Business accelerator helps student entrepreneurs launch startups

A business accelerator launched this summer for Penn State undergraduate entrepreneurs is already home to six businesses, and has plans to provide seed money, office space, mentors and networking opportunities to at least nine other startups.

Lion Launch Pad, an independent 501(c) 3 corporation, serves as a bridge for undergraduate entrepreneurs to move their ideas out of the classroom and into sustainable startup ventures. Born out of the senior honors thesis of Robert Shedd '07, a Schreyer Honors College graduate now working for IBM, the organization provides student startups with all the tools, counsel and connections necessary to get a business venture off the ground.

Shedd's thesis, titled "Inspiring Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Through Incubators," exposed a need at Penn State for an organized mode of helping entrepreneurial students take their business ideas to the next level, according to Robert Macy, clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Penn State's Smeal College of Business.

"We see so many good ideas coming out of our entrepreneurship classes, but most of them need some form of help to become a sustainable business," said Macy, who is chairman of Lion Launch Pad. "In the past, the students with the best ideas had to leave Penn State and the surrounding area to find the capital and other assistance they needed. Our goal is to keep them here by providing them what they need to grow their businesses."

Lion Launch Pad follows a Silicon Valley business model, Macy said, by putting all of the fledgling businesses and their managers under one roof to foster a collaborative atmosphere in which innovation and entrepreneurship thrive. The organization provides startups with low-cost or no-cost office space, seed funding of $500 to $5,000, daily entrepreneurial collaboration, business network creation and a failure safety net so that mistakes do not prove fatal to the venture.

The group also seeks to grow the entrepreneurial talents of its members and other Penn State students through workshops and clinics. For instance, it's hosting representatives from Facebook in February for a "garage" seminar on developing applications for the Web site. Plans are also in the works to bring a Google envoy to campus for a similar clinic.

Six startups are already enjoying the benefits of Lion Launch Pad, including StateCollege.tv, a YouTube-like Web site where visitors can upload and view videos about life at Penn State. Another one of its companies, Triple Overtime Productions, already sells its Penn State Pride Magnets online and at Barnes & Noble in State College.

While the office space provided by Lion Launch Pad gives the entrepreneurs utilities, wide-band access, a conference room and a physical address for commercialization, the biggest boon for students, Macy said, is the exposure they gain to the organization's network of mentors and potential investors.

"It's truly amazing to me how dedicated Penn Staters are to each other and how willing they are to pitch in offer advice, and lend a hand when a fellow alum has a need," said Macy, who joined the Smeal faculty in 2006. "Immediate access to that kind of a network is something very few startups are able to attain on their own."

The Penn State alumni network already has helped several students get their business ventures off the ground. Weebly.com, an Internet-based Web-site development tool launched last year by three Penn State students, for instance, connected with several investors thanks to an alumnus the owners met when they moved to Silicon Valley. It's Lion Launch Pad's goal to forge these relationships in State College, an area that, according to Macy, is ripe for entrepreneurial endeavors.

Macy sees Lion Launch Pad as an economic development tool, to stem the stream of bright, entrepreneurial students leaving the area as soon as they graduate. He envisions the organization launching dozens of local businesses, creating jobs and adding to the economic stability of the region.

As such, the organization is linked to the local community just as it is to the University. In fact, State College Borough Council member Donald Hahn sits on its board of directors with three Penn State deans and two professors. Additionally, the organization works closely with other Penn State entrepreneurship initiatives, so, while it's not officially affiliated with the University, its connections to Penn State are strong.

To be considered for Lion Launch Pad office space and assistance, startup teams must include at least one undergraduate Penn State student. Application information and complete details are available at http://www.lionlaunchpad.org online. Lion Launch Pad will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 27 at its headquarters at 234 E. College Ave., Suite 2342, in State College.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009