Prepare to Launch

One wall in the bright, open work space of Happy Valley LaunchBox serves as a canvas for expressing dreams and goals written on a rainbow of Post-It notes and ranging from general to specific, from serious to whimsical: Build, and live on, my floating farms. Brain interface for communication. Emma Watson kisses me on the cheek. An adjacent wall proclaims in bold letters: Don’t quit your daydream.

Creative thinking is a cornerstone of LaunchBox, a business startup training program that is part of Invent Penn State, a statewide initiative started in 2015 by President Eric Barron. Located in downtown State College, Happy Valley LaunchBox provides free co-working space open to the public, free legal services to any Pennsylvania startup, and a ten-week Accelerator program that gives Launch Teams—open to both students and members of the wider community—the resources, support, and mentoring they need to increase the chances that their startup companies will find success.

To be accepted into the LaunchBox Accelerator program, teams must present a solid idea for a business that’s potentially scalable. “We help them test possible business models,” says Lee Erickson, director of Happy Valley LaunchBox. “Through mentorship and team meetings, teams share their challenges and get feedback. They begin to notice patterns and see that others are working through the same challenges.”

Here, meet five Launch Teams and their projects.

 

HV LaunchBox building

The Happy Valley LaunchBox in downtown State College provides free co-working space and legal services to any Pennsylvania startup, plus a ten-week Accelerator program to help Launch Teams get their new businesses off the ground.

Image: Bill Zimmerman

What’s Poppin

When engineering major Joseph Kitonga spent a summer taking classes at University Park, he found himself wondering what to do in his free time. “It was difficult to find interesting, inspiring, engaging events,” he says. He and his friend Azzam Shaikh, also an engineering major, teamed up to create What’s Poppin, a website and app students can use to find out about smaller events on campus and in town.

“Students want to feel they belong,” Kitonga says. “We help them find their niche, their place at Penn State. Everyone knows about the football game or the Kanye West concert—we focus on less publicized events that not only let you meet new and interesting people but create a sense of belonging. We want to capture that community feeling.”

Anyone can create a free account on the What’s Poppin website to view and post events and interact with other users. Most users visit the site two to three times a week to check out new events.

Kitonga stresses that LaunchBox doesn’t guarantee success. “They provide the opportunity to grow your product. You have to put in the work and the heart and the desire to advance your idea.”

 

Curiospace

Jessica Menold, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, came to LaunchBox with an idea combining two very different disciplines: engineering and child development. Through 3D-printed brackets and interactive story books for children, she and cofounder Carlye Lauff are working to bring engaging and educational experiences to Syrian children in refugee camps in Germany.

The project, Curiospace, grew out of Menold’s visits to refugee camps two years ago. “I spoke with parents and children,” she says. “The kids don’t have much to do—often they can’t go to school. I wanted to help, and I wondered what we could send to camps that would work with what they have.”

Menold and Lauff worked with Meg Small, director of the Health and Human Development Design for Impact Lab in the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, to pair the idea of stories and a building kit. They’re creating a series of stories about Nazira, a little girl who has adventures. The stories incorporate elements of the Good Behavior Game, a simple game that focuses on emotion regulation and is proven to benefit children with high levels of stress.

“The stories end with a build activity,” Menold explains. “In the first book—which was published in Arabic, English, and German—Nazira’s spaceship breaks down and she asks the kids to help her build a new one.” Using cardboard and the brackets that Menold and Lauff created, children construct a spaceship.

“The kits give kids just enough structure, while allowing them to be creative,” Menold says. “We want to give kids a chance to play in a way that’s conducive to social/emotional development and that fosters creativity.”

 

Stockd founder Ben Sparango

Ben Sparango, a senior in mechanical engineering, and his friend Matt Mason credit LaunchBox with providing the momentum they needed to start Stockd, their business that provides home-cooked meals for students who don't have the time to cook for themselves.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Stockd

When senior Ben Sparango went home for a weekend to cook “a bunch of lasagna” with his mom, it wasn’t because he’s overly interested in the culinary arts. Sparango, a mechanical engineering major, was gearing up to test his new business model.

A couple of years earlier, Sparango and his friend Matt Mason had an idea to start a grocery delivery service to off-campus Penn State students. “But we soon realized we were addressing the wrong problem,” he says. “Students didn’t have trouble getting groceries—they had trouble finding time to cook.” With guidance from LaunchBox, the partners re-tooled and created Stockd, “The meal plan your mother would approve of.”

After his cooking weekend, Sparango brought a dozen lasagna meals back to campus and gave them to students, asking for their feedback. “I wanted to know if it seemed like something Mom had made, if they’d be interested in the idea of regular meal delivery,” he says. “We got good feedback. A lot of students said it would be worth it not to have to cook or order out multiple times a week.”

Sparango and Mason credit LaunchBox with providing the momentum for Stockd: “When we applied to LaunchBox we were at a standstill,” Sparango says. “This place is 100 percent why we’re this far along.”

OmegaNotes

OmegaNotes, an online notes marketplace, was born out of an all-too-familiar scenario for college students.

“I was studying for a biology exam, and I realized I was missing an entire chapter of notes,” says founder Drew Lang. “I must have deleted them by accident. I had nowhere to go. The idea came to me within two minutes: There might be a marketable solution to this problem.”

Lang, who recently received an MBA from Penn State Behrend, began researching the concept at the Innovation Commons there and further developed it with the help of Happy Valley LaunchBox.

On the OmegaNotes website, students can buy and sell: Shoppers search by professor, course, or subject; sellers upload their notes and get paid immediately for each transaction.

OmegaNotes recently started offering a faculty-to-student component as well. “We offer digital, customized course packs,” Lang explains. “If a professor wants three chapters out of a textbook, a couple of YouTube videos, eight quizzes, and slides, we can do that. It’s a much cheaper option than printed course packets.”

The site can also provide faculty with analytics that aid peer-to-peer learning. “We can tell the professor, ‘John understands Chapter 1 but is unsure about Chapter 2. Sally is struggling with Chapter 1 but she completely gets Chapter 2. They should study together.’ The data is unlike anything else in the marketplace.”

 

Maake

“A way to make sure that art is seen.” That’s what Emily Burns and cofounder Daniel Collins are providing with Maake, a contemporary art resource that encompasses an online gallery, print magazine, and curated exhibitions and events.

Burns, an MFA student in graphic design, is using Maake as a platform to showcase the work of emerging artists. Maake’s goal is to exhibit innovative and experimental contemporary artwork, as well as to foster conversation and community. “You can’t function without a community and dialogue, and the internet has opened up so many opportunities for different art worlds to tap into,” she says. “There’s a lot of work out there that should be seen but that hasn’t gotten gallery representation, so we promote artists via social media, our blog, and our magazine.” Through Maake, Burns has also curated several art exhibitions featuring artists from across the country.

Burns appreciates the opportunity LaunchBox provides to work with other young entrepreneurs, share ideas, and learn how others solve problems. She’s also gained essential knowledge about running a business. “LaunchBox is fantastic,” she says. “The world of entrepreneurship—the lingo and terminology and the concepts behind them—was foreign to me, but so important for the arts. To be able to put a name to a concept and talk about it with people who really know what they’re doing is invaluable.”

 

 

Invent Penn State is a statewide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student career success. It blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university-community collaborations in a variety of programs that support early-stage enterprises and help turn research discoveries and new ideas into valuable products and services.

In addition to the Happy Valley LaunchBox, Invent Penn State has provided seed-grant funding for similar innovation hubs in 12 other Commonwealth campus communities around the state. Each hub offers staff, students, and members of the community help in developing product and marketing ideas, navigating intellectual property laws, and finding investors. In 2016 the innovation hubs helped launch 48 startup companies.

 

This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Research/Penn State magazine.

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Last Updated June 21, 2017