Propel PSU: A Pipeline to Innovation

A peek into the world of PSU research, innovation, and entrepreneurship

A group of three students brainstorming ideas around a table
Propel offers many ways for students, faculty and community members to bring their ingenuity to life

At the corner of Broadway and Morrison, perched high above the busy streets of campus, is emblazoned PSU’s motto: “let knowledge serve the city.” For Propel PSU, this statement embodies much more than an ideal – it is an everyday reality. 

Housed in the department of Research & Graduate Studies, Propel with its three units represents the university’s commitment not only to excellence in research but in its myriad applications to real-world problems and real-world markets. Together, Propel seek to surface and resource enterprising students, faculty, and community members, providing a platform to multiply their impact not only on campus but in the city of Portland and around the world.

Propel got its official start in January of 2020 and comprises the Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property, the PSU Business Accelerator, and the Center for Entrepreneurship. Though each of these offices existed and operated independently before their incorporation, the recent merge has brought them into a new symbiotic relationship with one another.

“All three units are united in their mission. Between them, there’s a lot of shared programming,” says Assistant Vice President for Research & Graduate Studies, Joseph Janda. “With entrepreneurship education, there are certain fundamentals that are true whether you’re talking to biology professors, sophomore graphic design students, or someone who’s just starting their first company.”

Yet even under this new umbrella of Propel, each branch continues to pursue a unique focal point.

The Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property (IIP) reaches out to researchers and faculty on campus, helping them patent and copyright their work. Aside from protecting their intellectual property, IIP also guides campus innovators in moving their inventions, ideas, and technology beyond the university’s borders.

“At any given time, there are probably 40 or 50 active projects across PSU - a group of faculty talking to us about their early stage ideas, others pursuing startup funding and progressing towards development of their product,” says Janda. By walking faculty members through the process of developing, licensing, and commercializing their work, IIP allows them to navigate new partnerships and find new platforms for their research.  

To date, over 200 innovation disclosures have been filed through IIP with almost 90 receiving patents and over 100 actively engaged in some form of commercial licensing. Some of these have even blossomed into companies of their own. As of 2020, 17 startups have emerged out of research work done on the PSU campus.  

Many of these startups find their home at the PSU Business Accelerator (PSBA). Open to faculty, students, or community members who desire to bring their innovative work to market, the PSBA serves as an entrepreneurial greenhouse for over 20 tech, bioscience, and green companies of varying size. 

As a business incubator, the PSBA is not only Oregon’s oldest but one of its most successful. In 2019 alone, companies within the PSBA made over 20 million dollars in revenue. Current PSBA companies have brought in over 23 million in grant money and have thrived in procuring private funding as well. For the last five years, more angel and venture capital were raised within the walls of the PSBA than anywhere else in the state of Oregon.

Beyond offering business space, amenities, and programming at affordable and below market rates, the PSBA grants companies access to something invaluable: relationships with others within the industrial and entrepreneurial ecosystem. “The value,” Janda says, “is spontaneous interaction. If you have a problem, you only have to go down the hall to find someone to give you a fresh perspective. Even something like lunch can be a time to bring people together to learn.”   

Perhaps this very desire to foster learning is why Propel’s third branch, the Center for Entrepreneurship, also resides at the PSBA. As Propel’s student-facing unit, the Center prides itself on providing students of all academic backgrounds, outlets and opportunities to learn the tricks of the trade. 

Between entrepreneurs at the PSBA and faculty researchers at IIP, there is no shortage of potential mentors for students. Even outside of PSU, the Center connects students to Oregon’s greater entrepreneurial ecosystem, providing onramps to programs like the Portland Incubator Experiment and Bend Venture Conference as well as support in national competitions like VentureWell E-teams and Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. This year, the Center also launched a new four-month incubator program called the Cube specifically to offer students interested in a more intensive experience a more intentional space to hone their skills, develop contacts, and launch their companies. 

The Center delights in creating opportunities for PSU students and faculty to explore innovation and entrepreneurship at any time during their academic journey at PSU. By participating in one of the Center for Entrepreneurship’s programs or competitions, students can get hands-on experience transforming their ideas into tangible projects, prototypes, and products. So strong is the Center’s commitment to experiential learning that even the global pandemic could not stop its big Invent Oregon event from bringing together 18 teams from around the state to innovate and compete this past September. 

“Ultimately, our desire with Propel is to help PSU move forward,” says Janda. “There’s a sense of motion there, even in the name.” With a year under its belt, Propel is excited to continue moving students, faculty, and community members along their journey of innovation, whatever their next steps may be.

“Entrepreneurship is not just about having an idea for a gadget and pitching it on Shark Tank. It is a set of skills and a mindset. It is the confidence that comes with knowing how to say: ‘I don’t know how to do this, but let’s jump in, figure it out, and do it,” says Janda. “Ultimately, these are the experiences that we want to offer. Experiences that will serve people not only in the careers they’ll pursue but in the whole of their lives going forward.”