Alumni couple supports disability-focused entrepreneurship at Penn State

March 30, 2021

Penn State alumni Robert and Linda Malecky have pledged a gift of $125,000 to support the Summer Founders program, a 13-week entrepreneurial bootcamp. Together with a one-to-one University match, this gift has established an endowment of $250,000, which will fund teams of entrepreneurs developing products or services designed to positively impact the lives of people with disabilities.

The match was provided through the Economic Development Incentive Matching Program, which leverages University funds for select initiatives that will drive job and business creation in Pennsylvania.

“We are extremely grateful to Bob and Linda Malecky for their tremendous generosity in supporting the Summer Founders program,” said James Delattre, associate vice president for research and director of the Office of Entrepreneurship & Commercialization. “The program is fueling entrepreneurship in powerful ways, and that translates both into fulfilling careers for our student entrepreneurs themselves and into products, services and economic growth that will impact all of us. By focusing on Summer Founders teams who want to make a difference for people with disabilities, the Maleckys’ gift also furthers Penn State’s deep commitment to diversity and equity and our drive to be a force for good in the communities we serve.”

The impetus for the Maleckys’ gift was their personal experience with disability within their family. “One of our children was diagnosed with a rare neuroimmune disorder when they were very young,” explained Linda Malecky. “As we’ve connected with the community of people dealing with this disorder, we’ve seen not only our own challenges but also the struggles other families have faced. We wanted to do something to help improve the quality of life for people who are impacted by any form of disability, while at the same time giving back to Penn State, which has played an important role in both of our lives.”

Robert and Linda Malecky are both Penn State graduates: Robert received his bachelor’s degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering in 1985, and both he and Linda received their master of business administration degrees from Penn State in 1988. Robert has forged a successful career with service companies in the energy sector. He has held several marketing and management positions with Buckeye Partners L.P., a logistics company, and is currently executive vice president and president, pipelines and terminals. Linda worked in the private sector in operational finance for 15 years. She then became involved with the Siegel Rare Neuroimmune Association, which supports families with rare neuroimmune disorders, and currently serves in a volunteer capacity as the organization’s vice president and treasurer.

The Maleckys have maintained a close relationship with Penn State since graduating, and they have previously provided support for student capstone projects through the Learning Factory in the College of Engineering. Robert was recognized with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Smeal College of Business in 2016.

“We thought the Summer Founders program was a great catalyst for getting people engaged with entrepreneurial ventures, and we wanted to combine that support with an area of entrepreneurism that is perhaps underserved,” said Robert Malecky. “We hope our gift will lead to real, tangible solutions that make people’s lives better. But we also want to draw attention to the idea that successful ventures can grow from products and services that meet the needs of people with disabilities, whether those are for-profit or nonprofit ventures. So we’re very excited to partner with Penn State to make all that happen.”

The Summer Founders program, offered through the Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank, selects the most promising student startup teams each year from a pool of applicants and provides them with a $15,000 grant, allowing them to work full time on their ventures over the summer. Most of this funding is provided by private donors like the Maleckys.

In addition to funding, the program provides the mentorship and resources these early-stage startups need to advance their ventures, including one-on-one coaching sessions with entrepreneurs and industry experts, a network of more than eighty advisors and access to 3D design software and other technology tools. The program concludes with a showcase event that allows the startup teams to share their ideas and progress with each other and with the advisors, donors and other entrepreneurs. Penn State takes no ownership or equity in any business or nonprofit organization that results from the program.

“The Summer Founders gives these young entrepreneurs the structure, the support and the time they need to accelerate their ventures,” said Lee Erickson, chief amplifier of the Happy Valley LaunchBox. “Thanks to the grant they receive, students can focus entirely on their startup idea rather than taking a job over the summer. This is especially important for early-stage companies as it allows them to advance their ideas more quickly and have the time to test the market and find a viable, and sustainable, business model. Having that time to devote solely to their business is really significant for them in their entrepreneurial journey.”

The first team funded by the Maleckys’ gift was Gage Ventures, founded by five Penn State students. One of the founders was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, but not until his senior year of high school, leaving him without the support he needed during his prior school years. To help avoid this situation for other children, the company has developed and is currently piloting a behavior observation app to help teachers and other school officials better identify learning disabilities and assess the need for accommodations. During the 2020 Summer Founders program, the team received guidance on many key aspects of the startup process, including conducting research to identify school officials’ actual needs, beta testing of the product and establishing an advisory board of industry experts.

“We’re extremely proud of the Gage team,” said Erickson. “They represent a growing trend among today’s college students — the desire to do well by doing good. The Maleckys’ gift really taps into this trend and encourages more teams to combine their desire to help others with their entrepreneurial aspirations.”

Summer Founders is a signature program of Invent Penn State, a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success. Invent Penn State blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university/community/industry collaborations to facilitate the challenging process of turning research discoveries into valuable products and services that can benefit Pennsylvanians and humankind.

The Maleckys’ gift will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

For more information about the Summer Founders program, visit https://invent.psu.edu/programs/summer-founders-program/, and to support Invent Penn State, visit https://invent.psu.edu/giving/. For more information about Penn State’s Economic Development Incentive Matching Program, contact Heather Winfield at hbw11@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 15, 2021