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Penn State LaunchBox incubator keeps focus on startups

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Sharon Glassman, center, former president of the Allentown Arts Commission, introduces herself at a LaunchBox Ladies: From Passion to Profit event called “The Business of Art,” held Nov. 14 at Penn State's Lehigh Valley campus.
Sharon Glassman, center, former president of the Allentown Arts Commission, introduces herself at a LaunchBox Ladies: From Passion to Profit event called “The Business of Art,” held Nov. 14 at Penn State's Lehigh Valley campus. - (Photo / )

More than 50 startups and early-stage entrepreneurs in the Lehigh Valley have won grants from Lehigh Valley LaunchBox, created in 2015 under a Penn State program designed to support innovative business ideas.

Lehigh Valley LaunchBox grew out of Penn State President Eric Barron’s vision for Invent Penn State, a statewide initiative designed to “drive job creation, economic development and student career success.” The initiative, funded by a $30 million appropriation from the university, offers career preparation weeks, national conferences, workspaces and funding for students and community members.

Michael Krajsa, assistant teaching professor of business at Penn State Lehigh Valley, calls LaunchBox “a community-facing business accelerator.”

Known by his students as “Big Mike,” Krajsa serves as the faculty liaison for Lehigh Valley LaunchBox, which is on the school’s campus in Center Valley. In addition to serving the community, Lehigh Valley LaunchBox is a way for him to increase job awareness among his students.

“It’s not who you know. It’s who you let know you,” Krajsa said.

ASSISTANCE AND NETWORKING

Lehigh Valley LaunchBox funded five startups in 2018. Among them was Your Words Your Story LLC, a business that produces written and audio memoirs.

Co-founder Lisa Petrocelli saw an article about Lehigh Valley LaunchBox in the local paper and knew the program would be “ideal” for her business.

“We’re a new company. We’d like the exposure, but also the assistance and the networking opportunities with other small businesses,” said Petrocelli.

Petrocelli said the three main benefits of being a LaunchBox grant recipient have been funding to create prototypes and brochures, exposure on Penn State-run platforms and membership in the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

To give back to the program and the small-business community, Petrocelli plans to speak on LaunchBox’s entrepreneurial panel in June.

True2Air, a communications and data storage software system, was a 2016 grant recipient. Founder Raj Nukala said that with the help of LaunchBox and Krajsa, he started a second business, Dabl3, an application that drives traffic to small businesses by offering consumers limited-time discounts.

Nukala applied to the Lehigh Valley LaunchBox program to build connections. “Purely networking: that was my only motive,” he said.

As a grant recipient, Nukala was given space to work in an Allentown building, where his two businesses grew. Now, he is looking to move his companies to markets in New York City or Boston.

REACHING OUT

As a steadily growing networking tool for students, entrepreneurs and the community, LaunchBox has shifted its focus to expanding its outreach.

LaunchBox Ladies is a speaker series designed to empower female entrepreneurs. The educational event series, which is open to the public, allows women to share their obstacles and successes while offering support and networking with fellow attendees.

Penn State Lehigh Valley, Lehigh Valley LaunchBox and Perkiomen School, a prep school in Montgomery County, have developed the Teen Entrepreneur Challenge (TEC), a 10-day camp that gives entrepreneurship-minded high school students the opportunity to develop the foundation for a successful business or product idea by working with Penn State professors, Perkiomen School teachers and Lehigh Valley LaunchBox grant recipients. This year’s TEC is scheduled to run from July 8-17.

Through TEC, students tour the Millennium Science Complex at the University Park campus and participate in a “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition. Some TEC participants have gone on to enroll at Penn State University Park or Lehigh Valley.

The LaunchBox initiative offers benefits for students looking for professional development opportunities. In October, Lehigh Valley hosted a VIP-All Access Business of Entertainment Symposium, open to students and local residents. Students were able to see how entrepreneurial skills translate into the business of art and entertainment.

The Council for Retail and Sales, or CRS, also falls under the umbrella of the Lehigh Valley LaunchBox. The council’s mission is to become a leading authority on problems and solutions in retail, and to spur interest in retail careers.

“CRS hopes to develop and foster a positive image of the retailing and sales industries,” said Krajsa.

The council received a strategic planning grant from Penn State, which will help it grow as a template for creating other industry councils under the LaunchBox umbrella.

Current and former CRS sponsors include Walmart, Sherwin-Williams and Erie Insurance.

As an initiative that now boasts national connections, Lehigh Valley LaunchBox “lights up the network as a two-way street” for investors, entrepreneurs, students, and industry partners, Krajsa said.

Malia Schimminger is a student at Penn State majoring in print and digital journalism.

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