At this graduation, the speeches were three minutes long and no one wore gowns.
Instead, the five teams wore what young entrepreneurs these days wear: blazers over T-shirts, loosened collars, a mix of casual and formal. For the third graduating class of the Happy Valley LaunchBox, pomp and circumstance were traded Wednesday for something fresh, fast and, they hope, more innovative.
“When is there a better time to start a business than when you’re in college?” attendee Tim Kerchinski asked, grinning broadly. “What do you have to lose?”
Kerchinksi, the Innovation Team lead for the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program and a spectator for the evening, listened as the teams gave their pitches and added that seeing the ideas of the next batch of entrepreneurs energized him.
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Those ideas ranged from brainwave-sensing headphones (Musical Minds) to 360-degree virtual tours (Visionese) to home-cooked meals on the go (Stockd). What’s Poppin, an event and ticket platform geared toward college students, and Rain Reality, a virtual reality educational startup, rounded out the group.
“Some of them have setbacks, some of them go forward,” said Lee Erickson, the director of the no-cost, State College accelerator. “But that’s the process, right? So we’re trying to give them the tools, the resources and the facility to hit the ground running.”
As part of the 10-week program, the teams had to talk to at least 10 new customers a week, and test about seven assumptions with data. Their gauntlet of challenges also included pitching at Penn State’s first-annual IP and Venture Conference, and presenting in front of university President Eric Barron and 400 alumni at a tailgate before the Ohio State football game.
“The biggest thing we focus on is you’ve got to get out of the building and talk to your customers,” Erickson said, adding that several of the startups’ ideas evolved during the 10 weeks.
On Wednesday night, Kerchinski saw potential for further growth. He said Visionese’s panoramic, interactive tour concept could be used for more than just recruiting students to campus or advertising a business. Instead, it could also be harnessed for the manufacturing industry.
“If on a third shift at night and a machine breaks down, the workers just push brooms until the next shift until a mechanic comes in to fix the machine,” he said. “Something like theirs could now provide a training module. So where if I were working on that machine, even though I’m not a mechanic, it could show me a 360 view of the machine and how to fix it.
“Now I might be able to fix that machine and keep production going for the whole eight hours versus all that lost production.”
Ria Bhatia and Elaine Demopolis, the founders of Rain Reality, built upon each other’s backgrounds in creating their company. After interning at Microsoft for the past three summers, Bhatia, a computer science major, saw the potential of augmented and virtual reality in a number of sectors. Demopolis, who studies biomedical engineering, thought the health care industry, with its highly technical careers, could benefit from the strange new way of looking at the world.
“It’s good for teaching abstract concepts, so teaching about molecules, planets or cells, and letting us really capture those ideas in a more concrete form,” Demopolis said. “It allows us to practice with these hands-on training modules for different professions.”
Their company is still young with room to grow, they said, but the LaunchBox was a good place to start. Earlier this fall, Rain Reality won HackPSU, a 24-hour code-fest where startups rise, fall asleep if they’re lucky and rise again.
Wednesday’s graduation was just another step in the process.