Happy Valley LaunchBox helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf gives a speech about entrepreneurship in February at Happy Valley LaunchBox. The startup helps entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into reality.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf gives a speech about entrepreneurship in February at Happy Valley LaunchBox. The startup helps entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into reality. Centre Daily Times file photo

An online farmers market that connects local farmers to consumers, 3-D printed customizable footwear and an at-home blood testing application. These are all business ideas that are currently being put to the test at State College’s Happy Valley LaunchBox.

LaunchBox, located at 224 S. Allen St., strives to help anyone — students, faculty, staff or community members — turn business ideas into reality.

“Our mission is to figure out how to provide the resources, the connections and the facilities that most startups would not have access to,” said Lee Erickson, of LaunchBox.

Erickson said LaunchBox helps entrepreneurs largely through two different programs.

The first, brand new this fall, is called the Idea TestLab. Erickson said this program is for individuals or teams that have business ideas but aren’t sure if those ideas are going to work.

Over the course of four weeks, Erickson and Penn State professors Liz Kisenwether and Rick Weyer help 10 to 15 teams figure out what problems they are trying to solve, who their potential customers are and what the best solutions could be.

The second program is called the FastTrack Accelerator Program, a 15-week segment designed to help entrepreneurs create the solutions to the problems they have identified.

“Part of it is you have to go find another expert to help you handle and overcome your challenges,” Erickson said. “I’m really trying to build their network, build to the point that they have something they can actually put out into the market and generate their first sales.”

There are currently nine teams in the program, and Erickson said 31 teams have graduated through the accelerator program since LaunchBox’s opening in March 2016.

Last spring, Maria Diamanti went through LaunchBox’s accelerator program. She is an international student from Greece who is interested in helping pre-teens take ownership of their own health.

Diamanti, a Penn State senior majoring in business management, co-founded Kinder Minder, a mobile application that helps kids keep track of their medication for chronic conditions such as asthma.

“We’re trying to incentivize children to take their medication through games,” said Diamanti, whose research included interviews with 60 parents and two doctors. “There’s a lot of traction with the relationship between parents and their children, and so we’re trying to eliminate that and have kids take their medicine without parents having to nag them.”

In fall 2016, Diamanti took an information sciences and technology class in which she got the opportunity to partner with nurses and biobehavioral health students to try to come up with a way to help children with asthma.

“I personally have asthma and allergies, so I can personally relate to my customers,” Diamanti said. “I had it since I was 2 years old, and never grew out of it. Being active in my own health care back then could have prevented my parents from still calling me today at 21 years old to tell me to take my medication.”

Through LaunchBox’s acceleration program, Diamanti said she recognized how difficult it is to keep team members on the same page about a business.

“It’s been a great learning experience,” Diamanti said. “I’ve never met any entrepreneur who was like, ‘no, I would never do this again.’ Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I’ve learned so much that I can apply to the real world.”

Erickson said LaunchBox is also open for anyone to use as a co-working space from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday. It offers free coffee, Wi-Fi and space to meet other people who are also trying to get something done.

Shivaram Punathambekar said he approached Erickson at the beginning of the fall semester about getting a space of his own in LaunchBox.

Punathambekar, who recently completed his master’s degree in architecture at Penn State, created a website called Green Design Guru that provides users with home design recommendations designed to conserve energy.

He believes that, as an entrepreneur, an individual can either affect a small number of people to a large extent, or a large number of people to a small extent.

He is trying for the latter.

Punathambekar describes his website as “a green home adviser in your pocket.”

He said the idea is for homeowners who are interested in energy conservation and sustainability to have a comprehensive resource to know how best to go about designing their homes.

“Almost a quarter of all energy consumed in the United States is just by the residences,” Punathambekar said. “And that’s actually a blind spot in terms of energy conservation of what people are looking at in the U.S.”

Green Design Guru provides users with information about how their home needs to be oriented in relation to the sun and what kind of insulation and windows would work best, as well as information about heating, cooling and ventilation systems.

For example, if someone wanted to build a home in a cold location like State College, Green Design Guru would provide the ideal number of windows and the best window placement in order to maximize heat gain and reduce the amount of cold air coming in.

“Just because of my background as an architect, I think that homeowners can take a lot more involvement in the process of actually building their home or even designing their home,” Punathambekar said. “And because architects design less than 2 percent of all homes in the United States, the clients drive a large part of the design.”

Although Green Design Guru hasn’t started sales yet, there is a demo available on the company’s website, and the website will be fully functional in May 2018. There will be a free version of Green Design Guru, as well as additional features and gadgets that will cost the consumer around $40.

In addition to an open co-working space, Erickson said LaunchBox also provides free legal counsel. The program provides second-year Penn State law students the opportunity to run the clinic and get hands-on casework, while also allowing entrepreneurs to figure out some legal challenges early on in their businesses.

Elliott Killian said Launchbox’s legal clinic is currently helping him and his business partner with the challenging process of making the brand and logo of their company.

Killian, now a State College resident, graduated from Penn State in 2015 with a degree in horticulture.

Throughout his college career, Killian said he spent a lot of time building websites, learning a lot about social media and marketing.

After graduating, he traveled to Thailand to check out the thriving entrepreneurship scene in Chiang Mai. He ended up going just in time to attend the Nomad Summit, a huge annual networking conference for entrepreneurs from around the world.

This summit is where he met his now business partner Randy Bechtold.

Killian and Bechtold co-founded Anura, a company that creates and sells digital readers that, among other things, test the acidity level in water.

“With my science background, I really wanted to do something like this — sell science equipment,” Killian said. “My education really comes in handy when I get customer questions, because I used pH meters when I was a student at Penn State.”

He said their products are useful for breweries, hydroponic growers and people who have aquariums.

Customers can buy Anura’s products on line. They cost anywhere from $100 to $200. Killian said this year they have broken even and are projected to make a profit in 2018.

Erickson said Launchbox is the ideal spot for all kinds of would-be businesses.

“One of the things I would say is you never know what’s going to walk in the door,” Erickson said. “We say if you have an idea or a question about your business and you’re not sure where to start, start here.”

Katie DeFiore is a Penn State journalism student.