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  • Writer's pictureStephen Brawley

Opinion: COVID-19 response, economic recovery begins with an investment in innovation

Updated: Nov 24, 2020


For more than 35 years, Ben Franklin Technology Partners has remained focused on supporting revolutionary technological developments that improve the human condition and address critical challenges now and in the future. Everything Ben Franklin does, in conjunction with our clients, is about innovating against the pandemic and supporting our community.

Almost from the very first days of COVID-19, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania clients have been working around the clock and are answering the call to assist the commonwealth on a number of fronts. Ongoing efforts by our clients include offering students virtual college and career readiness distance learning options, utilizing medical expertise to share helpful health and supply chain information with the community, and providing services such as video-based order platforms to communicate the care preferences of critically ill patients.

In Centre County, Drucker Diagnostics, KCF Technologies, Videon Central and many other local businesses are all developing and selling new products and services that address the COVID-19 threat directly, or allow business, services, health care and education to continue remotely and safely.

Actuated Medical, Inc., a 20-person company which normally develops medical devices that integrate electronically controlled motion technologies that improve patient outcomes and reduce health care costs, recently switched its focus and started manufacturing face shields for first responders and medical professionals on the front lines of the pandemic. In just one week, they managed to create and implement a production line for the reusable masks, which are designed to be cleaned with bleach, alcohol, or soap and water. AMI quickly ramped up production to 20,000 shields, shipping them to health care heroes locally in State College, as well Dallas, Texas and Baltimore, Maryland.

However, Centre County isn’t alone in its inspiring response to the pandemic. With cases of COVID-19 confirmed in every Pennsylvania county, no corner of our commonwealth has been left untouched. In an array of industries, spread across dozens of unique communities ranging from big cities to rural towns, homegrown Pennsylvania small businesses are stepping up to the plate and having big impacts in the battle against COVID-19. Ben Franklin clients in all regions of the commonwealth are working on everything from vaccines and diagnostics, to providing free hiring software for essential medical care services, and working on an innovative drug therapy for patients battling COVID-related lung damage.

The ability to adjust, respond and drive community-benefiting innovation makes Ben Franklin — which serves all 67 counties through four regionally based centers in Pittsburgh, State College, Bethlehem, and Philadelphia — uniquely situated to support the state both in terms of managing this crisis, and in the coming weeks, to help Pennsylvania’s economy recover during its gradual reopening. In fact, the benefit of Pennsylvania’s robust innovation economy and the need to protect it for future generations has been a hot topic in recent weeks, garnering strong support and advocacy from state Sen. Jake Corman and Reps. Kerry Benninghoff and Scott Conklin.

In April, Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development tapped Ben Franklin, along with several other life sciences, health care and business organizations, to create the “Pennsylvania Manufacturing Call to Action Portal” to mobilize manufacturers that can produce critical medical supplies and products in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Later that month, recognizing that many of the same startup firms and entrepreneurs responding to this crisis are vulnerable because they are exempt from accessing support through most existing grant and loan programs that are narrowly focused on established businesses, the state also announced $4 million to support Ben Franklin clients that are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of Ben Franklin’s regionally based centers will also match the $1 million it receives in state funding with another $1 million.

The success our state has achieved over the last 35 years to build this ecosystem is among the reasons Ben Franklin is one of the most widely known and emulated state technology-based economic development programs in the nation. It’s also provided us with a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of the nation’s economic recovery efforts.

We must continue to invest in innovative startups and rally around the enduring partnerships that provide entrepreneurs with essential resources and invaluable mentorship. In Centre County, that includes partnerships like Ben Franklin’s TechCelerator@StateCollege, which was formed in collaboration with Invent Penn State. Over the past eight years, the TechCelerator has graduated more than 100 teams and provided assistance on a multitude of levels, ranging from assistance with initial legal, to accounting and market research, while providing an avenue for participants to pitch their business concepts and receive seed funding.

If investing in innovation made sense in the best of times, it is even more critical now and will be ever more so post-pandemic, especially as we see first-hand how many of the innovative companies we’ve nurtured are helping us respond to this crisis. As Pennsylvania and our nation come together to battle COVID-19, innovation has proven to be a critical component of our response — and it will remain central to our recovery as well.

Stephen Brawley is the president and CEO of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania.

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