Business

Incubator aids entrepreneurs in starting up

STATE COLLEGE — Dave Barton has a soft spot for entrepreneurs and he knows the challenges they face. After all, he’s been in their shoes, launching his own startup company locally in 2002 after moving to State College from Silicon Valley.

“It’s tough here because there isn’t a long history of start-up companies,” Barton said. “The goal is to get them to stay and get them to build a company.”

He’s hoping the creation of The Blue Line, a downtown business incubator he’s sponsoring, will make a difference.

There are desks to work from, conference rooms for meetings, free Internet and other advantages, such as the ability to collaborate with other entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

“They need someplace to go. They need a cubicle, not a suite of offices,” he said.

There’s no financial commitment required from the businesses. Barton, who is funding the venture, said he envisions companies staying about a year to get their business established before moving on.

By that time, most companies will need additional resources and more office space than he can provide, he said.

The only requirement of the incubator at this time is that candidates must be serious about working to make their companies succeed, and they must have an idea of how to go about making that happen.

So far 11 companies — five of them sports related — operate out of the office on the second floor of 234 E. College Ave. Barton’s own company, BlueSwarf Manufacturing Laboratories, which licensed technology to Kennametal in Latrobe, is among them.

“Everybody here is working. They’ve got a business. They’ve got a job to do,” he said.

Barton said he has no resources, other than space, available to help the entrepreneurs work through the basics of starting a business. He’s hoping that mentors — whether it be local business people or entrepreneurs across the country — will offer advice to the businesses at The Blue Line.

Incubator of ideas

For companies, such as Go2Athlete.com and Triple Overtime Promotions, the incubator has been a place to work on initial ideas to make them a reality, the company founders said.

“We’ve really gotten so much out of being up here,” said Go2Athlete co-founder Chris Ganter, a State College native and a Penn State quarterback from 2001-04. “There’s always someone in here that knows something you don’t.”

Go2Athlete.com started with a note that Ganter scribbled on the back of an airline e-ticket in fall 2006. He and partners Peter Matsis and Kevin Callanan have turned that idea for a networking and job placement Web site for NCAA athletes into a reality.

“One of the most fun things is actually to be the one to come up with the ideas and see them happening,” Ganter said.

Go2Athlete.com, which has contracts with three major universities, including Penn State, looks to match student athletes with employers, employers with students and help administrators track their student athletes’ success. Plans are to expand to serve more universities.

Resumes can be posted, jobs — anything from police officer to financial analysts — searched and events, seminars and interviews scheduled.

“A lot of student athletes find themselves way far behind as far as career prep,” Ganter said, adding that was what he experienced as a former Penn State football player.

A chance meeting with Barton provided the men an opportunity — one that would take their company to the next level, allowing them to operate from an office instead of from their homes.

“This is exactly what we needed,” Matsis said. “This is a huge help to us.”

“We’ve found ourselves to be a lot more productive here,” Ganter said. The Blue Line office also provides a chance for collaboration among the startups, Barton said. On any given evening the ideas will be flying, with those who’ve experienced an issue lending their expertise or sharing ideas.

Too often local talent is leaving the area for other markets and opportunities because of limitations such as the high cost of office space and challenges securing funding, Barton said.

“What I found was not a very entrepreneurial environment,” he said of his efforts to get BlueSwarf off the ground. “I wanted to do something about what I experienced.”

For example, he said, there are no venture capital investments in the area. That makes it more difficult to attract entrepreneurs, he said.

“There’s no reason why this can’t be a huge economic start-up engine, but it’s not,” he said.

Taking risks

The incubator will make it possible for entrepreneurs to take a risk on their ideas — and on Centre County.

The Blue Line started last June as Lion Launchpad, a Penn State Smeal Business College-affiliated incubator.

It has since transitioned to house all types of entrepreneurs, from students to any adult with a viable idea, changing its name along the way and ending its affiliation with the university, Barton said.

Barton said he didn’t want to limit the entrepreneurs he can help to only Penn State students.

The incubator’s name comes from the Penn State football program’s blue line (three of the current businesses include former Penn State football players — where players don’t cross the line until they are focused solely on football.

“In this case, you don’t cross that blue line unless you’re 100 percent committed or dedicated to your job,” Barton said.

Some will succeed. Others will fail, Barton said, adding that really “there’s no failure because everybody learns something from it.”

Gary Ezekian has learned that being his own boss has its advantages and disadvantages.

The hours are long for part-owner of Triple Overtime Promotions, which produces college pride magnets. Ezekian plans to graduate from Penn State in the spring with a degree in industrial engineering.

But the success and accomplishments of owning his own business have been rewarding.

“It’s still exciting. We have a lot to learn,” he said. “You can’t just expect because you put out a new product you’re going to get a lot of sales.

“You learn quickly what the demands of running something small and simple is,” said Erik Davidson, a partner with Triple Overtime.

Davidson is also a senior majoring in electrical engineering. He said the experience has dramatically changed his lifestyle.

“Probably the biggest challenge is sleeping,” he said.

Entrepreneurial niche

Both are part of a growing entrepreneurial niche that is gaining momentum because of Penn State’s classes in entrepreneurship.

Three of the five people in Ezekian’s company took a class in entrepreneurship in fall 2005. By May 2006, the company had been founded and was trying to make the ideas a reality.

Triple Overtime has acquired the licensing of 12 colleges and is producing pride magnets for Penn State, Ohio State and Virginia Tech, among others.

A set for Penn State includes phrases such as Mount Nittany, Old Main, Beaver Canyon, We Are Penn State and more including as well as magnets depicting Bryce Jordan Center and Beaver Stadium.

There are plans to introduce a line of scrapbook stickers in the near future, with a design based off the magnet template.

But there were challenges to get their business off the ground. Initially, businesses were skeptical about buying a product from a college student, he said.

“It took me awhile to convince them we really were serious and this was a real business,” Ezekian said.

He said the partners are working toward building the venture to the point it can support them financially.

“We’re not a class project anymore,” Ezekian said.

For more information on the incubator, visit www.bluelinenetworks.com.

Jennifer Thomas can be reached at 231-4638.

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