By Penn President Amy Gutmann
Years from now, when I look back on the most memorable and meaningful moments of my time as Penn’s president, one day certainly will stand out: The 30th of August, 2017. The weather was mild for late summer as our amazing students hurried to their second day of classes. Few were thinking that Penn was about to make history.
Then the news broke, expected but enormously exciting: The US Food and Drug Administration had just approved the first-ever gene therapy treatment for cancer. For the first time outside of clinical trials, young patients suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia could access lifesaving immunotherapy that transforms their own T cells into cancer-killers. After more than 20 years of hard work, perseverance, and pioneering research, our own Dr. Carl June and his brilliant team at Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) had successfully shifted the paradigm in cancer research.
It was the revolutionary breakthrough heard ’round the world. From the New York Times to Time magazine, headline after headline heralded the good news. The Wall Street Journal, not often given to hyperbole about higher education, wrote: “Benjamin Franklin proposed an academy to teach ‘those Things that are likely to be most useful.’ Today, the university lays claim to having incubated the world’s biggest cancer breakthrough.”
The next day, at Penn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, you could feel the electricity in the air. Penn Medicine had organized a flash mob photo event to celebrate, and I joined Carl and his family, Penn Medicine leaders, and hundreds of members of the Abramson Cancer Center and CHOP communities to commemorate the historic news. We all thanked Leonard and Madlyn (Ed’57 GEd’60) Abramson, two renowned benefactors of our cancer efforts who had dropped everything to join our impromptu celebration; their daughter, Nancy, a remarkable advocate and partner in advancing the work of the Abramson Cancer Center; as well as Richard Vague, a prescient Penn Trustee who saw such promise in Carl’s work that years ago he created the Richard W. Vague Professorship in Immunotherapy to help support this research.
My greatest sense of excitement, however, comes not from that day and what had already been done but from what we are going to do, moving forward.
This cancer breakthrough is just one example at Penn of perfect impact — that moment when daringly original ideas, unparalleled scholarly resources, and a transformative culture of innovation all meet. Impact is perfect when it can save lives; when it can change how we think or improve how we live. And it’s not at all limited to medicine.
Penn engineering and applied science researchers break new ground in nanotechnology and robotics. Penn Vet doctors contribute not just to the health of our pets but also to the security of global food production. The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation provides a dynamic new hub for pioneering creativity University-wide. Penn Nursing and Penn Dental improve community health through innovative initiatives such as Community Champions and the PennSmiles bus. The Penn Museum and Penn Libraries blaze trails in digitizing our extensive collections, making them available to scholars and the public the world over.
The spirit of perfect impact also lives in the work of our students. Student winners of the President’s Innovation and Engagement Prizes are helping solve challenges locally, nationally, and globally. Graduate School of Education students and students with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships teach and mentor in West Philadelphia schools. Each year, students from Social Policy and Practice and from Penn Law — two small yet mighty Penn schools — contribute hundreds of thousands of hours to improving the lives of the most vulnerable members of our great city. And these are just a sampling of the programs aimed at perfect impact across Penn’s campus.
University-wide, Penn generates about $1 billion in research awards annually. That funding fuels interdisciplinary collaborations among our faculty, students, and staff that are more robust than ever. In the last few years, we have transformed Penn’s innovation infrastructure, captained by the Penn Center for Innovation and culminating in our Pennovation Works ecosystem. Penn’s streamlined resources and dedicated facilities are skyrocketing the great ideas of Penn researchers and budding entrepreneurs into productive practice in the public realm. The success of this effort is evident in the numbers: This was a banner year for the Penn Center for Innovation. Over 650 commercial agreements were executed (up from fewer than 50 a decade ago). Advanced corporations such as Qualcomm and Hershey Company have taken up residence at Pennovation Works, working alongside cutting edge start-ups in biotech and artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, and biology. Pennovation Works has officially been open for business for only 12 months but already hosts 266 employees working at 64 companies in some of the coolest, most creative space in the city.
So when, just weeks after the FDA announcement approving Carl June’s breakthrough, Penn placed 4th in “Reuters Top 100: The World’s Most Innovative Universities,” it came as a pleasing affirmation but no surprise.
Our investment in innovation strengthens everything we do at Penn. It is a necessary evolution of higher education, advancing both a culture and an ecosystem of discovery. Fostering innovation gives us insight and tools for teaching better, researching more creatively and daringly, and sharing our findings more effectively with people everywhere. It builds on the spirit of Ben Franklin’s proposal for an Academy that would bring forth both theoretical and useful knowledge. In Franklin’s day, that concept represented an enormous departure from the mission of other schools. But he was on to something fundamental: the need for university-driven innovation in Philadelphia and beyond. Today, all of us — Penn’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and leadership — are unified in our passionate commitment to bringing our University’s knowledge and inventions to the world.
Our aim is perfect impact. On the day we got together to celebrate the FDA announcement and Dr. June’s achievement, all around me were young researchers, clinicians, and educators proud to be a part of Penn. This was the next generation, driving forward our three-part mission of inclusion, innovation, and impact. I wondered: How many future Carl Junes did I see that day at the flash mob and rushing off to their classes across campus?
Years from now, when you and I behold the life-transforming innovations going on at Penn and research universities everywhere, I know that I will see many of them again. The seeds of perfect impact we plant at Penn today will transform the future.
Originally published in Penn Gazette, 1/4/18