Evolving an Ethos

Erich Kunhardt’s Passion for Invention, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Changed the Face of the School.

In 2006, when Erich Kunhardt was named provost and chief academic officer of what was then called Polytechnic University, a cover story in Cable trumpeted, “New Provost to Spur Innovation and Invention at Poly.” Kunhardt, who had earned a doctoral degree in Electrophysics from the school exactly three decades earlier, told the reporter, “I want to create a distinctive community of higher learning that values and nurtures creativity—in particular inventiveness and innovation.”

Kunhardt was eminently qualified for the task. Before joining the school as a faculty member, he had served as institute professor and dean of the Arthur E. Imperatore School of Arts and Science at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, NJ. While at Stevens he and his colleague Kurt Becker (now Vice Dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Engineering) had invented and patented a method of generating and stabilizing cold atmospheric-pressure plasmas, an invention which was the basis for the formation of two start-up companies, the Plasmion Corporation and the PlasmaSol Corporation. Ultimately, Kunhardt and Becker would hold more than a dozen patents. PlasmaSol was soon winning major contracts for decontamination and sterilization applications from the U.S. Army, DARPA, and NASA and was eventually acquired by Stryker Instruments for $20 million.

Once he arrived back at the school in 2006, Kunhardt, who had been born in the small town of Monte Cristi, in the Dominican Republic in 1949, found a kindred spirit in then-President Jerry Hultin. Together, the two formulated a philosophy and motto that has been a hallmark of the school ever since: Invention, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship (or i2e, as it was generally known).

During his three-year tenure as provost, Kunhardt played a central role in the negotiations with NYU that resulted in the agreement that led to the recent merger of the two institutions. He spent his final years here doing what he arguably loved most--engaging in research and teaching bright, young people.

For Kunhardt, invention, innovation and entrepreneurship had a higher purpose. “I have always tried to join two very divergent perspectives,” he said back in 2006. “One is touching God or understanding the basic elements of nature and the other is touching humanity or how to make life comfortable for humans.”

Despite Kunhardt’s death, on August 4, 2014, generations of students will continue to gain that duel perspective, thanks to the ethos he fostered and the lasting legacy he left.