Two years after the Berks LaunchBox opened its doors within the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading in January 2019, it is clear that entrepreneurship and innovation have sparked positivity and harnessed energy within the Greater Reading community. In the past year alone, the Berks LaunchBox has assisted 80 entrepreneurs with startup ideas, hosted eight coworking companies, and welcomed more than 800 community members to free classes and webinars.
The mission of the Berks LaunchBox is to support economic development and entrepreneurship. An innovation hub of Penn State Berks, the LaunchBox connects local entrepreneurs to the support, resources, and facilities that they need to build sustainable and scalable businesses with a viable plan for growth. It specializes in supporting technology-based, medical innovation, and social enterprise startups. Services include assistance with prototyping, conducting market research, and connecting with mentors. The Berks LaunchBox offers entrepreneurship workshops, coworking space for startups, Meetups focused on business development, a makerspace with 3D printers for prototyping, and special youth programs.
“The Berks LaunchBox team is amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit of our community and the drive people have to learn, grow and give back to others,” stated Erica Kunkel, Interim Director of the Berks LaunchBox, “We see this from the large number of attendees who learned something new this year, taking the next step in reaching their ‘daydream,’ and also from all those who were willing to share their expertise with others.”
While the coronavirus pandemic altered the delivery of the LaunchBox’s services – personal mentoring sessions became Zoom meetings, in-person classes became remote webinars, and hands-on instruction was delivered through private sessions – these changes have increased the accessibility for busy community members while meeting the demand for a creative escape or new business opportunity.
Josue Torres, founder of Azure Vista Financial, a social enterprise coworking company, recently thanked the LaunchBox team, commenting, “I appreciate the efforts of the LaunchBox staff in continuing to help us grow and succeed through these challenging times. It has been immensely valuable to expand and retain connections virtually, like the Startup Success webinar I attended as a panelist.”
Highlighted below are just some of the ways that the Berks LaunchBox has empowered local startups, community members and students.
Free Classes, Webinars, Workshops and Equipment Training in Makerspace
The LaunchBox offers several seminars per month for entrepreneurs and small business owners focused on business development, social media marketing, legal issues, intellectual property, cybersecurity, pitch presentations, minimum viable products (MVP), brainstorming and validating business ideas, customer discovery, and ways a business can pivot to address customer issues. In addition, the LaunchBox offers hybrid courses in basic CAD and 3D printing, as well as training in the use of a laser cutter and associated software. Community members and entrepreneurs are able to schedule appointments with Patricia Leshinskie, a mechanical engineer, to learn the technology that will bring their product ideas to life, such as how to create a simple circuit, use 3D modeling software, design and print product labels on the vinyl plotter, and how to use SolidWorks.
For example, DN Organics, a LaunchBox coworking company, recently utilized the new vinyl plotter to prototype labels for their hair care products. Co-Founder and marketing director Nicol Varona Cancelmo stated, “The ability to see a trial run of our design allowed us to re-evaluate sizing and ensure we had the best design to move forward with producing.”
The LaunchBox offers a rent-free space for coworking companies to meet and collaborate with other entrepreneurs and mentors in a location specifically designated for use by technology-based, medical innovation, and social enterprise organizations. Coworking companies benefit from 24/7 access to office space for one year, meeting and event space, high speed Internet, legal support, community connections, and helpful advisers. Startups also receive assistance with prototyping and marketing, free monthly seminars, and support from the LaunchBox staff.
Currently, the LaunchBox is working with eight coworking companies. One such company, Verde Mantis, has hired local employees and rented additional space at the GoggleWorks for production of their easy-to-use 3D printer. World Brand / Coasty tested and continued to market their eco-friendly straws, which led to their products being carried in local restaurants and in 10 locations of Redner’s Markets. Other notable developments over the last year include several coworking companies joining mastermind groups, peer mentoring groups formed to network and increase goal accountability, as well as startups making their first sales to paying customers and managing launch delays caused by pandemic-related issues.
Youth and Community Outreach
The LaunchBox staff believes that growing an entrepreneurial mindset in youth helps to develop future entrepreneurs. In early 2020, the staff worked with Lauer’s Park Elementary School children on growth mindset activities and worked with Wilson High School and Governor Mifflin High School students on projects such as engineering bridges and creating prosthetic legs from recycled materials. They also virtually assisted technical education students at Exeter High School on challenges that affect their community and helped Penn State Berks Engineering Ahead students with 3D printing. The LaunchBox held monthly open lab nights for individuals and families with children to design and create 3D printed snowflakes, build bridges, create electric circuit light-up greeting cards, and much more in an effort to introduce these fun technologies and spark creativity and innovation.
The Berks LaunchBox has grown by leveraging partnerships with other organizations supporting the Greater Reading area entrepreneurs including the Kutztown Small Business Development Center, Ben Franklin Technology Partners; SCORE Association; Penn State Berks’ Flemming Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Center; and other Penn State LaunchBoxes from around the state.
Looking ahead to 2021
In the coming year, Berks LaunchBox staff are excited to expand the equipment available in the makerspace, partner with groups within Penn State Berks and the GoggleWorks on the Wondrous Wearables Arts Exhibit, and increase minimum viable product programming to focus on application design. The LaunchBox will continue to support startups via phone calls and video meetings, in addition to offering makerspace workshop sessions with a mechanical engineer by appointment.