Invent Penn State: Program helping start-up businesses take off

Sydney Gibbard, a Penn State sophomore, can still remember the poster that caught her eye and completely changed the trajectory of her “business.”

Walking through her dorm lobby last year, an oversized Invent Penn State sign beckoned her with business help and a chance at a $15,000 grant. Intrigued, Gibbard decided to look into Invent Penn State — a statewide initiative to spur economic development and job creation — and what followed was the establishment of a nonprofit, a board of directors and unprecedented growth. All in one summer.

As a high school junior, Gibbard and a friend had started a weeklong summer camp to inspire disadvantaged 8- to 12-year-old girls in STEM, a field traditionally dominated by men. Invent Penn State helped change those humble “Girls Code the World” camps into an actual 501(c)(3) nonprofit and guided Gibbard from reaching a combined 100 girls her first three years to as many as 250 next summer alone.

“We didn’t even know that we could become a startup,” said Gibbard, an engineering major at University Park. “And we definitely didn’t have the confidence to take that route, either, if it hadn’t been for Invent Penn State.”

Launched in 2015 as the brainchild of university President Eric Barron, Invent Penn State sought to adopt a similar role to the Penn State Extension, a statewide organization available to answer agricultural questions and provide such education to farmers and the like. Invent Penn State was designed to help the non-farmers — students or not — turn good ideas into good businesses, by providing free business legal advice, free design spaces, free support, and more.

So far, 21 “innovation hubs” have sprung up around the commonwealth to offer help similar to the kind Gibbard received. And, on Friday, Invent Penn State’s crown jewel — a new $52-plus million six-story building in downtown State College — held a ribbon-cutting to unveil all the services to be housed inside.

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The new Penn State Innovation Hub at 123 S. Burrowes St. in downtown State College. Abby Drey [email protected]

“Innovation is one of my favorite topics, and this building brings innovation to life,” Barron said. “Its design, functionality and organization are truly innovative and will match the ambitions of all those who will work and create here.”

How will this help residents, students?

Lee Erickson — director of the Happy Valley LaunchBox, a program within Invent Penn State — proudly touted all the services in the new building at 123 S. Burrowes St. But, early on, she also wanted to make clear this hub wasn’t just for business experts.

In fact, quite the opposite.

“We kind of specialize in the companies that we call ‘early stage scalable startups,’” she said. “I call that, ‘we’re-not-sure-what-the-problem-is; we’re-not-exactly-sure-who-has-it-and-we-really-have-no-idea-how-we’re-going-to-make-money. And that’s what we specialize in.”

The 85,000 square-foot steel-and-glass structure is now open to all entrepreneurs — students and non-students alike; entrepreneurs on their first-ever idea or fifth — as a work and collaborative space between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. (The building is open 24/7 to others enrolled in specific hub-based programs.) Floors 3-5 consist mostly of offices but, overall, the university has touted this as “the most accessible entrepreneurship program in the world.”

A brief look at the building’s three main levels:

Floor 1: Colorful chairs and tables are situated near the entrance for those hoping to have an informal meeting, or to work. To the right of the entrance is a separate room, a high-ceiling makerspace, that will consist of woodworking and metalworking machinery to build prototypes. There’s also a ventilated booth for painting and another for welding.

Large doors lead to the outside, where Penn State hopes to place sawhorses when it gets warmer. Large windows in the makerspace also allow passers-by to see the work being done, on materials either brought from home or purchased from Penn State.

“There’s nothing here that is restricted in any way to Penn State only,” said James Delattre, director of Penn State’s Office of Entrepreneurship & Commercialization.

Floor 2: This doubles as the home to Happy Valley LaunchBox, Invent Penn State’s signature program that caters to startups. It is about three times the size as the local LaunchBox’s previous location on South Allen Street.

Microelectronics, including 3D printers, are found on this floor. And a variety of services are available — including law clinics that will create a terms of service or employee agreement, establish an LLC or help with trademarks, patents and copyrights.

An open-air meeting space is designed to foster collaboration with other entrepreneurs. And the Happy Valley LaunchBox is able to tap into a Penn State-centric advisor network that can connect experts with entrepreneurs, from wide-ranging topics like wind turbines to dog food.

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The Happy Valley LaunchBox is on the second floor of the new Penn State Innovation Hub at 123 S. Burrowes St. in downtown State College. Abby Drey [email protected]

Royce D’Souza, a Penn State grad, was handling business calls on the second floor on a recent morning. He started his business Lessly, a program that consolidates all takeout orders in one place for restaurants, when he was a student but continues to use LaunchBox resources.

“It can be hard to find your footing, but the LaunchBox and resources locally really help make sure that you’re not building on sand, that you’re building on a strong cement foundation,” said D’Souza, who said his company is now looking to expand into Boston and Washington D.C.

Floor 6: With floor-to-ceiling windows and scenic views, the top floor offers a large space designed for hosting dinners, speakers and networking events. About 120 people can comfortably fit in the space, with smaller spaces nearby for other meetings.

“Like the companies that have come to life over the past several years, this new building is a testament to the strength of the ‘We Are’ spirit,” said O. Richard Bundy, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations at Penn State. “Countless student entrepreneurs, faculty innovators and local makers have provided pioneering ideas — and donors, volunteers, industry partners and community leaders have provided the resources and expertise to help turn these ideas into reality.”

Successes here and throughout Pennsylvania

Gibbard, a bubbly student who often credits her supportive parents, acknowledged she and co-founder Mina Shokoufandeh likely couldn’t have taken “Girls Code the World” this far without Invent Penn State. Or, at least, certainly not this quickly.

In about a year, the nonprofit transformed from summer camps hosted by her and her friend into a curriculum-based program that currently allows high school girls in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to host their own camps. The high school counselors are paid for their work, camps remain free for the disadvantaged — while additional, identical camps require payment to help subsidize the free ones.

“We had a vision; we just didn’t really know how to channel that,” said Gibbard, who went through a specialized 13-week program offered by Invent Penn State. “We definitely wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have that entire summer to devote to our growth.”

According to data provided by the university, Invent Penn State has helped start 218 new Pennsylvania companies, which have raised more than $27 million in total venture capital. A total of 302 jobs and 486 internships have also been created as a result of Invent Penn State’s work.

Kenneth Keitt, a 2019 Penn State grad, is hoping to become the initiative’s next success story. A former Marine who became paralyzed after a car accident, Keitt found personal trainers at his local gyms didn’t know — or didn’t feel comfortable — offering fitness tips or advice to work around his physical limitations. Over social media, Keitt discovered he wasn’t alone in his frustration.

So, drawing from his own military experience, he shared his own workout routines, designed specifically for those with similar limitations. Thanks to both a dedicated Lehigh Valley professor and Invent Penn State, Keitt developed a free mobile app — ParaPer4mance — that is now focused on growth before shifting to monetization.

“I had it inside of me. It’s just that I didn’t really understand how to get it fully developed,” Keitt said about his business idea. “I didn’t realize I could turn this into a business; I just knew I wanted to help people.”

Keitt won a college pitch competition, then turned to Invent Penn State for guidance. Invent Penn State helped him turn his pitch into an actual LLC, devise a 40-page list of terms and conditions and then create a mobile app. (He only had to pay for the app, but he received several grants that covered the cost.)

So far, he has partnered with both hospitals and the Florida State Corrections Department to educate wheelchair users. He is looking to grow his subscriber base, which now numbers about 300, before offering premium services and further monetizing it.

“One of the obstacles I was thinking about before going this route was how I would be able to afford something like this. It just didn’t seem possible,” Keitt said. “But because I had the resources through (Lehigh Valley) LaunchBox, I was able to get to this point rather quickly and without going into debt myself.”

According to the university, a LaunchBox is located within 30 miles of 96% of the commonwealth’s population. As a result, Penn State is requesting $2.35 million from the state to further help fund Invent Penn State, and Barron appeared in front of a state senate committee earlier this month to meet with legislators.

In at least one case, he didn’t have to do much convincing. State Sen. John Yudichak — chair of the Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee — called it an “exciting, new concept.”

“We need to be part of an innovation strategy, so that Pennsylvania does not lose the innovation race. We need to be a 21st-century economy,” said Yudichak, a PSU alum. “To do that, we need partners in our universities, and Penn State has been the best partner for the commonwealth when it comes to innovation.”

Looking toward the future

Due to supply-chain issues, some of the machinery inside downtown State College’s new innovation hub won’t arrive until the summer. But the building remains open to entrepreneurs and those flirting with the idea of starting businesses.

According to Delattre, whose office will soon be housed on the third floor, those interested in Invent Penn State’s services can set up an appointment online at happyvalley.launchbox.psu.edu. Or they can just stop by the building and speak to someone at the front desk about their needs; if someone’s available, they’ll meet right away or set up an appointment for another time.

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From the sixth floor of the new Penn State Innovation Hub, James Delattre talks about how the space will be able to hold events and create networks. Delattre is the director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization. Abby Drey [email protected]

Added Erickson: “The beauty of what we do is we are not limited to just Penn State-affiliated people. You don’t have to have any affiliation with Penn State to use any of our services, which is pretty unique for an accelerator.”

Several programs also exist within the Happy Valley LaunchBox. They include a four-week “Idea TestLab” to figure out whether a specific idea would make for a viable business, a 15-week “FastTrack Accelerator” to test the market quickly and a 13-week “Summer Founders Program” — which requires at least one PSU student — that provides students with $15,000 to work full-time on their ventures.

By the spring, the top floor will host a speaker series. And, now, the building is open to the public — and can comfortably guide and support about 100 simultaneous businesses.

“The biggest thing,” said Gibbard, who still hears from her summer camp girls years later, “was that this gave us the time and the confidence to pursue things that would have been too daunting otherwise.”

This story was originally published November 24, 2021 7:00 AM.

Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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