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Prize-winning PSU research flows from global water shortages

About 70 percent of the earth's surface is water, but clean, fresh, potable water is increasingly scarce. A team of Penn State students is at work on a solution that could address “the global water challenge that faces humankind,” says Abhishek Kar, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering. 
 
Their project recently won the $10,000 grand prize in the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards at Penn State, enabling the team to continue its research with an eye towards commercialization. Their approach is to introduce "micropumps" -- micro-particles that help boost the yield of clean water extracted from sea and wastewater via reverse osmosis, a widely-used technique. 
 
Reverse osmosis systems use a semi-permeable membrane to desalinate seawater and treat wastewater. Common problems with reverse osmosis include fouling and concentration polarization; this reduces the amount of potable water produced. The micropumps act like a chemical Pac Man, swarming to eliminate those problems and increasing the yield. According to Kar, this approach could have major social and economic impacts as well as commercial potential.
 
With the Dow win, the team (graduate students Kar, Rajarshi Guha, Hasin Feroz and Yuxi Meng, with faculty advisors Manish Kumar and Darrell Velegol) is continuing testing and beginning to design an element that could be incorporated into reverse osmosis systems. The grant gives the team the opportunity to continue work "on something we really believe in," says Kar. "Something of a global nature."
 
Source: Abhishek Kar, Penn State
Writer: Elise Vider

Going Electric: Tesla powers up in Pennsylvania

Tesla, maker of super high-end electric cars (base price $70,000), has powered up in Pennsylvania with a new King of Prussia store and a "supercharger" station off the PA turnpike.
 
The charging station at Somerset, which opened a few weeks ago, is part of Tesla's efforts to provide its drivers with a jolt of electricity along well-traveled corridors, enabling them to travel long distances for free. (Teslas can go about 300 miles on a single charge.) According to spokesperson Alexis Georgeson, Tesla chose Somerset to service travel between Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. 
 
With about 65 superchargers nationwide, Tesla is nearing its goal of enabling travel from Boston to Miami and coast to coast. 
 
Tesla's store at the King of Prussia Mall (which opened in June) exemplifies the car maker’s retail concept which is as revolutionary as the automobiles themselves. Think more Apple Store -- Tesla's nextdoor neighbor at the mall -- than Buick dealership.
 
Tesla chooses its retail sites -- 80 so far, with 24 coming soon -- based on foot not automotive traffic. In lieu of a freestanding building on a busy suburban roadway featuring a giant lot, Tesla opts for small (about 3,000 square feet) storefronts packed with interactive touchscreens. The goal, says Georgeson, is to create a no-pressure environment where prospective buyers can hang out, become educated about electric driving and create their own model with the features and functionality they want. 
 
Every Tesla is built to order so there is no need for a vast lot filled with inventory. Tesla maintains a few vehicles in the King of Prussia parking lot for test drives.
 
Tesla sold about 22,000 cars in 2013. Georgeson won’t reveal exact sales data for the King of Prussia store, but says the location is a "testament to the strength of that market."
 
Source: Alexis Georgeson, Tesla Motors
Writer: Elise Vider


PA Life Sciences Connect aims to keep life science talent in Greater Philadelphia

Thanks to a $750,000 state grant, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania (BFTP-SEP) and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) have launched PA Life Sciences Connect, a program to support new business ventures and create jobs in Southeast Pennsylvania's critical life sciences sector.
 
Anthony Green, BFTP-SEP's vice president for technology commercialization, says that as many as 6,000 life science workers in Philadelphia and its suburban counties have lost their jobs since 2006. They include everyone from "highly paid senior managers to lab bench workers to the people who clean animal cages," he says. "These are people you can start a company around."
 
The new program will pinpoint technologies that are ripe for commercialization, then work with technology transfer programs at universities, hospitals, the National Institutes of Health and other sources. Teams of job hunters can apply to tackle the process of forming a company around the technology; established companies can also apply as long as the project would represent an expansion. 
 
The resulting startups can locate within a network of nine incubators in the region where they will receive a suite of services including marketing, business planning and financing strategies. They can also apply for investment dollars from BFTP-SEP. 
 
"This is not a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, but we may be able to prove that this is a model," says Green. The goal of the two-year project is to create five to eight companies, yielding 20 to 30 jobs. "Then we can start to think about other sources of funding and other models to keep these jobs here and to keep the region vibrant."
 
Source: Anthony Green, BFTP-SEP and David Niles, MCEDC
Writer: Elise Vider

Two new natural-gas-fueled power plants underway in PA

With its Liberty generating station under construction on 33 acres in Asylum Township, Panda Power Funds has announced a second plant. The Dallas investment company expects to break ground immediately on 85 acres in Clinton Township for its Patriot plant.
 
Panda says that each project translates to about 500 construction jobs. When the plants go online in 2016, each will create about 27 skilled jobs (to operate the facilities) and an additional 45 indirect jobs in the respective communities. 
 
Each plant is being "specifically developed to take a advantage of its proximity to the Marcellus Shale," says Panda. Each will power up to one million homes and be cooled with air, rather than water, protecting the Susquehanna watershed by neither drawing nor discharging water into the river. The Liberty plant also incorporates special blade designs, low-output motors and building enclosures to minimize sound.
 
Panda acquired the planned Liberty plant in August from Moxie Energy, a Virginia-based power plant developer. In December, it announced its second acquisition from Moxie, this time for the Patriot plant.
 
Source: Panda Power Funds
Writer: Elise Vider

Glen Mills' Unequal Technologies provides secret ingredient for Sochi Olympics

Barreling around Sochi in the upcoming Winter Olympics, snowboarders Arielle and Taylor Gold, Torah Bright and Benji Farrow, and the entire U.S. Bobsled team will carry hidden, high-tech protection produced by Glen Mills' Unequal Technologies. The snowboarders’ helmets and the bobsleds will be lined with Unequal's military-grade composite padding -- an Esquire.com blogger recently named it the number one tech innovation of 2013.

Founded in 2008 by CEO Rob Vito, Unequal started out by producing a lighter, thinner and more flexible bulletproof vest for the military, which remains a key market. In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles approached Vito, requesting sternum protection for an injured Michael Vick. Vick went on to get hit five times and score 59 points against the Washington Redskins -- he publicly credited the product. 
 
Since then, Unequal has provided protective padding to NFL players, the Boston Bruins and tennis player Alex Bogomolov; they are currently finalizing a deal with Major League Baseball to outfit players in time for spring training. Sports -- professional, amateur and scholastic – now account for about half of Unequal’s sales.
 
The company's newest product is Unequal SOLO, supplemental head padding engineered specifically for athletes wearing helmets in snow, ski, board and other action sports.

"Athletes competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi … or those at the Summer X Games push limits with every run, race or trick," says Vito. "Being able to progress in a sport is about going bigger, being faster and doing more."  Still, he warns, "a helmet can only do so much."

To drive home that message, Unequal recently launched the Play it Safe program, emphasizing training, technique and technology.

Unequal employs 30 people at its 65,000-square-foot Glen Mills facility.
 
Source: Rob Vito, Unequal Technologies
Writer: Elise Vider

Green Spirit Farms, a vertical indoor farming operation, comes to East Benton

On a recent frigid day near Scranton the wind chill was well below zero, but inside a newly repurposed industrial building in East Benton, peppers, tomatoes, kale and a variety of lettuces were happily growing at Green Spirit Farms, a new sustainable, vertical farm.
 
Green Spirit, based in Michigan, is building up indoor farming operations at the former Owens-Corning fiber optic plant, vacant for over a decade. At full capacity, possibly by year’s end, the facility will house 1,715 vertical growing stations -- the equivalent of 200 acres of farmland, growing seven million plants (herbs, vegetables, fruit ) -- that can be harvested year-round, creating about 100 new jobs.
 
Green Spirit President Milan Kluko, an engineer, founded the company in 2011 after developing a scalable and commercially viable approach to vertical farming. Accoring to Kluko, his method uses 98 percent less water, 96 percent less land and 40 percent less energy than conventional agriculture. The system employs full-spectrum induction lights, carefully calibrated to create a microenvironment for growing produce on multi-level industrial racks. The lights create enough heat for the growing plants without wasting energy to heat the entire building.
 
Kluko says that the Pennsylvania location appealed to Green Spirit because of its proximity to large local markets. (Most of the produce will be sold within about 75 miles of the farm.)

"Our mission is to provide local communities with high-quality, fresh, pesticide-free, non-GMO and sustainably grown produce at a fair price," he explains. "When we build our indoor vertical farms, we believe they are sustainable and healthy places to grow plants and a workforce."
 
Working with the Governor’s Action Team, Green Spirit received a $300,000 Pennsylvania First Program grant, $303,000 in Job Creation Tax Credits and a $45,450 grant to train its new workforce.
 
Source: Milan Kluko, Green Spirit Farms
Writer: Elise Vider

Made in Allentown: Three manufacturing startups join Bridgeworks incubator

Manufacturing in Allentown just got a boost, with three startups set to join the Allentown Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) Bridgeworks Enterprise Center incubator. 
 
"These three diverse ventures have very promising business plans and represent the next generation of manufacturing for Allentown and the Lehigh Valley," says AEDC Executive Director Scott Unger.
 
Gonzo Pockets manufactures specialized mesh for lacrosse stick heads using a proprietary rubberized coating. Brothers Lou and Desi Gonzalez, both successful collegiate lacrosse players, founded the company after being frustrated by existing products. After teaming up with entrepreneur Tom Schmitt, they finalized a Gonzo Mesh prototype and distributed it in more than 100 specialty lacrosse stores across the U.S. and Canada in just nine months. 
 
HiJinx Brewing Company, currently based in South Whitehall Township, was started in a garage by Curt Keck and Chris Becker. Their nanobrewery already supplies beer to more than a dozen Lehigh Valley bars and restaurants and, after only a year, HiJinx is unable to keep up with demand. A new 10-barrel brewing system will be purchased and installed at Bridgeworks, fulfilling the founders’ lifelong dreams of owning their own production brewery.
 
Zzyzx Polymers (pronounced ziz-icks) has secured exclusive rights to nearly 20 patents revolving around new technology to create plastic compounds. The founders have applied for funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania to further develop their revolutionary processes. The company hopes to commercialize its novel mixing technology to create plastics with unique properties. The company also hopes to disrupt the recycling industry by reusing plastics that are currently sent to landfills by other waste management companies.
 
AEDC's Anthony Durante says Bridgeworks' goal is to help the manufacturers grow, "and then launch them back into the Lehigh Valley over a span of four to seven years so that we can do it again with another batch of startups." Founded in a refurbished Mack Trucks plant in 1989, the business incubator has helped launch 44 companies in Allentown that have created more than 285 jobs. Bridgeworks Enterprise Center is a member of the Ben Franklin Business Incubator Network, led by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
 
Source: Anthony Durante, AEDC
Writer: Elise Vider

With new venture capital, Pittsburgh's Aethon grows its market for healthcare logistics

It’s a happy new year for Aethon, maker of the TUG, a mobile robot that transports and delivers supplies in hospitals. The Pittsburgh company reports that it grew its customer base for TUG in 2013 with 21 new sites. It just announced a new $3 million investment from Mitsui USA, augmenting an initial $4 million investment in 2012. And late last year, Aethon unveiled a new product, MedEx Tube Track, a patent-pending system that secures and tracks deliveries sent through the pneumatic tube systems used to deliver medications in hospitals. 
 
Introduced to the commercial market 10 years ago, TUG is Aethon’s core product. Today, over 400 of the chest-high robots prowl hospital corridors, making 50,000 deliveries per week, transporting medications, meals, linens, equipment and other supplies. Altogether, TUGs have traveled over one million miles, monitored 24/7 by Aethon’s command center in Pittsburgh. 
 
"Robots are becoming more common in the workplace," says CEO Aldo Zini. "With healthcare organizations required to serve an increasingly aging population, yet respond to the pressure on costs, they need to do more with their current staff. This means each person must spend more time doing the highest-value aspects of their job.”
 
And that, he adds, means more time on clinical duties, less on logistical tasks. Zini cites a recent Harvard Business School study of nursing workflow indicating that nearly half of operational breakdowns are a result of supply problems and inefficient processes.
 
Aethon will use its new capital for expanded sales and marketing, and to move into international markets.

"Mitsui USA’s add-on investment is a sign of their confidence in the worldwide interest for Aethon’s solutions in healthcare logistics and the potential for applications outside of healthcare," says Zini. "We have an opportunity to grow the company rapidly, and this additional investment provides the resources necessary to accelerate our growth.”
 
Source: Tony Melanson, Aethon
Writer: Elise Vider

Contest offers $100K for shale innovation

The Ben Franklin Shale Gas Innovation and Commercialization Center is looking for the four best shale gas-oriented innovations, new product ideas or service concepts. The 2014 Shale Gas Innovation Competition is offering cash awards totaling $100,000, along with exposure to investors, potential partners and industry sponsors. The contest is open to researchers, entrepreneurs or small company innovators in Pennsylvania or West Virginia, or those willing to locate to either state.
 
"We are constantly amazed at the creativity we see from entrepreneurs who want to provide products or services," says Bill Hall, SGICC director. "What’s great about this competition is that a simple online summary is all that’s required to get started. Basically any idea related to the shale energy space is eligible -- even if it has already been commercially developed. In the past, we’ve seen applications related to natural gas utilization products/services, remote site monitoring, well-pad EH&S products or services, natural gas or NGL conversion technologies, and water management or remediation technologies.”
 
The deadline for applications is February 1. Finalists will be chosen by a panel of industry experts at an event in May 2014. 
 
Traditionally a Pennsylvania-focused event, the contest has been expanded to include West Virginia through a grant from the Benedum Foundation. This year the competition is co-sponsored by Ben Franklin Technology Partners and a wide range of partners. 
 
Source: Ben Franklin Shale Gas Innovation and Commercialization Center 
Writer: Elise Vider
 

New Hope's MeetMe is the third fastest growing tech firm in North America

With five-year revenue growth north of 83,000 percent -- you read it right -- MeetMe, the New Hope-based social media network, is the third-fastest growing tech firm in North America. That's according to the Deloitte Technology Fast 500 rankings released late last year. 
 
From 2008 to 2012, MeetMe grew exponentially. It is the highest-ranked Internet firm on the list. (Number one, California’s Rocket Fuel, with almost 209,000 percent growth, and number two, Acquia in Massachusetts with 84,171 percent percent growth, are both software companies.)
 
As Keystone Edge readers know, Geoff Cook founded MeetMe in 2005 with his two younger siblings as a virtual yearbook for their New Jersey high school. 
 
So, what accounts for its phenomenal success?

"Product innovation has really always been the secret to MeetMe's tremendous growth," says Cook. "We've seen step-function increases in our daily users when we launch new, fun products to our members. Our phenomenal team works diligently to get these new features out quickly to the MeetMe audience. In addition to our great team and product innovation, we've also been making great strides in monetizing our mobile users. We are excited to enter 2014 with a robust product pipeline and a big improvement to the core MeetMe app."
 
Other Commonwealth companies made the list, too, including Preferred Sands, a clean-tech firm in Radnor (number 94 with 1,820 percent growth); CenTrak, a healthcare tech firm in Newtown (number 129 with 1,042 percent growth); and PhotoMedex, a maker of medical devices in Montgomeryville (number 143 with 925 percent growth). 
 
The Technology Fast 500™ is an annual ranking of the fastest growing technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and clean technology companies in North America. 
 
Source: Deloitte and Geoff Cook, MeetMe
Writer: Elise Vider

Lucky 13: Tech firms win new investments from BFTP/CNP

Thirteen technology companies in central and northern Pennsylvania, working on everything from sleep apnea to social media to water purification systems, received more than $1 million in new investments last month from Ben Franklin Technology Partners/CNP
 
American Built Arms Company, LLC, is a veteran-owned manufacturer of parts and accessories for the civilian and military firearms market. 
 
Atoptix, LLC, is developing a patented optical technology sensor, developed at Penn State University, which allows for miniaturization in spectroscopy. The technology replaces bench-top lab equipment with a hand-held device. 
 
Better Bowls, LLC, creates and markets nutritional food and beverage products that meet the needs of household members who suffer from nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity and allergies. 
 
Biomagnetic Solutions, LLC, is developing next-generation bio-active ferrofluids that aid in the diagnosis of cancer and cardiology issues. 
 
ECKey Corporation manufactures Smartphone Access Control and Visitor Management Systems, which effectively turn a Bluetooth-enabled phone into a key.  
 
EOS Zoo, Inc. is a unique network of video-sharing websites based on specific interests and activities that allow users to share content in a "social" environment. 
 
Halare, Inc. offers potential customers a non-invasive treatment that alleviates the symptoms of chronic pulmonary problems such as sleep apnea. 
 
Impulse Technology, LLC, provides its customers with nano-scale, thin-film specimen preparation for any material in any size at an affordable price.
 
International Water Company, LLC, designs and manufactures independently-operated Mobile Water Purification Systems for use in remote areas in need of clean, potable water.
 
Lasers for Innovative Solutions (L4IS) is commercializing a materials inspection and 3-D visualization system, developed at Penn State University, capable of analyzing the internal structure of physical objects and then digitally reconstructing them in three dimensions. 
 
The Porterfield Group, LLC, is a digital media company that offers a proprietary service for the development of customer-produced and -owned content. 
 
Simulation Systems, Inc. developed a surgical simulator that allows doctors to be trained on micro-surgical techniques without the use of lab animals. 
 
Surge Business Development has created LiveIt, a site that uses an innovative social commerce platform to engage students, parents and participating retailers in a meaningful “gifting” experience. 
 
Source: BFTP/CNP
Writer: Elise Vider

State College's ConidioTec has developed a safe (and effective) way to eradicate bedbugs

ConidioTec, a brand-new company spun off from Penn State research, has developed a non-toxic, environmentally friendly bio-pesticide that promises to safely and instantly eradicate bedbugs.
 
Dr. Nina Jenkins, a Penn State researcher, and Giovani Bellicanta have had great success in lab trials and are gearing up to manufacture their product, which uses Beauveria bassiana, a type of fungi, to kill and prevent bedbugs, a scourge of the hospitality industry (and anyone who has ever been unfortunate enough to find themselves infested).
 
ConidioTec’s bio-pesticide can be sprayed invisibly in narrow bands on mattresses where, Jenkins explains, it "sticks to the insect just as wet sand sticks to a foot." And just as sand gets all over the kitchen floor when you walk across with sandy feet, the fungi gets carried back to the tiny cracks and crevices that harbor bedbugs. The treatment lasts up to five months in typical indoor conditions.

"It persists," she adds, "and can target the bedbugs in their crevices and will effect total control over a period of time."
 
Jenkins and Bellicanta won $10,000 last month at the Ben Franklin TechCelerator Boot Camp, which will be useful as the company continues testing, works on obtaining necessary environmental approvals and negotiates licensure with Penn State. 
 
By this time next year, Jenkins expects ConidioTec to be in production at a plant near State College, formulating, packaging, distributing and selling to the professional pest control market. She envisions that as many as seven jobs will be created.
 
Source: Nina Jenkins, ConidioTec
Writer: Elise Vider

In the realm of the senses, East Stroudsburg’s Vigon International leads in flavors and fragrances

You may not have heard of it, but chances are you’ve smelled or tasted it. Vigon International in East Stroudsburg is a leading manufacturer of the flavors and fragrances that go into everything from condiments to cosmetics, Pepsi to perfume.
 
The family-owned company makes and distributes over 1,800 items including flavor ingredients, fragrance ingredients, essential oils, synthetic ingredients, natural ingredients, aroma chemicals, oleoresins, botanical extracts, natural aroma chemicals and synthetic aroma chemicals. 
 
When President Steve Somers acquired the company in 1998, ten years after its establishment, it had 10 employees and about $6 million in sales. Today the company has a workforce of 70 – up from not quite 60 a year ago – $85 million in sales and exports to 50 countries. Through a network of partnerships, Vigon also manages sales, marketing, distribution or other U.S. operations for some of the world’s largest flavor and fragrance makers.
 
In a flat market (Somers says demand increases only one or two percent a year), Vigon has based its growth on capturing an increasing market share. And that, he attributes to an efficient, empowered and happy workforce. Somers is deeply committed to establishing a positive workplace culture; “it’s common sense,” he says.
 
Vigon has been recognized twice as a Best Place to Work in Pennsylvania. The company was also a 2013 recipient of the Governor’s ImPAct Award  for small business impact.
 
Looking ahead, Vigon is working on new manufacturing processes to boost its capacity for natural ingredients, a growing market segment.
 
Source: Steve Somers, Vigon International
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Drexel, UC Science Center and DreamIt Ventures opening a new Innovation Hub

Drexel University,  the University City Science Center  and DreamIt Ventures, on a joint mission to support innovators and entrepreneurs in the Philadelphia region, will launch a new innovation hub in April.

“The Hub is available to companies in a variety of sectors, although its location makes it ideal for technology, digital media, or health IT companies. The goal is to accommodate a community of companies that value a collaborative environment and wish to interact with each other, with startups at the Science Center and with faculty and students at Drexel University, as well as other universities and research organizations in the region,” says Kristen Fitch, a Science Center spokeswoman.

The 17,500-square-foot facility on the second and third floors of the Science Center building at 3401 Market Street will include a suite of flexible workspaces designed to foster collaboration throughout the entrepreneurial ecosystem. It will also house the world headquarters for DreamIt Ventures, a global business accelerator.

The space will be able to accommodate about 100 and flexible enough to host a larger company of up to 25 people or many smaller enterprises in individual offices and a co-working environment, Fitch says.

Drexel is also making a $3 million investment in DreamIt to invest in startups. "DreamIt Fund II and our new headquarters in Philadelphia further position the region as a technology startup hub,” said David Bookspan, founder of DreamIt Ventures. "This exciting partnership between three world-class organizations is an important step in bringing additional capital to Philadelphia to support our growing startup community.” 

Application materials are being developed, but expressions of interest can be sent to claing@sciencecenter.org.

Source: Kristen Fitch, University City Science Center
Writer: Elise Vider

Pittsburgh’s GiftCards.com is growing by spreading cheer

For Jason Wolfe, it’s all about gifting. He recalls a Christmas in 1977 when his family, on welfare and with no heat, heard a knock at the door and found a box of gifts left by strangers. Soon after, Wolfe starting attending the Milton Hershey School, founded in 1909 for orphaned boys. “As I’ve been given gifts, I want to gift back,” he says.
 
Today, as CEO and founder of Pittsburgh’s GiftCards.com, Wolfe has sold 5.5 million gift cards. This is the busiest time of year, and Wolfe reckons GiftCards.com will finish 2013 with 1.5 million in sales; 2012 closed with one million cards sold.
 
Wolfe founded his company in 1999 and through a circuitous route, launched GiftCards.com in its present form in 2008. “An online rack for gift cards,” GiftCards.com offers Visa, MasterCard and Discover gift cards, national and local brands. Buyers can upload photos, add personalized messages and choose from thousands of designs to craft unique gift cards. The consumer pays $3.95 for the gift card and a greeting card; the merchants pay a back end percentage.
 
GiftCards.com does it own printing and manufacturing, operates offices and a fulfillment center and employs about 100 in Pittsburgh. 
 
Looking to 2014, the company is in the final stages of an acquisition that will likely add up to 20 more employees, in Pittsburgh and out-of-state. (Earlier this year, GiftCards.com acquired San Francisco-based mobile gift app, Giftly.)
 
Through GiftYa, a spinoff company, Wolfe is developing a digital, mobile gift card app. And GiftCards.com is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University on fraud prevention and on developing online bidding auctions for unwanted gift cards.
 
But Wolfe’s primary New Year’s resolution is to continue to build gift card offerings.  “We want to be to gift cards what hotels.com is to hotels or cars.com to cars,” he says. “We want [our customers] to find gift cards for any merchant, anywhere.”

Source: Jason Wolfe, GiftCards.com
Writer: Elise Vider
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