Olga Koper is being honored as a Champion of Change for her accomplishments as an immigrant entrepreneur and innovator.
I am a woman who appreciates and enjoys the benefits and challenges of being an innovator and entrepreneur in the United States. Throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to be involved in projects dealing with more efficient energy generation and storage, decontamination, sustainable materials, water clean-up, and even in-vitro cancer detection and treatment using the power of nanotechnology.
At the same time, I am a mother who cares about the safety and welfare of not only my family, but also other people around the world, and I have the perfect job that allows me to enhance that very safety and welfare. It is a privilege to work for Battelle Memorial Institute, the largest not-for-profit research organization in the world, and a company doing business according to the founding principle of Gordon Battelle: to conduct research for the betterment of humankind. We are a business of innovation that is not only involved in developing technologies and solutions, but is also focused on promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
Being born in Poland during the era of communism and growing up in such an environment shaped me to do more with less, grab opportunities, and collaborate with others. I found I could reach my goals much faster and strengthen my own efforts while impacting the broader society. When I came to the U.S. to work as a research assistant at Kansas State University (KSU), I planned to be here for only one year. However, due to the opportunities that this country offers, the camaraderie of the people here, and the numerous ways that one can be involved in promoting STEM education, that one year became more than twenty. One of the most important factors in why this country is so successful is the openness to collaboration between small and large industry, academia, national laboratories, and government. My passion is to solve scientific problems and provide innovative solutions to clients by establishing multi-organizational and multi-disciplinary teams that provide “out-of-the-box” thinking.
When I graduated from KSU, my professor asked if I wanted to be the first employee at his startup company based on the nanomaterials research that we were conducting in his group. Where else would you get such an opportunity and follow your childhood dreams of being involved in developing products that can be used by everyone? With the support of the government, initially through programs such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), we developed and commercialized technologies that made our warfighters safer, provided environmental benefits, and at the same time created new jobs and brought more than $30 million to the community. In addition, we provided work experience to numerous students and were involved in bringing science—particularly nanotechnology—to local schools, encouraging future generations of innovators and entrepreneurs.
One of the greatest experiences of my professional career was participation in Pipeline, an entrepreneurial fellowship program that originated in Kansas. Pipeline’s approach to developing high-growth entrepreneurs places the emphasis on growing the leader of these challenging companies, in contrast to other programs that focus on specific business ventures. It was in Pipeline that I was completely immersed in an entire community of ambitious entrepreneurs who also shared the drive to change the world and their communities. I have been so pleased to see Pipeline expand across the Midwest, thanks in part to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. This community of high-growth entrepreneurs, after their initial year as Fellows, is staying involved in Pipeline as investors, mentors, and advocates for entrepreneurship in the United States. As an immigrant entrepreneur and innovator, I can say without a doubt that it is critical to have a “family” like Pipeline to support and connect all of us pursuing these goals together. We share a vision for our lives and our work, and it has been a privilege to stay so connected over the years, no matter where my professional life has taken me.
I am truly honored to be chosen as a Champion of Change and I am excited to meet and learn more about the great work and contributions of the other honorees. I hope that all our children will have a chance to follow their dreams, as I did, in the country that was created by immigrants and continues to welcome them.
Olga Koper is a research scientist at Battelle Memorial Institute.