Penn State and New Leaf give student entrepreneurs unique opportunities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A pilot program between a downtown State College nonprofit organization and Penn State aims to provide student entrepreneurs access to resources they need to succeed.

New Leaf Initiative, which offers a gathering space for mission-driven individuals, organizations and resource providers from diverse backgrounds to connect and collaborate, has partnered with Lion Launch Pad, a Penn State center assisting student start-up businesses. The new initiative, dubbed NL3, was officially started in May.

Leading the charge at Penn State is Liz Kisenwether, co-director of Lion Launch Pad and director of the Intercollege Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She explained, “The University has purchased a one-year, full member sponsorship at New Leaf for student teams. Each semester, selected students and student groups can utilize the New Leaf space to work on their projects, network with other students and alumni, and collaborate with community members.”

This summer, GreenTowers, whose products focus on urban agricultural design for unconventional spaces, was the first group chosen for NL3.

GreenTowers’ Dustin Betz, a 2014 biology graduate, said the team is excited for the opportunity. “We’ve been working with New Leaf since they opened. Their new space (in the State College Borough building on South Allen Street) is extremely collaborative, open and functional. Working at New Leaf gives us a sense of professionalism, because we have dedicated space to work and meet potential clients.”

Jared Yarnall-Schane, a recent mechanical engineering graduate, added, “The intangibles are just as important as the space. Just today, three CEOs of local companies dropped in, and now we are forging relationships with them. They get to see us grow.”

He noted that Eric Sauder, co-director of New Leaf, is also a mechanical engineering alumnus and has served as a great mentor. “He’s been inspirational in showing me that I don’t need a corporate job – not that there’s anything wrong with working in a corporation.”

Jon Gumble, a horticulture graduate student and GreenTowers’ director of research and development, agreed. “Eric has taught us that we can start our own business and still do what we are passionate about and thrive.”

Betz recalled that the trio may never have had the opportunity to work together if it weren’t for Sauder’s efforts to connect their strengths and expertise. “Eric knew what each of us was interested in, so he got us into contact with one another.”

GreenTowers plans to stage prototype 3.0 of their Living Furniture line this summer and create a Kickstarter campaign by the end of the summer semester. Their furniture was featured at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May.

Starting this fall, Kisenwether will implement a competitive application process for students interested in the NL3 program. “We envision students will participate in a pitch event and have to be really well prepared to make a case about why their group should be selected for the program.”

She noted that students will be required to document their progress, since funding for the program is being provided by Penn State’s Office of Undergraduate Education and the College of Engineering. “At the end of every semester, students will submit a report that includes what worked, what didn’t work and the resources they used.”

Kisenwether said this feedback will also serve as a mechanism to find ways to improve the program: What resources did students wish they had? What suggestions would they make for the future of the partnership?

Students may participate in the NL3 program multiple semesters but must go through the application process each time.

Kisenwether said she would like to see faculty take on a sort of mentorship role this fall as more student groups join the program. “New Leaf is within convenient walking distance to campus, so faculty wouldn’t have far to go to offer support.”

She added there are plenty of opportunities for alumni involvement as well. “Perhaps they have, or have access to, the resources students need. Local alumni might consider stopping by New Leaf and mentoring students.”

True to Kisenwether’s word, GreenTowers has already been tapped by Videon Central in State College to build a piece for the company’s indoor atrium. Videon's president and CEO is electrical engineering graduate Todd Erdley.

GreenTowers is also designing a rotating living wall for New Leaf co-founder and mechanical engineering graduate Steven “Spud” Marshall, who now leads efforts at the co.space in State College.

New Leaf co-director Serena Fulton, a graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts, is excited about NL3. “We haven’t had much student traffic since we opened the doors to our new location in February, so it will be interesting to see what the groups are working on.”

She added another benefit of the NL3 program is that it promotes collaboration among students from a variety of disciplines.

Sauder explained that NL3 students will have access to resources other students don’t. “For example, we’re discussing the idea of inviting professionals to come in to share their expertise about a specific business topic each day of the week. Our current list includes accounting, marketing/sales, intellectual property, social media, and organizational leadership. Students will be able to use what they learn as they potentially start their own businesses.”

Fulton and Sauder are also looking at ways to connect the physical spaces of similar community initiatives, such as using Skype to see if someone at another location can answer a question or provide a resource for someone working on a project at New Leaf.

Sauder said his ultimate goal is for New Leaf to become the nucleus of all the great things that are happening at Penn State and in the community. “If the NL3 program is successful, more doors will open.”

For more information, visit:

New Leaf Initiative: http://brandnew.newleafinitiative.org

Lion Launch Pad: www.sites.psu.edu/lionlaunchpad

GreenTowers: www.greentowersusa.com

ENTI Minor: www.enti.psu.edu

Last Updated June 30, 2014