A Summer to Venture

Established by Penn State President Eric Barron, Invent Penn State is a University-wide initiative to boost entrepreneurship, innovation, economic development, and student success in ways that benefit Pennsylvania and beyond.

The path to launching a business is rarely straightforward—from initial concept, to research, to funding, to, if all goes well, a fully functioning venture. Couple that process with the workload of being a full-time student, and it can be daunting for young entrepreneurs to tackle it all.

For Penn State students, the Summer Founders Program provides the necessary resources for student entrepreneurs to explore their startup or nonprofit ideas without the risk of going it alone.

As part of the Invent Penn State initiative, the Summer Founders Program offers resources like mentoring, networking, and $10,000 in funding to Penn State teams of entrepreneurs from all campus locations and the World Campus. The program’s funding lets student entrepreneurs focus on their businesses rather than having to work a summer job to pay for school.

The thirteen-week program also offers participants a year of physical working space in downtown State College at the Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank, if they'd like to use it.

2018 Summer Founders Program Graduates

2018 Summer Founders Program Graduates

Startup teams from Penn State’s Summer Founders Program pose with Lee Erickson, Chief Amplifier at Happy Valley LaunchBox (far right) during its demo day on Aug. 8.

IMAGE: Penn State

“All the work President Barron has put into the Invent Penn State initiative has provided many more resources like the Summer Founders Program and the LaunchBox that are truly dedicated to helping foster new ventures.” —Ben Cutler, Summer Founders participant

According to Lee Erickson, Chief Amplifier at the LaunchBox, the program helps propel ideas forward and encourage creative problem solving through three key areas of support: funding, one-on-one mentoring, and access to a host of key experts.

“The LaunchBox network enables us to connect our startups with individuals with specific areas of expertise,” Erickson said. “Summer Founders opens doors to opportunities that would otherwise be difficult for young entrepreneurs to access.”

A Hotbed of Ideas

As most entrepreneurs know, not every idea comes to fruition as a fully sustainable business. The members of the CastPak team learned this lesson mere weeks after the 2018 Summer Founders Program officially kicked off.

According to CastPak team member Ben Cutler, a junior studying industrial engineering, initial plans were to pursue wearable sensor technology as part of the program. However, after being accepted, Cutler and his teammate, Jack Mentch, realized the business wasn’t scalable for a number of reasons.

Relying on their entrepreneurial mindsets and advice from faculty members and LaunchBox staff, the team spent weeks researching new ideas before finally settling on CastPak, a turnkey, portable solution for live streaming such events as local athletic games and festivals in high definition.

Cutler says the product makes it easy for parents and families to virtually attend their children’s sporting events even when distance or other factors make it impossible to be there in person.

“Normally, if you’re live streaming HD video, you have to have a permanent setup and it’s expensive. If you want to use your phone, you can’t always get the highest quality and data costs can rack up,” Cutler said. “The CastPak allows you to live stream in HD while having the portability of a setup that’s all contained in a backpack.”

Keri Nicolich and Ben Cutler demonstrate how to use CastPak

Pivoting When Necessary

Keri Nicolich, a sophomore studying industrial engineering, and Ben Cutler, a junior studying industrial engineering, demonstrate the easy-to-use CastPak system for live streaming videos in HD. 

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

“Summer Founders opens doors to opportunities that would otherwise be difficult for young entrepreneurs to access.”—Lee Erickson, Chief Amplifier at Happy Valley LaunchBox 

The CastPak idea initially started as part of Hedy’s Garage, a Happy Valley LaunchBox program led by Bob Beaury, assistant teaching professor and interim director of Engineering Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering. Hedy’s Garage—named for 1940s movie star and inventor Hedy Lamarr—pairs State College businesses with entrepreneurial Penn State students who can bring their ideas to life.

“We have a lot of energetic, smart, entrepreneurial students, but they don’t always have scalable and viable ideas,” Erickson said. “So Hedy’s Garage is our attempt to bring industry experts with viable ideas together with passionate students to see if we can create new businesses from those partnerships.”

During the spring 2018 Hedy’s Garage program, Andrew Przyjemski, a senior studying engineering sciences, was on a team paired up with Videon, a State College company specializing in digital media solutions. Using Videon’s edge compute encoder technology to reliably stream HD video, Przyjemski’s team started the foundational work of what would become the CastPak startup.

When Cutler and Mentch—both alumni of Hedy’s Garage—were brainstorming a new project to pursue during Summer Founders, Przyjemski reached out with the idea to combine efforts and focus on CastPak. Since joining Summer Founders, the CastPak team recruited Keri Nicolich, another Hedy’s Garage alumna and a sophomore studying industrial engineering, and Jason Chhay, a sophomore studying computer science, to contribute diverse perspectives to the project.

The CastPak product is contained in a backpack

A Turnkey Solution

With the portability of a backpack, CastPak makes it easy for local schools and organizations to live stream their events. 

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

For Cutler, being able to pivot when the initial idea fell through was one of the most valuable learning experiences from the program.

“It really felt like a true incubator—a hotbed of ideas with people to bounce things off of,” Cutler said. “If we had just been given the money without these resources, I don’t think we would’ve been as successful at changing course when we had to.”

And this entrepreneurial ecosystem extends beyond the Summer Founders Program, according to Cutler, who says it touches nearly every aspect of his Penn State experience.

“All the work President Barron has put into the Invent Penn State initiative has provided many more resources like the Summer Founders Program and the LaunchBox that are truly dedicated to helping foster new ventures,” Cutler said. “And it’s not only happening outside the classroom but in the classroom, too, with a variety of classes focused on teaching the entrepreneurial mindset.”

Supporting Lifelong Entrepreneurs

For some participants in the program, entrepreneurship has been a lifelong endeavor. Jobe Matula—an adult learner studying marketing through Penn State World Campus—has been a small business owner in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, since his early twenties. But when he had the idea for PawProof™, a pet-proof trash can, Matula knew he needed help taking his idea from concept to reality.

Matula started at the Penn State Altoona LaunchBox, where he received advice from experts on production, fabrication, and turning the PawProof™ startup into a viable business. After perfecting his pitch with help from the Ben Franklin TechCelerator, Matula applied and was accepted into the Summer Founders Program. 

“It started out as just an idea for how to keep my cat from getting into our trash,” Matula said. “Thanks to the Summer Founders Program, I was able to spend my summer focusing on growing that idea into a prototype and a business.”

Jobe Matula sits next to a dog and his pet-proof trash can prototype

From Idea to Reality

As part of the Summer Founders Program, Jobe Matula conducted research on 3D-printed prototypes of his pet-proof trash can. Here, Jobe demonstrates his prototype at Centre County PAWS, an animal shelter in State College. 

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

“It would be impossible for me to take an idea like this and get to where I’m at without the networking, technology, and expertise I’ve found across Penn State.” —Jobe Matula, Summer Founders participant

By using an inverted design that is smaller at the top and wider at the bottom, Matula says his PawProof™ trash can is sturdier than standard products currently on the market.

“In my initial research, I found that there was no 100 percent pet-proof trash can currently available,” Matula said. “Poisoning from household trash is a serious danger to our pets, so I wanted to create a product that would be safe, easy to use, and easy to clean.”

One of Matula’s first steps as part of the program was further researching customer needs and testing his design with a series of 3D-printed, desktop-sized prototypes. From there, he worked with legal resources provided through Penn State Law to apply for a provisional patent application.

“Having guidance from experts like Lee Erickson and access to a huge network of Penn State connections proved invaluable during my experience,” Matula said. “I can’t express enough how helpful it was to have free legal resources like the Intellectual Property Law Clinic and the Entrepreneur Assistance Law Clinic.”

Matula’s journey didn’t end when the program came to a close in August—using the lessons and skills he’s learned, Matula is continuing to advance development on his product, working with both the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory to revise the design and faculty members at Penn State Behrend to create a full-sized 3D-printed prototype.

“What amazes me is how many resources Penn State offers for entrepreneurs in the community,” Matula said. “It would be impossible for me to take an idea like this and get to where I’m at without the networking, technology, and expertise I’ve found across Penn State.”

Applications Open for Summer Founders Program 2019

Invent Penn State is now seeking its next round of Summer Founders Program participants. Applications are open to Penn State students from all campus locations and World Campus and are due by February 15, 2019. For more information on applying to the program as well as a list of frequently asked questions, visit the Invent Penn State website