Nicholas Welch was putting his kids to bed one night when he noticed the light switch outside their room was hot.
“If I had not found that (hot switch), that would’ve, without question, undoubtedly turned into a fire within the next few hours,” he said.
Finding no protective gear that his kids could reasonably use to save themselves in the event of a fire, Welch set out to create a device that could protect the most vulnerable populations — young children and seniors — from fatal smoke inhalation during a fire.
Welch, a combat veteran and former emergency room physician who lives in Bloomsburg, had the drive and competitive edge needed to run a startup, but he had to get from imagining the product to creating and selling it.
Armed with a sketch of his product idea, Welch went to the Small Business Development Center in Wilkes-Barre. From there, he connected with the Penn State Entrepreneur Assistance and IP Clinic, Penn State engineering’s The Learning Factory, Wilkes University, Bucknell Engineering and Wilkes-Barre Think Centre.
Welch’s Smoke Shield System is a device that, when it detects smoke, turns lethal gases from smoke into breathable air for up to an hour. It’s designed to be mounted in the corner of an enclosed space, like a closet, so that children or elderly people can shelter in place while an LED light alerts emergency responders to the victim’s location. People also have the option to attach emergency cellular communications so they can connect directly with emergency services.
In a matter of months, Welch had enrolled in the 16-week FastTrack Accelerator program beginning November 2018 through April 2019 at Happy Valley LaunchBox, a business incubator part of Invent Penn State. Going through the program was like having a “10,000 foot view” of all the tools needed to succeed in running a startup, he said.
Over 40 participants have gone through the accelerator program, which started in 2016, said Jason Huber, LaunchBox entrepreneurial cog connector.
“They just seem to be collectively dedicated to enhancing the community involvement and opportunities for entrepreneurs to bring their ideas, their concepts to market to be tested by industry professionals,” Welch said. “And it’s for everyone. It’s for locally driven economy to inspire entrepreneurs to have these types of resources that wouldn’t normally be available.”
From startup concept to reality
By using the Penn State Law clinics, Welch said he was able to save over $100,000 in legal fees with all the consulting, research and filing they did for him. He only had to pay the $149 intellectual property trademark filing fee.
Tamela Serensits, a Buffalo, New York native who has lived in State College for 15 years, put her idea through the FastTrack program that began in November 2018 and is now about to launch her product.
“I think I would’ve gotten discouraged early on without having all the resources that they have (at LaunchBox) and the encouragement. Encouragement and accountability,” she said.
Five to eight teams are typically selected by application for the FastTrack program. Participants meet weekly as a group, and learn about customer discovery, marketing, logo making, prototypes and legal assistance for company formation and intellectual property, said Huber. They also partake in one-on-one mentoring, hear from guest speakers who talk about different aspects of early stage startup development, and make pitches to the group, he said.
“What our mission is at LaunchBox is essentially accelerate and de-risk your business so if we can put resources in place that will help you offset lots of cost or help you save a lot of time,” he said.
Everyone who doesn’t get in to LaunchBox’s programs is still able to use its free resources, he said. LaunchBox helps several hundred people per year, offering co-working space and walk-in legal and business advice Monday-Friday.
Serensits, a Navy veteran who worked in the sales department at MiniTab in State College for 10 years, kept hearing from customers at smaller manufacturing businesses who needed a simpler software for quality control-specific statistics. When she left the company in August 2017, she thought there might be an opportunity to make a “software program that does the quality assurance that smaller manufacturers are looking for.”
A friend referred her to Lee Erickson, director of Happy Valley LaunchBox, who gave Serensits a book guide on customer discovery. She went through the process, and a year later she won a spot in the business accelerator. There, she began developing Argolytics, a web-based software tool that helps smaller manufacturers track the quality of their product using Trendable, an accurate quality control reporting software.
Turning knowledge into growth
Like Welch, Serensits has taken advantage of multiple programs aimed at supporting entrepreneurs and small business development. She earned a micro-grant for $3,000 through the National Science Foundation I-Corps, gained help through the Penn State Law clinic, participated in a pitch competition for funding through the Ben Franklin TechCelerator at State College, gained $10,000 through the Penn State Summer Founders Program and was approved for seed funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners — all within two years.
“You can see actually her confidence grow from each (program), and the different connections she’s able to make from each one,” said Huber.
Both entrepreneurs have concentrated their efforts to grow their businesses in the central Pennsylvania region by using mostly local talent and keeping manufacturing in-state.
“There are quite a number of individuals in the community that have already helped me get this product together,” said Serensits. “... That’s an incentive for me to look locally first for people who can help support this product and bring it to the market.”
She will launch Trendable at the Quality Show outside Chicago Oct. 22-24, and plans to hire employees in sales and marketing and software development within the next year.
Welch, meanwhile, recruited both his vice president of research and development Mark Boudreau and chief technology officer Colby Geary from Penn State University Park. Right now, he’s optimizing and testing his product, crowdfunding for market research, engineering for manufacturability, building industry relationships and working with Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts on an SBIR grant.
“I profoundly implore anyone who’s considering taking the risk or considering the journey to be an entrepreneur, start their own business, launch their own product, between the Small Business Development Center and the LaunchBox, I don’t feel like there’s anything better that you can do to improve your understanding, your perceptions (or) what your next steps are,” he said.
Applications for the FastTrack program close Oct. 26 at 11:59 p.m. Interested applicants should visit launchbox.psu.edu.