEC, we have seen that additional spaces for entrepreneurial and innovative projects are needed. New spaces also will give the DTech students a place to work while they learn. The Roberts Impact Lab at PNW, first conceived as part of the Northwest Indiana Forum’s “Ignite the Region” economic plan, will provide the space and create a regional innovation center. The Impact Lab is a location, both physical and digital, where innovation will be conceived and nurtured. Working with all our Northwest Indiana partners in innovation, the Impact Lab will provide a single entry to all the available resources needed by entrepreneurs.

PNW’s experience with commercialization and with problem solving for existing companies will be shared more widely in NWI in this new space. Innovation — new ideas for commercialization or new products from existing companies — as well as consultative problem solving will be made available by tapping into the assets of PNW, especially the work of our new graduate students.

Partnering

to benefit NWIOf course, this boldly visioned Impact Lab will require significant resources. The Impact Lab was awarded $5 million as a part of the $50 million earmarked for Northwest Indiana through the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant from the state. Additionally, David Roberts, a graduate of PNW and our first Alumni Hall of Fame inductee, and his wife Susan, donated $3 million dollars to further advance the vision. The Roberts Impact Lab at PNW is currently moving forward in discussions with several partners to secure a facility and raise additional funds to support its start-up operations and equipment costs. Additionally, we will look to these partners to be tenants in the facility to help defray the ongoing operational costs while providing them access to faculty and student expertise.

PNW’s plan for Northwest Indiana is to help stimulate business start-ups in the Roberts Impact Lab and to nourish the lab with innovative projects led by doctoral students in Technology. These projects will have great potential to be commercialized. Those commercialized businesses could stay in Northwest Indiana, creating jobs and contributing to economic growth throughout the region.

The future is bright, but only if we work diligently to build the economic ecosystem that will support commercialization in Northwest Indiana. PNW is aggressively moving to build that ecosystem. I encourage everyone in NWI who has the opportunity to partner with us to help develop and expand economic options for those who want to work and live in this region long into the future.

Thomas Keon is chancellor at Purdue University Northwest. The opinions are the writer’s.

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