The Allentown Economic Development Corp. (AEDC) launched Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in 1989 after acquiring two vacated Mack Truck plants. The concept of a business incubator wasn’t brand new – the first one was birthed in 1959 in Batavia, New York – but AEDC was still an early adopter. Now the local institution is celebrating 30 years of nurturing startups and growing the regional economy.
“Under the direction of Judith McGough-King, AEDC took the bold step of buying the properties,” says Anthony Durante, AEDC program manager. “It was a newer concept, so Allentown was ahead of the curve. The basic concept was to find a way to reuse the old building and the manufacturing talent in the area to launch new manufacturers.”
Bridgeworks has retained its original focus on the manufacturing sector; that’s a rarity — only four percent of incubators today identify themselves as “manufacturing incubators.” But there are caveats.
“As technology has come to proliferate almost every aspect of life, we do see companies approach us with ventures that might be more aptly categorized as ‘tech companies,'” explains Durante. “However, I wouldn’t say that we have changed direction – it’s more like we broadened our definition of what manufacturing is to include companies that may be operating adjacent to traditional manufacturing.”
Luminaire Testing Labs (LTL) was the first company at Bridgeworks and remains a poster child for the organization’s program. Growing to multi-millions in revenue, the company was sold in 2011 to Underwriters Laboratories. In 2014, LTL owner Mike Grather and partner Tracy Silvert returned to Bridgeworks with a new venture, LightLab International Allentown. The ISO-accredited laboratory tests lighting equipment to a variety of industry standards including energy efficiency programs.
During the intervening years, Grather stayed involved with Bridgeworks as a member of the Advisory Committee.
“You have an entrepreneur who went through the program, successfully graduated, exited their company, came back to the incubator to be a mentor, and then joined as a client for a second time,” says Durante. “You only do that if you see value in the program.”
According to Grather, Bridgeworks is even more effective today.
“The mentorship at the Bridgeworks program has evolved to include access to a variety of different advisors from financial, legal, marketing and business leadership perspectives,” he says.
When you have success stories like what we have coming out of Bridgeworks, it becomes much easier to attract talented entrepreneurs to our program and facilities.Anthony Durante, AEDC
The rapidly expanding Colony Meadery is another Bridgeworks star. Founded in 2012, it was the first of what is now three beverage companies at the incubator.
“[Being at] Bridgeworks was very helpful for a lean startup because we could share resources like a forklift, loading dock, printer and reception,” explains co-founder and CEO Greg Heller-LaBelle. “They also allowed us to stagger rent so that our upfront costs were minimized, which was enormously helpful.”
Colony Meadery has since expanded its brewing operations to 3,000 square feet, substantially grown its distribution network, and started construction on a South Bethlehem tasting room.
“We do have a nice little cluster of alcoholic beverage manufacturers,” says Durante. “That was not by design, but as we have worked with them over the years, we have developed some expertise working with these types of companies. I feel strongly that once these three companies graduate and move on, AEDC will be able to offer that expertise as a selling point to the next group of beverage makers.”
Over the years, 61 companies have participated in the program and 33 have graduated. Twenty-seven are still in business; another six had successful exits through a merger or acquisition.
There are 11 current clients. According to AEDC, they earned nearly $7 million in revenue last year, a 50 percent increase over 2017. Collectively, the companies employ 31 full-timers and another 43 part-time or contracted workers. Total salaries, wages and contractor fees paid to these employees more than doubled last year to $2.83 million.
What’s more, Bridgeworks is almost 99 percent occupied for the first time in recent history, which Durante attributes to enhanced marketing:
“When you have success stories like what we have coming out of Bridgeworks, it becomes much easier to attract talented entrepreneurs to our program and facilities.”
ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.