Editor’s note: This column is part of the CDT’s Business Matters special section.
When Penn State President Eric Barron launched the Invent Penn State initiative in 2015, the goal was clear: Use the innovation and research prowess at Penn State to drive job creation, economic development and student career success.
One key program provides seed grants to create “innovation hubs” in Penn State campus communities across Pennsylvania. The program awards campuses internal grants for the development of university-community partnerships that provide local entrepreneurs with no-cost training, space, resources and expertise needed to accelerate business growth.
The hubs encourage collaboration among early-stage entrepreneurs, university researchers and seasoned industry professionals. The idea is to provide a natural “first step” on the entrepreneurial path, one that applies strategic resources to increase a startup’s chance of success. The goal is that over time the network built will serve to keep a steady pipeline of new companies in Pennsylvania and provide skilled jobs to graduating students.
In 2015 and 2016, grants were issued to 12 Penn State campus-community partnerships across the state. A 13th hub — Happy Valley LaunchBox — opened on South Allen Street in State College. Each hub is designed to meet the entrepreneurial needs of its community, ranging from training to maker-spaces to resources for minority-owned businesses.
Happy Valley LaunchBox is open to all entrepreneurs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for walk-in services. Visitors from the community can work at desk space with free Wi-Fi and coffee, obtain free patent and legal advice from Penn State Law, and consult with the Penn State Small Business Development Center. Entrepreneurs with a scalable business idea may apply for a 10-week accelerator that’s held three times per year to help founders de-risk and accelerate their business startup. The selected teams receive 24-hour access to work in the space for up to a year.
Happy Valley LaunchBox ran its first accelerator in February 2016 and opened for walk-in services in April. During each round, 25 to 40 promising new ventures submitted applications to compete for the five to seven available seats in the program. In 2016, LaunchBox facilitated 20 startups, created nine full-time jobs, served more than 500 community entrepreneurs and hosted numerous educational events.
Happy Valley LaunchBox also brought unanticipated benefits, including becoming a crucial platform for startups to share their stories, as well the groundswell of media and community interest that was generated around their terrific ideas. Importantly, the startups provided more than 85 highly-engaged local internships for Penn State students last year. Startups need a plethora of temporary, highly skilled talent — programmers, designers, engineers — which creates a demand for motivated interns and an invaluable experiential learning opportunity.
Benchmarking efforts with other startup communities show this type of strong entrepreneurial ecosystem — where innovators are closely connected to each other and to the talent and resources they need — attracts and retains great companies in the long term.
Meaningful economic development takes many years, but the early success indicators at Happy Valley LaunchBox make the Invent Penn State team optimistic about the future of innovation in Centre County. LaunchBox is committed to contributing to a strong pipeline of young companies in the region — up to 18 per year that, in turn, give back to the wider community.
James Delattre is assistant vice president for research and director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization at Penn State.