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One Big City: Funds to Help 'Blow Up' Entrepreneurship Across Lehigh Valley

Lehigh University professor Pat Costa (center) interacts with students during final presentations

Students in Lehigh Universityís undergraduate Entrepreneurship 101 course present their final projects.

Costa addresses students during the universityís undergraduate Entrepreneurship 101 course.

Lehigh University senior Amy Mazius works on fashion scarfs designed by her and Randi Tutelman í12, founders of the company Eleanor Kalle

Joan Stanescu (left) and Katelyn Noderer (right), students in Lehigh Universityís technical entrepreneurship masterís degree program, work on a soldering assignment during the programís electronics unit.

Lehigh University student Adrian Velasquez (right) works on a building exercise in a course for the universityís masterís in technical entrepreneurship degree program.

Lehigh University graduate student Bryan Postelnek presents on a prototype idea

Jason Rappaport, a 2012 Lehigh University graduate, presents on his company, GoodSemester (now SquareKnot), an online course platform.

In the past several years the Lehigh Valley has produced numerous resources to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Last fall a new facility for tech startups opened in downtown Bethlehem. A new coworking space has moved into Allentown. And earlier this month, the region hosted the inaugural Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend.

Now a federal grant will give new businesses an extra boost.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $275,000 grant to launch the Lehigh Urban Entrepreneurship Collaborative, a two-year initiative to provide local jobs for talented workers and help business owners attain success. Todd A. Watkins, executive director of the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship at Lehigh University, says the collaborative will focus on developing startups in business incubators and on entrepreneurship in general in the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.

He noted the success of the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone, which is located in a distressed part of the city. This neighborhood is also home to companies in sectors such as alternative energy, medical devices and online video.

"Can we blow that up to all the urban areas in the Lehigh Valley?" Watkins asks. "We consider it one big city."

Other organizations taking part in the collaborative include:

Students from nine colleges in the region will play major roles in the collaborative. Part of the grant will fund the expansion of an internship program that is currently run by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC). 

As part of the internship program that started in January, the corporation matched 10 students with local companies. The interns were paid up to $2,500 to work on special projects such as building a computerized database and marketing a new product.

"A lot of those interns have been offered full-time jobs," notes Steve Melnick, VP of entrepreneurial development for LVEDC.

The federal grant will fund an expanded program that will pay 15 interns who will be placed at companies in the Lehigh Valley. Melnick says he plans to start marketing it in January. Companies will be matched with interns based on their needs.

"That way the intern gets experience in the area they're studying," he says. Internships will be of varying lengths, depending on the projects.

Also in January, Watkins says multidisciplinary teams will be assembled to develop new products for companies that want to introduce their new ideas into the marketplace. Small businesses and startup companies that participate in the program will receive assistance with building prototypes and marketing plans for their new products.

Another way to launch new companies is to find cutting-edge technology being developed in university laboratories and turn it into for-profit ventures. That's why another piece of the collaborative will focus on finding lab research that has potential to succeed in the marketplace. Lehigh graduate students, employed by the university's Office of Technology Transfer, will be put to work combing through innovations being developed in campus labs and spotting those that have the potential to be commercialized. Watkins refers to these students as ferrets, since they'll be "seeking gems underground."

He says those behind the collaborative want to give Lehigh Valley college students valuable real-world experience while providing entrepreneurs with the resources they need to succeed. Then more young people might stay in the region after they graduate and perhaps launch companies of their own.

"Hopefully, they'll be more likely to stay in the urban areas," Watkins says.
REBECCA VANDERMEULEN is a freelance writer who lives near Downingtown. As she tells friends out of state, that's between the cheesesteaks and the Amish. Send feedback here.
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