FastTrack Accelerator helps community entrepreneur build collaboration app

September 23, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As COVID-19 changes our daily lives, professors, teachers and tutors are working to find effective virtual collaboration tools while transitioning to remote learning. Instructors at all levels frequently use whiteboards to draw out diagrams, calculations and equations, but a keyboard and mouse are poor substitutes for markers and chalk. 

Enter Scratchwork, an app enabling users to take a picture of their handwritten notes or drawings on a smartphone or laptop camera, and have it immediately recreated digitally. In addition to digitizing the notes or drawings, Scratchwork makes each individual shape and scribble interactive, allowing the user to move and resize elements of the drawing as if they were originally drawn on a tablet. 

“What Scratchwork does is try to provide the best environment for people to input their raw ideas,” State College community member John Stogin said. “The idea came about when I was out here in State College but still working on my Ph.D. [in mathematics], so I had to communicate with advisers at Princeton or other grad students — that’s when I felt the pain point the most personally.” 

Lacking a direct connection to Penn State, Stogin went to Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank in search of connections to people who could help advance his technology. He applied to the 2019-20 Happy Valley LaunchBox FastTrack Accelerator. The 15-week program, designed to help startup teams test the market and create actionable plans to launch their startups, gave Stogin the opportunity to focus on the business development side of his venture through a combination of direct mentorship, instruction and customer discovery.  

“I would say most of the work done through the FastTrack program was that process of talking to users and learning why they are actually using the app — what features are they actually interested in, what problems are they having, and how can I fix those problems,” Stogin said. “That was strongly encouraged in the FastTrack program, to talk to those people, and it helped me learn quite a bit.”

Happy Valley LaunchBox Chief Amplifier Lee Erickson said Stogin really took advantage of the LaunchBox’s network of more than 80 entrepreneurial advisers who are available to provide advice and insights to all FastTrack startups.  

“For Stogin, we were able to leverage the adviser network to help him understand the industry and the need better,” Erickson said. “We were also able to connect him to potential customers and help him digest all the information in a way that would either validate or invalidate the different assumptions he was making.” 

Stogin walked away from the program with a better understanding of the complicated decision-making process schools and businesses must go through before committing to adopting new technology. 

“I really appreciate the fact that these resources are available to community members,” Stogin said. “The stuff that I’ve been doing through FastTrack would be so much harder if I didn’t have these resources. I think it makes State College a much more interesting place for community members.” 

Stogin had actually taken the idea for Scratchwork through the Ben Franklin TechCelerator in 2016, which helped him learn to focus on meeting people’s needs without requiring them to buy a certain technology. From that advice, Stogin focused on the software aspect of what would become Scratchwork. At Happy Valley LaunchBox, he utilized the Penn State Law Intellectual Property Clinic and was encouraged to file a patent on the image processing feature — the technology that extracts the drawings from paper. 

“Since then, I’ve managed to build up the website and the app, and it’s especially gotten interest during these coronavirus times,” Stogin said. “It’s been really exciting to see it be really helpful for people. One of the biggest challenges with starting a startup is finding a need that people really have that is unmet.” 

Now Stogin is developing Scratchwork full time, making architectural improvements to the software for this fall. 

“I originally thought the increased demand was a temporary thing — that schools will open up in the fall, and there goes all the demand,” Stogin said. “I’ve been convinced more recently that it’s not temporary. I think there’s a permanent shift where people are now much more willing to consider online, virtual, communication.”  

FastTrack Accelerator 2020-21 applications are due Oct. 11. More information is available on the Happy Valley LaunchBox website.

Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank is one of 21 innovation hubs that were provided seed grant funding by Invent Penn State, a statewide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success. For more information, visit the Invent Penn State website.

To view more Penn State-affiliated startups, visit StartupNavigator.psu.edu. Entrepreneurs seeking resources can visit ResourceNavigator.psu.edu.

Editor's note: This story is informational in nature and should not be considered an endorsement of any product or application.

Last Updated September 23, 2020