Volvo Funds Research in Energy Efficient Vehicles Through ‘Innovation Gateway’

Innovation Gateway
Launched in fall 2016, Innovation Gateway aims to connect faculty ideas with organizations that can bring them to the marketplace. Image: Penn State

The Volvo Group will fund a new research project from the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State as a result of its participation in Innovation Gateway, an open innovation tool launched by the University in the fall of 2016.

Volvo is the first industry partner to complete a research challenge through Innovation Gateway, which aims to connect faculty ideas with organizations that can bring them to the marketplace.

The selected research project was submitted by Stephen Lynch for a nine-month study titled “Optimized Diesel Engine, Exhaust Waste Heat Recovery Components via Additive Manufacturing.” The proposal was submitted in response to Volvo’s challenge in the category of energy-efficient vehicle innovation.

Using the new Innovation Gateway tool, companies work with the the University’s Office of Industrial Partnerships to post specific details of a business challenge or technological need. Interested Penn State faculty, staff or postgraduate teams can then submit their ideas or solutions using a simple standardized format.

“Innovation Gateway has already proven to be an incredible resource to engage industry partners and to enable us to reach all areas of the University quickly,” said Don Mothersbaugh, assistant director for the Office of Industrial Partnerships. “The tool has been well-received by both faculty and corporate partners.”

More than 20 Penn State researchers responded to two separate challenges posted by Volvo. Submissions represented a range of departments, including mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, and the Applied Research Laboratory, among others.

“Volvo is extremely pleased with the opportunities offered by the Innovation Gateway platform,” said Sam McLaughlin, external research manager, North American region at Volvo Group. “The quality and breadth of ideas from across the University was more than we could have imagined. This tool gives us a powerful connection for identifying emerging research topics at a world-class university.”

Although Volvo has previously worked with a number of Penn State research teams through its Academic Partner Program, a majority of faculty who participated in the challenge were unknown to the manufacturer, opening the door to new opportunities.

Penn State researchers from any department at any campus can make submissions to a given challenge. “That openness broadens the pool of potential solutions and brings new ideas to the table,” said Mothersbaugh. “It really helps companies to think outside the box.”

He cited the example of a unique proposal submitted to Volvo: A liberal-arts researcher suggested a potential human behavioral solution to a challenge where others had approached the problem from a technical angle.

After reviewing submissions, a corporate partner can choose to meet with research teams, begin to develop longer-term partnerships, or move immediately to fund research. Several other companies have already posted challenges, including three Fortune 500 companies. For its part, Volvo plans to use the tool again, and Mothersbaugh said challenges from other companies are coming soon.

While digital platforms already exist for government-funded research grants, Innovation Gateway is the first to connect Penn State researchers with industry. Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research at Penn State and director of the Office of Industrial Partnerships, said the tool helps to bolster their overall, ongoing support for faculty-industry connections.

“Our goal is to take the burden off of faculty, and help to facilitate these partnerships,” Fortin said.

The leaders of the program hope to add collaboration features to the platform in the future, where faculty, staff or postgraduate students can work together to review and collaborate on a given proposal.

“If you look at Penn State’s land-grant mission, it’s to educate, research, and conduct outreach beyond our walls,” said Fortin. “This program truly captures all three. We’re working with partner organizations, and we’re engaging our faculty and students to grow real expertise while solving real-world problems.”