Penn State student launches startup with help of Happy Valley LaunchBox

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ishana Shekhawat’s startup is a one-woman show.

Shekhawat, an entrepreneur and graduate student in mechanical engineering at Penn State, is working to turn her idea for a new biohealth device — a breathing-based video game for improving lung health — into a product used in hospitals across the country. She spent the summer doing everything from learning about business plans and intellectual property to connecting with potential customers and even coding a video game.

Her work is part of the curriculum for founders participating in the 10-week summer bootcamp for Happy Valley LaunchBox, a no-cost business accelerator and coworking space in downtown State College. One of Invent Penn State's 13 entrepreneurship and innovation centers across the state, Happy Valley LaunchBox aims to provide early-stage startups and local business owners with the resources and support they need to build sustainable and scalable businesses.

“Happy Valley LaunchBox is a crash course in how to start and run a business,” Shekhawat said. “I’m a solo founder, and I would not have been able to do this at this scale by myself. Sometimes it can be a struggle simply to figure out where to find information, and it’s been a dream to be able to walk into this space and talk to mentors and connect with local business owners and experts from the University.”

Shekhawat first got the idea for her startup, PlayPhysio, two years ago while she was an undergraduate student in India.

“I was participating in a biodesign workshop in hospitals and trauma centers in New Delhi and came across a young boy who was recovering from abdominal surgery. He told me he wasn’t doing the prescribed respiratory exercises to help him gain back his lung strength and capacity,” Shekhawat said. “I learned that the exercises, which involve breathing into a plastic tube (called a spirometer) to move a ball up and down, are very important for recovery but also boring and repetitive for many children and teenagers.”

Shekhawat said she held on to the memory of the boy for years and let her idea grow.

This summer, with the help of Happy Valley LaunchBox and the Summer Founders Program, she kicked off the development of her product: a video game and hardware duo that makes breathing exercises more engaging, while still meeting the same medical standards as a traditional spirometer.

“PlayPhysio is marketed for 5- to 15-year-olds who need daily lung exercises, whether they are recovering from surgery or have chronic lung conditions such as cystic fibrosis. They’re busy playing and don’t realize they’re still hitting all the necessary medical requirements that typical breathing exercises provide,” Shekhawat said. “I’ve spent the summer researching the U.S. market, meeting with local health care providers and potential customers, and testing the game with children at Discovery Space in State College.”

Unlike other game-based biohealth products on the market, Shekhawat said PlayPhysio is different because it’s both fun and functional.

“The objective of the game is for players to use their breath to control the movements of a submarine as it maneuvers a series of underwater obstacles,” she said. “The player breathes into a device, which sends data to a digital sensor and then to the video game app via Bluetooth. By following the game’s breathing instructions, players avoid crashing the submarine and earn points.”

Building the first iteration of the game, which she started as a board game before turning to Unity game development software, was only one of Shekhawat’s summer tasks. She also created a business plan and website; tested digital sensors; and attended weekly meetings, speaker events, and one-on-one mentoring sessions at Happy Valley LaunchBox.

Designed to be a local hub for innovation, the center is a first-stop for Penn State and local community members interested in starting a business, according to Lee Erickson, director and chief amplifier at Happy Valley LaunchBox.

In addition to answering questions about patents, business plans, taxes and more, Happy Valley LaunchBox also offers the 10-week accelerator each fall, spring and summer for participants like Shekhawat to get free 24/7 access to space, legal and intellectual property consultations, training, and mentoring from fellow entrepreneurs and Penn State faculty and staff.

“Having been an entrepreneur myself, I’ve kind of been there done that. So I know how exciting it can be one minute and how terrifying it can be the next,” Erickson said. “Our mission is to provide early stage startups with the resources and facilities they need to de-risk their business, enter the market, and avoid common mistakes that a lot of their peers make.”

To do this, Erickson, who describes herself as a teacher, mentor and motivator, advises founders use a lean startup philosophy, which involves experimenting, testing products, and talking to at least 10 potential customers every week (Shekhawat spoke with about 100 people during the boot camp).

Erickson said technology coupled with the growth of similar town-gown collaborations across the state, including initiatives at Penn State Harrisburg and Lehigh Valley (just two of 13 Invent Penn State seed centers), are helping to create jobs by providing the support and resources that will inspire small businesses to stay and grow in Pennsylvania.

“Information technology has totally revolutionized a person’s ability to enter the market. Not only has the cost of technology dropped, but people are able to connect with experts and customers without the geographic boundaries of the past,” Erickson said. “In many ways, small businesses drive our economy, so making entrepreneurship accessible and demystifying it is good for everyone. You don’t have to do it all by yourself anymore and you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to be an entrepreneur — it’s possible where you already live and go to school.”

As fall semester ramps up, Shekhawat said her main priority is to continue to grow her business while being a full-time graduate student. She’s drawing on what she learned over the summer to build a PlayPhysio prototype for patients to start piloting in hospitals and medical centers.

“LaunchBox has given me a lot of direction and helped me develop a thorough understanding of my company’s value, customer segment and niche,” Shekhawat said. “I’ve learned that even though I have a very thorough business plan things don't always work according to my plan — and that’s OK. Over time, the highs make up for the lows.”

She said success is different for everyone, but for her it means staying true to her vision.

“I don’t think of success as solely how big I can grow the business. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I’ve had so many ideas, but PlayPhysio seemed to stick at the same time this perfect learning opportunity came around,” she said. “It can be hard to be a solo founder, so I just keep focusing on my skills, what I’ve learned, and my motivation. Believing in what I’m selling and remembering that this product has the potential to help people is what’s pushing me through.”

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Last Updated September 13, 2016