Jill Edwards started her career as a banker, before taking a job managing the CYBER Center business incubator in York. That organization introduced her to Ben Franklin Technology Partners (they were a funder). In 2002, she started working for the Ben Franklin Venture Investment Forum (BFVIF), and has been working with Ben Franklin clients and companies ever since.
Edwards is now executive director of both BFVIF and the Innovation Transfer Network. She is also project manager for the BIG IDEA Business Plan Contests, a vital tool for emerging startups in Central and Northern Pennsylvania. Keystone Edge chatted with Edwards about her role and the growing economic opportunities in the region.
Can you explain the exact role of the BFVIF and the Innovation Transfer Network?
BFVIF provides training and coaching to technology entrepreneurs as they get ready to raise equity capital. The Innovation Transfer Network (ITN) serves as a matchmaker between companies that have problems to be solved and academic researchers at the south central region's colleges and universities who can help solve those problems.
I serve as the executive director of both programs, so my job is to do what needs to be done to make sure those ends are attained. In both organizations, I get to work with small, innovative companies that are developing some exciting new products.
How long has Ben Franklin run the BIG IDEA contest?
I started managing the contest in 2004, but the contest has been running since 1999.
Can you give an example of a past winner?
Among the companies that have made substantial strides is reCap Mason Jars — they develop molded products that turn any mason jar into an on-the-go container.
Tell me about this year's competition.
During the early years of the contest, we were specifically looking for entrepreneurs who had just started their companies — who had no appreciable sales at the time they applied to the contest. Since 2008, we increased the eligibility to companies with up to $500,000 in sales. This meant startups but also those with a bit of validation from sales.
This year, we are looking to support small manufacturers or entrepreneurs who are at around $10 million in sales, looking at development and commercialization plans for new products and new product lines. Over the years, some of the finalists and winners were serial entrepreneurs, but more frequently they have been first-time business owners. The prize package is valued at $200,000.
Why do you think contests like this are successful? Do they provide an alternate source of funding for creative people?
The cash prizes certainly capture the attention of entrepreneurs and prospective entrepreneurs, but just as important for applicants — whether or not they win cash — is the opportunity to work with both Ben Franklin staff and economic development groups, including Small Business Development Centers, Industrial Resource Centers and the like to get meaningful management, marketing and financial assistance to help their companies grow.
It can be a challenge for entrepreneurs to know how to access the services available to them, but their participation in a Big Idea contest gets them into the entrepreneurial assistance network. Once they're in the network, they have only to mention a need for someone from the Ben Franklin family to connect them to the appropriate resource.
Can you talk a bit about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Central Pennsylvania? Why is it a good place to start a company or develop a “big idea”?
Entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania are blessed with a tremendous array of resources to help them grow their companies at the local, county and state level, whether through business training programs, access to sources of funding or international marketing, to name a few.
The economic development community in the Commonwealth — most funded at least partially by the PA DCED [Department of Community and Economic Development] — work together as a network. Because of that, any point of entry becomes the connecting point to other services entrepreneurs can use. We also have a network of more than 500 colleges and universities, both large and small that can provide applied research to assist young companies and serve as a source of well-trained employees.
It seems to me like small-scale, specialized manufacturing is making a comeback domestically. Do you also see that trend? How can contests like this assist that growth?
We're seeing the same growth in small, specialized manufacturing. There's been a lot of work in materials science and nanotechnology that is leading to new products, new techniques and new manufacturing processes that couldn't be envisioned even a few years ago. We work with a lot of engineers and scientists who have developed these innovations and are now ready to form companies around them. Because the Big Idea contests serve as a conduit into the entrepreneurial development community, these managers with technical backgrounds can receive assistance to help them develop the skills to lead their companies forward.
LEE STABERT is managing editor of Keystone Edge and Flying Kite Media.