In December, Penn State University announced its plan to provide space for entrepreneurs to grow and thrive through a university- and community-sponsored business accelerator program.
Now, Penn State is moving ahead with its goal of helping entrepreneurs begin their startups.
University officials disclosed the recipients of $50,000 in grants through Lehigh Valley LaunchBox. The accelerator program has a physical presence at Velocity, a startup business incubator in downtown Allentown.
The university gave $50,000 in seed funding for a total of three years to Penn State Lehigh Valley and five other campuses to jumpstart the program. Aside from funding, LaunchBox also offers mentorship opportunities for entrepreneurs.
City Center Lehigh Valley, a program of City Center Investment Corp., created the Velocity building and donated the space and funds to Penn State's Lehigh Valley campus. A co-working space on the Velocity building's second floor offers room for students to meet, collaborate and build ideas before introducing them to the marketplace.
The recipients include 13 companies and projects focused on bringing fresh ideas to life.
The variety of products and services includes drone development, the creation of medical services technology, a martial arts studio and personalized urns designed by artists for the funeral industry. Each grant was $1,000 to $8,000.
Entrepreneur Matt Heintzelman, who received $5,000, is a student who began at Penn State Lehigh Valley and is finishing his business degree at Penn State in University Park. His family owns and operates Heintzelman Funeral Home Inc. in Hellertown and Schnecksville.
A trip to the Netherlands inspired the budding funeral director to create fully customized urns and bring them to the marketplace.
By collaborating with the Lehigh Valley Arts Council and LaunchBox, the idea began to form into Eternally Art, which Heintzelman said would allow for the development of a philanthropic organization to create personalized, artistic urns.
“I'm a philanthropic entrepreneur, so all proceeds would go toward a scholarship,” he said. “I will set up a team to move forward on the project.
“We are still in the development stages in terms of developing a business plan. The market we are going for is the full experience of having a customized urn.”
He is deciding whether to sell them wholesale to funeral homes or on the Lehigh Valley LaunchBox website. The next step involves finishing the business plan and developing the design.
Other recipients are using the money to continue developing and researching energy solutions, particularly green energy.
“We set up this program to do something that's outside the traditional student setting,” said Tai-Yin Huang, professor of physics at Penn State Lehigh Valley. “We have a lot of talented students; having them learn in the classroom is very limited. By discussing with peers, with faculty, they learn a lot more.”
She is team leader for Integrate Energy Solutions for Entrepreneurs, which received a grant. Under Huang's guidance, students and faculty are working on a number of projects, including circuit design for use in powering light-emitting diode solar energy, designing a circuit to use LED as signals for data transmission and designing software to receive circuit signals. Another project involves using LED to stimulate plant growth for agriculture.
“I'm in physics; I've had these ideas but there was no such venue for us to do these projects,” Huang said.
With each student doing a project, the team meets as a group to discuss findings, working toward a common goal, much like a miniature company. Another benefit is that the projects could be marketable, Huang said.
Down the road, they can have their own startup, she added.
The diverse range of grant recipients and their creative ideas stood out for Tina Richardson, chancellor of Penn State Lehigh Valley.
“We have the opportunity to have a broader impact when the awards go to entrepreneurs with diverse ideas,” she said.
One of these projects, Virtual Incubator Network, involves software development of a virtual incubator, mainly for higher education entrepreneurship programs. It would be a platform for Lehigh Valley LaunchBox projects to communicate with others, she said.
TeraDrones LLC, which looks to develop professional cases for flight equipment and point-of-view cameras, and FenzTech, which plans to develop a battery-charging station for drones, are centered on new uses of technology. While technology can be entertaining, ideas such as these have a far-reaching impact, according to Richardson.
“For the technology to have the potential to impact so many sectors beyond entertainment is really important,” she said. “It's those kinds of ideas, that when you see the gaps that exist in technology, that we have to improve the quality of services. This is an opportunity to develop the idea and have mentoring from concept to production.”
Mentors, who play a key role in helping the entrepreneurs, are not only faculty and staff from Penn State Lehigh Valley. They also are from the advisory board, which includes business owners and executives from the Greater Lehigh Valley.
Many local companies donated money and, in some cases, mentoring, training and services. These businesses included Alvin H. Butz, Viddler, City Center Lehigh Valley, Baker Tilly, Renew Financial, Gross McGinley LLP, The Morning Call, Heintzelman Funeral Home and Fiber Optic Marketplace.
Building the network is key to ensuring that Lehigh Valley LaunchBox remains successful for future generations.
“What makes us somewhat unique is that we have 13,000 alums in the network in the Greater Lehigh Valley area,” said Bill Hacker, chairman of the Penn State Lehigh Valley LaunchBox advisory board. “That's the key, putting this whole network together, we help those individuals find the right person to go to.”
Hacker, a Penn State graduate, said he hopes the entrepreneurs will recognize what Penn State has done to help further their career. He said if they become successful, he would like them to give back with their time and talent.
“I'd like to encourage the Lehigh Valley community to be involved,” Richardson said. “Because it's a higher-ed initiative, people will be inclined to think it's only Penn State students.
“We want people who have ideas to improve the quality of life for others, to help grow the workforce by developing new ideas. We know brilliant ideas exist everywhere.”