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From Concept to Company: Collaboration Spurs Centre County’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

by on February 07, 2018 5:00 AM

As a senior in high school, shoe collector Nick Unis customized a pair of brand-name sneakers and sold them on eBay for a million dollars. Unfortunately, the manufacturer forced him to abandon the sale or face a lawsuit over copyright infringement.

“That’s when I decided to make my own shoes,” says Unis, now a student in Penn State’s integrated bachelor’s/master’s accounting program. He has a patent pending on a 3D printer capable of working with flexible material, operates his startup company, UnisBrands, from Happy Valley LaunchBox, and hopes to test sales with a popup store downtown this semester. His goal is to sell shoes that are custom printed to fit each client’s feet and sense of style.

“It would be ridiculously hard to do what I’m doing now without LaunchBox,” Unis says, emphasizing both the physical space and the advice he gets through the program.

LaunchBox is one of many new and ongoing local organizations that benefit entrepreneurs like Unis and helped rank State College as No. 10 on Livability.com’s 2016 list of Best Cities for Entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, collaboration among university, government, and nonprofit officials is helping to boost the region’s climate for business startups.

Decades of growth

Local resources available to budding entrepreneurs have grown tremendously since 1985, when Paul Silvis launched Restek Corp. in the Chamber of Business & Industry’s first incubator in the former Matternville Elementary School building. “All of the rooms that the tenants took were like kindergarten classrooms,” he recalls. “We didn’t have very good electrical power, but we made it work.” Silvis says he was inspired by the “hubbub” about starting companies as this early incubator got off the ground.

Twenty years later, when Scott Woods founded West Arete in 2005, a variety of incubator and support programs were operating locally, but “there wasn’t a lot of collaboration,” Woods says. “I remember that time period where people would talk about which organization was going to own which entrepreneurial program.”

According to Woods, a shift toward collaboration came about in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which became public in fall 2011. “The region did a lot of soul searching,” he says. “Everyone kind of reexamined what we were going to stand for as a community. As people sat down to talk about entrepreneurship, they were supportive of each other in a way I hadn’t seen before.”

That was about the time that New Leaf Initiative was being organized as a community innovation hub. In 2012, support from entities including the CBICC, Penn State, and the Borough of State College made it possible for New Leaf to move operations into the borough building. Today, New Leaf has about 25 members sharing co-working space and connecting each other with resources. Stacey Budd, New Leaf community manager, says, “Most of the people I work with are starting new projects. It’s really important that you have people that you can build those ideas with and get feedback.”

In 2015, Penn State and the CBICC signed a formal memorandum of agreement to work collaboratively on entrepreneurial and economic development. CBICC President Vern Squier says the MOA “set the stage” for economic opportunities including entrepreneurial development and “exemplifies what is possible in a town and gown relationship.”

At the same time, Penn State President Eric Barron spearheaded Invent Penn State, a university-wide effort to create an environment that encourages entrepreneurship. Founded in 2016, Happy Valley LaunchBox is the effort’s local innovation hub, one of 17 hubs across the state.

Lee Erickson, LaunchBox chief amplifier, views Invent Penn State and its hubs as Barron’s way of “reinventing the land-grant university.” Farmers have long been able to access resources through Penn State Extension offices, she explains, and now entrepreneurs can do the same through Invent Penn State. “Large organizations like the university are not known for their nimbleness and speed, but these innovation hubs have been funded and opened very quickly,” she says.

LaunchBox features programs like the four-week Idea TestLab, which helps budding entrepreneurs understand the problem or need their business will address and clearly define target customers. In January, Hedy’s Garage became the hub’s newest program, matching entrepreneurially minded Penn State students with local companies who have ideas but no time to develop them. The students will work on moving the ideas forward and will receive equity in any new business created through their efforts.

The 15-week FastTrack Accelerator at LaunchBox helps entrepreneurs create a formal business entity, define a viable business model, and sketch out a marketing and sales plan. One of the current participants is Sherveen Karbasiafshar, co-founder of HemoGO blood testing. With his product, a user will be able to prick a finger with a proprietary testing strip, take a picture of the drop of blood on the strip, and then use an app to analyze for white blood cell count or other markers, receiving results in about 30 seconds. The Penn State biology major is using LaunchBox to advance the product while still carrying a full load of class credits. “Everybody’s really supportive here,” he says. “There’s a full team of people helping me.”

(Darren Andrew Weimert/Town&Gown) Nick Unis

Consistent support

Although newcomers like LaunchBox are frequently in the news, organizations like SCORE and Ben Franklin Technology Partners have been assisting local companies for years. For example, since 1997, the Penn State Small Business Development Center has been providing entrepreneurs with education, information, and tools to help them build thriving businesses. “Some come to us with just an idea and are trying to figure out if the idea is viable,” says Director Kimberlee MacMullan. For those already in business, advice topics can range from technology to extensive business modeling to selling or expanding. From 2012 to 2016, the SBDC helped launch 150 businesses in Centre and Mifflin counties.

One of those recent success stories features ultrasound technician and registered nurse Jennifer Miller, who “took every free course possible” from the SBDC as she developed a business plan for Hide & Seek Prenatal Peek. Opened last April in Bellefonte, Hide & Seek gives parents-to-be ultrasound images of their unborn baby that go beyond typical medical imaging. Miller says local entrepreneurial mentors have been invaluable as she founded her business. “You have to be personally motivated, but if you are, there’s an amazing amount of resources.” 

New resources for entrepreneurs are constantly popping up in Centre County, while existing resources grow and evolve:

  • PNC Bank in January committed $1 million to Happy Valley LaunchBox.         
  • 1855 Capital is a new seed and early-stage venture capital fund created to invest in companies with a connection to Penn State research, faculty, staff, students, or alumni. Managing Partner Paul Sciabica says that, although the fund will invest in ventures across the state in amounts typically ranging from $100,000 to $500,000, “My partner and I feel very strongly that this is a great time to be investing in startups in the central Pennsylvania region in particular.” Headquartered in State College, the fund hopes to receive final Securities and Exchange Commission approval this winter.

  • Beyond the Centre Region, the Philipsburg Business Incubator opened in 2016, and the SpringBoard incubator in Bellefonte opened last May. County Commissioner Mark Higgins advocated for the startup of both incubators and continues to serve as an advisor. “The most effective way to create sustainable jobs is to grow them yourselves locally instead of paying to lure jobs from outside the area,” he says. “We could run an incubator for 50 years for the same cost as bringing one outside job here.”

  • The Centre Region Entrepreneur Network, founded in 2009 by Videon CEO Todd Erdley, has grown from about eight people at its first picnic to 300 members who support each other in their entrepreneurial efforts through discussion and events.

  • Last summer, Videon began renting “collaboration spaces” in its Sandy Drive building to local entrepreneurs, giving tenants access to Videon amenities such as a gym, game room, and lunches as well as networking with others. Erdley says, “There are random collisions of goodness in the hallways where entrepreneurs are meeting other entrepreneurs and sharing best practices on a daily basis.”

Project Vive has been the “guinea pig” for several local entrepreneurial efforts, says founder Mary Elizabeth McCulloch. The nonprofit startup is conducting beta testing for its affordable, customizable communications technology for people with disabilities. In 2015, while still a Penn State junior, McCulloch enrolled in Penn State’s first Summer Founders Program (which gives each entrepreneur $10,000 so he or she can focus on a startup idea for summer term instead of getting a paying job), thanks to a referral from the Small Business Development Center. Project Vive was then one of the first LaunchBox teams and now is an early tenant in Videon’s space. “I’m really excited about the support both students and community members are getting for their products in this part of the state,” she says.

Looking to the future

Although West Arete is no longer a startup, Woods continues to advocate for local entrepreneurs, such as by serving on the board of New Leaf and financially supporting the Summer Founders Program. Nationally, he says, cities like Boston, Madison (Wisconsin), and Boulder (Colorado) are far ahead of State College as entrepreneurial ecosystems. However, he points to the “awesome DNA that we have that other regions don’t have” – entrepreneurs who are good craftspeople, have a strong work ethic, and share a sense of purpose to make life better.

“Give us a few years, and we’ll build up those other resources,” Woods says. “We’re on the path to it.”

Tracey M. Dooms is a freelance writer in State College and a special projects editor for Town&Gown.

 



Tracey M. Dooms is a freelance writer in State College and a contributor to Town&Gown.
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