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Willow Grove's TextGen enables customer-to-business messaging

Customer service line hell -- the endless series of prompts, the interminable wait to find and talk to a real person -- could become a thing of the past thanks to TextGen, a Willow Grove startup.
 
TextGen has developed a cloud-based application that text-enables business landlines, allowing companies to respond in real time to customer inquiries, and then store and evaluate the interactions in order to measure and improve customer service. Using just their phones, consumers can ask a question, check their bank balances, register a new product purchase, request a user manual or order a pizza, even without Wi-Fi access. 
 
"The practical, real-world applications are just immeasurable," says Gary Pudles who co-founded the company last year with Thomas Howe and Noah Rafalko. "Anything you can do by voice, you can do by text."
 
With the ubiquity of text messaging and the advent of text-enabled toll-free numbers, Pudles says the growth potential for TextGen is enormous. 
 
Pudles is a serial entrepreneur -- he's lost track of exactly how many startups he's been involved with -- and CEO of AnswerNet, a large provider of call center services. The idea for TextGen came from an AnswerNet customer inquiry at a time when the three co-founders were looking for a business opportunity. Splentastic, a company co-owned by Pudles and Howe, developed the technology.
 
TextGen, which currently employs two, is actively fundraising and recently got a boost as a winner of the 4th annual Innovation Showcase competition sponsored by Enterprise Connect
 
Source: Gary Pudles, TextGen
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Latest Pittsburgh scorecard tallies 302 deals worth of investment and job growth

Between new facilities, company expansions, attraction and retention of companies and startups, there were 302 economic development deals in the Pittsburgh region in 2013; that's a 12 percent increase. 
 
In its annual scorecard, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA) reported that regional economic development deals totaled $2.4 billion in capital investment. PRA projected that 2013 activity will retain 1,669 jobs and create 6,983 new ones as announced deals come to fruition.
 
Financial and business services continued to be the backbone of the regional economy, but the big news was the growth in the region’s information and communications sector, which assumed second place for number of deals, growing from 33 in 2012 to 51 in 2013, its biggest spike since 2008. 
 
Jim Futrell, PRA’s vice president of market research, predicts continued growth in the IT sector. "Considering the presence of Carnegie Mellon and the 2,000 IT graduates coming from the region’s colleges and universities each year, the region is well positioned to become a major technology hub in the foreseeable future," he says.
 
The region also remains true to its industrial roots, with advanced manufacturing the most active sector for deals in 2013.

"The Pittsburgh region still makes things: specialty metals, medical devices, robots and turbines, to name a few," says PRA President Dewitt Peart. "We’re a manufacturer to the world, capitalizing on technology to make processes precise, sophisticated and efficient."
 
"While employment growth seems to have plateaued, the outlook for the region is still sound," adds Futrell. "We should continue to experience growth in critical sectors like financial and business services, and energy.  And manufacturing -- which has fueled our economy for some 200 years -- has been a very active sector in terms of business investment deals and activity.  
 
"What is critical for the region’s future is making sure that individuals entering the workforce have the skills needed to fill the 20,000-plus jobs open in the region right now," he continues. "More than half of these currently open jobs require tech skills, and that requisite won’t be changing any time soon. Tech is driving a 'new workforce order' in the Pittsburgh region. The demand for tech-savvy employees -- across all industries -- is only going to increase."
 
Source: Jim Futrell, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance
Writer: Elise Vider 
 
 
 

BFTP/SEP continues flurry of investment in Greater Philadelphia

With $8.1 million invested in 43 companies in 2013, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania (BFTP/SEP) ranked as the second most active investor in Greater Philadelphia, according to a new report by PwC MoneyTree
 
"Clearly this ranking and the diversity of our investments this past year demonstrate the sustained, vital role of Ben Franklin in catalyzing our innovative talent to solve business and societal challenges and open new markets that create good jobs and drive new growth," says RoseAnn B. Rosenthal, BFTP/SEP’s president and CEO.
 
BFTP/SEP also came in as the fifth most active investor in the nation during the fourth quarter.
 
BFTP/SEP says the information technology sector comprised 44 percent of its 2013 deals, while life sciences and physical sciences/energy captured 30 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
 
Investments included AboutOne, Community Energy, EyeIC, FLOWatchiMomentous, LuxTech, QLIDA Diagnostics, QR Pharma, Rumble News, RxSport Corporation, Solar Grid StoragetapCLIQZaahah  and ZSX Medical
 
Also in 2013, Ben Franklin companies attracted over $160 million in follow-on financing while several others went public or were acquired. These include Altosoft (acquired for $13.5 million), Aprecia Pharmaceuticals (raised $14.9 million), BioConnect Systems (raised $9.1 million), Ceptaris (acquired for $250 million), Clutch (raised $5.3 million), Coldlight Solutions (raised $10 million), InstaMed (raised $3.5 Million), Monetate (raised more than $20 million), NuPathe (acquired for $144 million) and Onconova Therapeutics (IPO totaled $79.6 million). 
 
Since 2001, BFTP/SEP has committed $70 million to over 495 early stage companies and leveraged $1.4 billion in follow-on investment. Its client companies created or retained over 3900 high-tech jobs.
 
 
Source: RoseAnn Rosenthal, BFTP/SEP
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Lewisburg's Brighton Training Group provides food and nutrition e-learning for teachers

The scourge of childhood obesity is well documented. But in order to teach children about nutrition and healthy eating, someone has to teach the teachers. Lewisburg's Brighton Training Group, an online training development company focused on providing e-learning solutions for K-12 school food and nutrition programs, is doing just that.
 
Launched last year by Mike Matukaitis and Eric Hunt, Brighton offers ready-to-use USDA-compliant training videos that can be customized to an organization's specific needs. They also provide automated tools to deploy, track and follow-up on training. Brighton's cloud-based web app, Brighton KB, is designed to present common questions or problems, and provide a solution.
 
What makes Brighton unique, says Matukaitis, is that it uses open source material. But just because it’s free doesn’t make it easy to use, so Brighton helps set it up, customize it, host it, support it and back it up, providing "all the technology behind it to make it run and make it look pretty."
 
The company is working on a big project with the Delaware Department of Education and other partners on food and nutrition training for early-childhood educators and food handlers.
 
Matukaitis and Hunt worked together at Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit and both have extensive e-learning and training experience. Their network and experience led them to the food and nutrition sector, but Matukaitis says the company is open to other education clients who have content, but don’t know how to deliver it online. And they are working on other online tools for in-person training. 
 
For now, the company is based out of the Bucknell University Entrepreneurs Incubator; Brighton expects to hire its first sale representative in July.
 
Source: Mike Matukaitis, Brighton Training Group
Writer: Elise Vider
 

From the heart: Pittsburgh's PECA Labs develops valve to treat rate pediatric cardiac defect

2012 Carnegie Mellon graduate Doug Bernstein speaks from the heart when discussing Pittsburgh's PECA Labs -- Bernstein was born with a congenital heart defect and required delicate surgery at birth.
 
Then, in his sophomore year of college, he landed a job as a research assistant, working with Dr. Masahiro Yoshida, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Yoshida was developing a valve for implantation in children who need reconstruction of the right ventricular outflow tract, a rare heart defect. The invention achieved clinical results far surpassing the prevailing treatment (which uses a biologic valve from a cow, pig or human). Made instead from a flexible Teflon material, the new valve is better tolerated and, importantly, minimizes the number of surgeries -- typically three or four -- required as the child grows.
 
The success of the device raised questions for Bernstein.

"If this is so much better, why is it available only in Pittsburgh?" he asks. "Why not make it available to kids all around the world? That’s what got me falling down the rabbit hole of entrepreneurism.”
 
Today, PECA Labs has produced a manufactured version of its Masa Valve, named for Yoshida, and will do its final testing over the course of the year. Bernstein anticipates a 2015 market launch. 
 
PECA has raised $840,000 from sources including Innovation Works and Carnegie Mellon's Open Field Entrepreneurs Fund. Commercialization will cost about $2 million, many times less than the typical medical device, and the process will be expedited in large part due to the device falling under the FDA's Humanitarian Device Exemption.
 
The potential market is small: only about 3,200 patients a year and about 100 pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons in the country. Now PECA has received a grant from the Atlantic Pediatric Device Consortium for R&D on a similar device to treat "the Norwood Procedure," another pediatric procedure with a high mortality rate. 
 
For now, PECA has three on staff, but Bernstein expects that with market launch, sales and marketing positions will bring the staff to 10.
 
Source: Doug Bernstein, PECA Labs
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Non-profit pursues research and drug development while offering services to the scientific community

A rarity in the biosciences, The Pennsylvania Drug Discovery Institute (PDDI) is a non-profit with the dual mission of conducting research in early drug discovery and functioning as a think tank and service provider to the scientific community on issues such as workplace reentry and mentoring entrepreneurs.
 
Allen Reitz and Kathleen Czupich founded PDDI in 2010 at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center in Doylestown, where its non-research functions remain. More recently, PDDI established a formal research presence at the University City Science Center's Port Business Incubator in West Philadelphia. Doron Greenbaum, PDDI's new director of research operations and a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school, is studying treatments for neglected and orphan diseases such as malaria and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
 
PDDI's non-profit status "gives us more leeway to focus on basic and translational science," says Greenbaum. His focus on those orphan diseases, with their small market potential, is a case in point. PDDI itself is not set up to take a new drug all the way to clinical trial, but as research progresses they might partner with an organization such as the Gates Foundation or the Stanford Research Institute and could eventually license for-profit spin-offs. 
 
There are only a handful of organizations structured like PDDI, says Greenbaum. The well-established Stanford institute, which has brought a number of therapeutics to market over many years, is one model. 
 
PDDI's non-research activities include helping displaced biomedical researchers re-enter the workforce, promoting entrepreneurship and serving as a think tank to brainstorm ways to gain efficiencies and productivity in early drug discovery research. The organization also publishes a journal called Technology Transfer and Entrepreneurship.
 
"As a 501(c)(3), we can do these sorts of things," says Greenbaum. "A for-profit would never since they have to focus on the bottom line."
 
Source: Doron Greenbaum, PDDI
Writer: Elise Vider
 

DreamIt Health seeks applications for its sophomore class of startups

DreamIt Health Philadelphia, the region's first healthcare accelerator, is accepting applications for its sophomore class.
 
They will accept applications through May 16 from startups worldwide in the healthcare sector, and expect to select up to 10 companies by June 16, based on the strength of the teams, market potential and traction to date. During the four-month bootcamp (starting July 18), the teams will work at DreamIt Ventures' headquarters in West Philadelphia.
 
Each participating team will receive a stipend of $50,000, in-depth coaching from successful entrepreneurs, and access to other critical healthcare-specific resources to rapidly develop and test its product, validate its business model, and launch the product. The program will culminate in a "Demo Day" -- participating companies will present their progress and future plans to an audience of leading investors and industry figures.
 
Last year's inaugural class brought six promising healthcare startups from across the country to Philadelphia to work alongside four Philadelphia-born companies on a wide range of significant healthcare problems, including hospital readmissions, cost transparency, healthcare payments, clinical communications, and mobile diagnostics. All ten companies, eight of which are still in the region, are continuing to achieve key business milestones.
 
"Many of healthcare's most challenging problems are at the intersection between the doctor or hospital and the health insurer," says Elliot Menschik, DreamIt Venture's managing partner for healthcare. "Startups don’t typically have early access to the customers and users they need to fully grasp the problems, craft meaningful solutions and then rapidly implement and test them in real-world environments. What makes DreamIt Health unlike any other accelerator is the depth and intensity of collaboration among the DreamIt teams and our strategic partners to more rapidly develop and deliver enterprise-grade products that create real value for customers and the foundation for scalable businesses."

As reported last week in Keystone Edge, Independence Blue Cross, a partner in the accelerator along with Penn Medicine, will invest up to $50 million in health related venture funds and early stage companies in the coming years. 
 
Source: DreamIt Ventures
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Allentown's Gonzo Pockets offers modern material for an ancient sport

Lacrosse, an ancient game, is getting a high-tech boost from a specialized material developed by a pair of LAX-playing brothers in Allentown, Pa. The sport is a fast-growing phenomenon with ancient origins, tracing back to Native American culture; some accounts date it back as far as 1100 AD. 
 
Lou and Desi Gonzalez founded Gonzo Pockets in 2013. Their Gonzo Mesh, which makes it easier to string lacrosse sticks and overcome the inconsistencies created by weather, is sold at more than 100 specialty shops across the United States and Canada. 
 
"We collected a lot of feedback from people," says Lou. "Changes in the weather, such as what happens when the mesh is wet, what happens when the weather is really hot and dry, affect the accuracy of the player's throws. We invented a product that takes away all of that. It gives you the consistency you want regardless of conditions."
 
The Gonzalez brothers were high school and collegiate lacrosse stars and Lou represented Spain in the World Games in 2006. Lou founded the Lehigh Valley Skyhawks Academy where the brothers provide coaching, training and development for youth lacrosse.  
 
Gonzo Pockets is a tenant at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center (the incubator was recently profiled in Keystone Edge). The young company has already generated $150,000 in revenue over an eight-month period. Gonzo partner Tom Schmitt estimates that they should reach the $400,000-to-$450,000 range over the next year or so, based on demand and current performance.
 
"We expect to be able to help Gonzo Pockets think through the process of adding additional products to their offerings over the next few years that will help them continue along a strong growth path," says Anthony Durante, economic development specialist for the Allentown Economic Development Corporation.
 
Source: Anthony Durante, AEDC
Writer: Elise Vider
 

IBC Center for Health Care Innovation hopes to turn SE PA into Silicon Valley of health care

With the aim of transforming southeastern Pennsylvania into the "Silicon Valley of health care innovation," Independence Blue Cross (IBC) has opened a new center it hopes will be a national magnet for industry-leading innovations.
 
Terry Booker, IBC's vice president for corporate development and innovation, says that this is a new area -- but a logical fit -- for insurers.

"We process claims," he says. "And we get to think about the ways that health care can be provided more efficiently and provide better outcomes, resulting in lower premium payments by our members."
 
As part of the new initiative, IBC announced that it will invest up to $50 million in health-related venture funds and early stage companies to promote innovation through new technologies, products and services. Booker says that about half of the capital will be provided through private equity funds and other professional investors. The other half will be in the form of direct investments in early-stage companies that do business with IBC, preferably in southeastern Pennsylvania. IBC, he emphasizes, would not be the lead investor but would provide support for promising technologies or approaches.
 
The center will also serve as IBC's point-of-contact to DreamIt Health Philadelphia. The accelerator, housed at Drexel University, began accepting applications for its 2014 cohort this month. The center will also continue to support research underway with New York University and the NYU Langone Medical Center to better detect undiagnosed diabetes, and studies with Penn Medicine that include using mobile technology to improve medication adherence, understanding the impact of genome testing to improve cancer treatment and outcomes, and evaluating care delivery to improve outcomes for stroke patients. The center will also host a new regional task force for health care innovation, a working group of the CEO Council for Growth.
 
The 5,000-square-foot center at IBC's Center City Philadelphia headquarters is designed to promote collaboration and innovation.

"It’s a departure from the typical corporate environment," says Booker. 
 
Source: Terry Booker, IBC
Writer: Elise Vider
 

State offers boost to shale-gas-related innovations and technologies

Good news for emerging shale-gas-related technologies that need a boost to get to commercialization: A new state project will offer grants to Pennsylvania-based small companies to support testing and market launch of innovative technologies. 
 
Bill Hall, director of Ben Franklin's Shale Gas Innovation and Commercialization Center, says the funds are aimed at companies that are past the proof-of-concept phase and ready to demonstrate market acceptance. The Center received a $750,000 Discovered in PA-Developed in PA grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development to support the one-year project, which also includes preparation of white papers on ways to further grow the shale gas industry. 
 
"The thing that makes this incredibly important is that in Pennsylvania, we have a whole host of small companies trying to break into the shale gas industry," says Hall. "But it’s hard to get that first customer. [They say] ‘Tell me when you’ve sold 65 and I’ll buy 100’."
 
KCF Technologies of State College is the first grant recipient. KCF makes sensors to monitor vibration in machinery that can signal problems. This sort of safeguard is essential in the shale gas industry, says Hall, where "downtime is very expensive." The funds will support demonstration projects and Hall says he is "100 percent confident that once these are complete, they will have orders and create jobs."

Another three to four companies are under consideration for funding. For maximum impact, the SGICC plans to spread the funds in grants of $20,000 to $50,000. Companies are required to match the grant, he adds, preferably at a three-to-one rate. 
 
Source: Bill Hall, SGICC
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Three early-stage startups help launch the Netrepid Virtual Incubator

The Netrepid Virtual Incubator has chosen three Pennsylvania startups for its inaugural class.
 
"This state’s innovative, entrepreneurial spirit is quickly becoming more than just a 'best kept secret,'" says Sam Coyl, president and CEO of Netrepid, an infrastructure hosting service based in Enola. "These startups are using technology platforms in a unique way to educate, inspire and make the lives of consumers better. We look forward to helping them grow as we continue to accelerate the growth of this startup-friendly ecosystem."
 
The virtual incubator was established in January with the mission to enroll three innovative startups founded in Pennsylvania each month into a 12-month business consulting program, while also providing technology platforms valued at up to $6,000 per year. 
 
The first three companies are:

Heritage Spirits Distillery of Lititz is a whiskey distillery dedicated to the preservation of colonial distilling techniques and raising awareness of Lancaster County as the birthplace of American whiskey. 
 
JobHops of Lancaster is a professional services, employment listing and staffing solution website for the craft brewing industry, which employs an estimated 112,000 people (that number is projected to double by 2018). 
 
Nurse Recommended of Mechanicsburg is a physician recommendation website where nurses (not patients) provide the reviews, allowing for unbiased ratings of doctors by those who work side-by-side with them every day. 
 
The three were selected from 10 initial applications by the incubator’s board of advisors, which consists of eight central PA executives with ties to the state's tech sector. Applications are now being accepted for February and March enrollment. 
 
Netrepid is also involved in Startup Weekend Lancaster, which starts tomorrow; it’s not too late to register. And check back for Keystone Edge's full report from the event.
 
Writer: Elise Vider

Source: Jonathan Bentz, Netrepid



More on Bridgeworks: A new roof means a warmer, greener business incubator

You can read today in Keystone Edge about the great work being done under the roof of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center
 
Well, that distinctive, saw-tooth roof is brand-new, energy-efficient and an important component to attracting and retaining businesses at Bridgeworks.
 
The business incubator is housed within a 100-year-old building, a former Mack Trucks plant. The old roof was made of thin, corrugated plastic sheeting with no insulation value. According to Anthony Durante of the Allentown Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), on a hot summer day, the building could be 95 degrees, and in cold weather, "we would be fighting to keep the building in the 60s."
 
Recognizing the need to attract clients to an energy efficient and comfortable space, AEDC secured $500,000 in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) funds from the state and $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
 
The new roof is made of a combination of insulated rubberized roofing and double-pane insulated Kalwall, a translucent building material. It has an R-15 insulation value and AEDC expects to see efficiency improvements in the range of 30 to 60 percent.
 
Work began in August -- three-story-high scaffolding was required to replace the 300 feet of roof on the building's northernmost peak. General contractor Walter Brucker & Company of Perkasie completed the job in the first week of December, just in time for this rough winter. 
 
Tenants at Bridgeworks are already reporting increased comfort and much lower heating bills (some have been cut in half, Durante reports).

"This project," says Ajay Khatri of ColdEdge Technologies, "is having an immediate positive impact on our company’s bottom line."
 
Source: Anthony Durante, AEDC
Writer: Elise Vider
 
 
 

New York's SIGNa Chemistry sets up shop in York

Recognizing the potential applications of its core technology for the oil and gas industry, SIGNa Chemistry, a New York City-based company, has a new presence in York.

SIGNa has established its Oil and Gas Recovery unit at the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship West Lab Facility at York College in order to pursue expanded uses of its technology at oil and gas fields.

Michael Lefenfeld founded SIGNa in 2005; he developed a technology to transform reactive alkali metals into safe, non-combustible, sand-like powders that can be used in a variety of chemical processing operations.

According to Lefenfeld, the company is now focused on the oil and gas industries. A small team began work in York in August, exploring how the company's core product, known as ActiveSand, can be used to enhance, speed and green hydraulic fracturing and oil recovery. Using ActiveSand, producers can potentially recover up to 50 percent of residual oil and accelerate the start of enhanced production by as much as 20 percent, all with minimal environmental impact. In shale gas formations, the technology also boosts productivity and addresses environmental concerns by reducing water needs and producing cleaner wastewater.

Lefenfeld says SIGNa expects to begin testing its new applications in Pennsylvania wells by the end of the year and that the J.D.Brown Center is just a starting point for operations in the Commonwealth. The company is already looking for expanded physical space in the region.

Source: Michael Lefenfeld, SIGNa
Writer: Elise Vider

Applications open for six spots at Philly's new Digital Health Accelerator

The University City Science Center has a new opportunity for entrepreneurs in the fast-growing digital health and health care IT sectors.
 
The West Philadelphia research campus is accepting applications for its new Digital Health Accelerator (DHA). Up to six companies will receive up to $50,000, office space at the Science Center, professional mentorship and introductions to healthcare stakeholders including insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and hospital and research institutions.
 
"As the healthcare and IT sectors converge, digital health is rapidly becoming an area of opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs," says Science Center CEO Stephen S. Tang in a statement. "With its concentration of healthcare providers and a growing start-up sector, Greater Philadelphia is well-positioned to become a leader in the development of the health IT sector. Through the DHA, the Science Center is poised to serve as a landing ground for these new companies."
 
Jeanne Mell, the center's vice president for marketing communications, says the DHA is "interested in supporting companies that already have evidence of some financial maturity -- either through seed investment, or through revenues from initial sales of their products. These companies would either be ready to deploy their product for the first time in a pilot setting, or looking to expand their market penetration following a successful pilot."
 
The deadline to apply is March 31; further applications will be accepted on a rolling basis through March 31, 2015 if funds are available.  
 
Source: Jeanne Mell, University City Science Center
Writer: Elise Vider

Bigger and better Pittsburgh Public Market reopens

Pittsburgh significantly upped its creative city cred last week with the official re-opening of the Pittsburgh Public Market
 
Pittsburgh had been without a public market house since 1965 when the last one was demolished. In 2003, Neighbors in the Strip began planning for a new indoor year-round market in the city's historic market district, The Strip.
 
The new market supports local businesses by allowing them to thrive without the high overhead of a traditional storefront.

"The idea behind the market is to give food-based entrepreneurs the opportunity to focus on building their businesses," says market manager Tiffani Emig. "We envision it as a third space away from work and home where people can feel comfortable hanging out -- a place for education, a place for social interaction."
 
The market opened in 2010 in a smaller, temporary location. It had a "soft opening" in October at its new 25,000-square-foot home, a vacant telecom equipment building that was re-purposed by the city's Indovina Associates. Emig estimates the capital investment at $1.2 million.
 
The new facility hosts 20 small businesses, mostly food based; many of them do their food preparation on-site. Eliza’s Oven, for example, is a full-scale bakery operating out of only 100 square feet. Work on the project continues, with a shared-use commercial kitchen scheduled to open by summer, and more signage and streetscape improvements on the way.
 
The Pittsburgh Public Market is a non-profit entity under the auspices of Neighbors in the Strip, a non-profit organization established in 1999 to promote economic development opportunities while preserving the personality, integrity and character of the Strip, a one-time shantytown and wholesale produce market northeast of downtown.
 
Source: Tiffani Emig, Pittsburgh Public Market
Writer: Elise Vider
 
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