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Penn State Berks CEED Center Customer Discovery Lab Sets Stage for Team Mentoring

by Penn State Berks

Mar 17, 2023

As part of Startup Week, the Flemming Creativity, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development (CEED) Center at Penn State Berks will host a webinar discussing the success of its Customer Discovery Lab, which connects budding entrepreneurs with mentors. The webinar will include students and mentors from two startups: GroupIt LLC and Streamline Charging LLC, and it will be held on Monday, March 20, at 12:15 p.m. Registration is required in advance.

Both startup teams were founded by students when they were enrolled at Penn State Berks. Since completing the Customer Discovery Lab, GroupIt LLC recently advanced in the Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Fast Track Accelerator competition. Meanwhile, Streamline Charging LLC team recently received the CEED Center Venture Well Project seed grant.

Sadan Kulturel-Konak, director of the CEED Center and professor of management information systems at Penn State Berks, stated, “Streamline Charging and GroupIt participated in the Customer Discovery Lab in the spring of 2022. The CEED Center helped by matching them with academic and business mentors with the necessary expertise and then guiding the teams in applying for various seed grants to help with further customer discovery and prototyping, which both teams received.”

GroupIt LLC has developed a payment application that splits the cost of transactions up front. It allows the user to plan and book trips with friends and only pay for the user’s portion. The startup team includes Penn State Berks students Timour Almakaev and Mason Fontana; University Park students Matt Christianson, Jess Gordon, Josh Hedge, Josh Perrine; and Penn State Beaver students Noah Beck and Charlie Snow. Their academic mentor is Abdullah Konak, distinguished professor of information sciences and technology, and their business mentor is Timothy Hillert, CEO and founder of BenXchange.

Fontana, a cybersecurity analytics and operations major with a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation, stated, “Professors reached out to us and encouraged us to do the Customer Discovery Lab. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to expect but through completing this lab, we learned so much about our target audience, customer needs/pains, and how to write a really strong value proposition. Without this support, we would not be as far as we are today.”

Hillert provided the perspective of the business mentor, stating, “Mentoring has benefited the groups I have worked with tremendously. From the start, we discuss setting expectations and setting timelines for achieving the goals the teams have set for themselves. Whether it is to enter a competition or to bring a product to market, mentoring has helped the groups I have worked with turn their ideas into reality.”

Streamline Charging LLC has designed innovative charging stations for the next generation of electric vehicles. Its members include Berks students Melanie MacKinnon, Nathan Vreeland, and Mark Yazemboski; and University Park student Jonathan Smith. Their faculty mentor is Kathleen Hauser, assistant teaching professor of engineering, and their business mentor is John Gatto, principal, and CEO of JGO Services LLC.

MacKinnon, a mechanical engineering major, stated, “The mentors through the Flemming CEED Center programs have connected me to so many resources and helped guide me through the complex web that is entrepreneurship. They have helped with application reviews, introduced my team to academic and industry mentors, provided advice regarding Penn State’s entrepreneurship programs, and so much more. The Customer Discovery Lab was especially helpful in providing a framework for entrepreneurial thinking and practice.”

Gatto commented, “Mentoring is a way to stay closely connected with a new and upcoming generation of business leaders and has always been a learning experience for me. The student teams get the most from the mentorship programs when mentors share real-life experiences and help these ambitious students learn not to make the mistakes we did along our business journey. Helping them understand the importance of customer discovery and market need reassures the start-up leaders that their idea has commercial value.”

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