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Startup Weekend Reveals Lehigh Valley's True Colors

Participants share ideas



The Ben Franklin TechVentures building on the Lehigh University campus was filled with the happy hum of people collaborating on ideas on the final day of the first-ever Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend.
The event was held Friday evening, Nov. 2 through Sunday evening, Nov. 4; 55 hours of hopeful entrepreneurs pitching ideas, forming teams to come up with a business plan, and finally, presentations before the three judges, American Idol-style.

About 80 people gathered from as far away as New York and Baltimore, with a group of 10 students from Kutztown University and 15 from Northampton Community College, according to event organizer Anthony Durante. Ages ranged from students in their early 20s to middle-aged business people.

Thirty-three entrepreneurs gave their pitches at the beginning of the weekend; these were weeded down to 11 by the end of Friday evening, Durante said.

“The true colors of the Lehigh Valley came out,” he said, referring to the region’s history of manufacturing. “We have three physical products.”

The rest of the business ventures centered on web and moblie apps, which are more typical of such events.

Steven Chau, a software engineer for Startup Weekend headquarters in Seattle, Wash., was the facilitator for this event and hosted the presentations. He observed that the quality was high and the female-to-male ratio was better than usual.
The ideas varied from apps for splitting checks while dining out to a crowd-funding platform, from a convertible rack for billiards to portfolios for temp workers. Each presentation lasted five minutes exactly, with three minutes for questions and answers, and they were all fascinating and well put together (video of final presentations here).

The winner of the first prize was RUNG, an app developed by the local startup Skaffl for teachers to use with their students’ iPads or other mobile devices, allowing them to easily assign work, collect it and give it back, among other tasks.

“People are begging for this,” said Rita Chuhran, a teacher who came up with the idea along with Michael Hanssen. She said the use of ipads in schools is definitely the wave of the future, and easy-to-use technology is going to be vital for teachers to manage their classrooms.

RUNG also won the Ben Franklin Technology Partners Choice award: tickets to Ben Franklin Venture Idol, to be held Nov. 15 at 3 p.m. in Ben Franklin TechVentures.

Das Bier Macher, a self-contained and automated home brewing machine, won the second prize. This company was the first-ever Startup Weekend participant to file for a provisional patent during the weekend.

Both Chuhran and Das Bier Macher founder Christian Birch said they planned to go ahead with their ventures as soon as possible.

Third prize went to We Got Your Site, presented by Jason Lotito, who explained that this company would make it easy for small businesses to update their websites, synchronizing communication between Facebook pages and websites.

Honorable mention and the Sponsor’s Choice award both went to BarOMetrics, presented by Henry Ancker. This company would manufacture “smart coasters” for use by bartenders to monitor inventory and avoid waste.

The top three prizes--valued at $10,690; $5,765 and $4,225—include services such as work space, legal advice, web building, tax consulting and other donated services that will help launch the businesses.

Judges for the event were Jim Gordon, president and CEO of Robert Rothschild Farm in Urbana, Ohio; Bob Moul, the Philadelphia-based CEO of appRenaissance, a developer of mobile app software and infrastructure; and Wayne Barz, manager of Entrepreneurial Services for Ben Franklin Technology Partners, who has managed the Ben Franklin TechVentures incubator program at Lehigh University since 2000.

Also present at the event was Andrew Knight, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and a resident fellow with Startup Weekend.

Knight said Startup Weekend cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Franck Nouijregat is opening the events to researchers in an effort “to better coach people, and to get a better understanding of what works.”

Knight’s project, a collaboration between Washington University and the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, is to study the emotional dynamics of those presenting business plans, and the interplay between them and the judges, using Affectiva Q Sensors.

He said the Lehigh Valley event is the first to participate in this project; it will be continued at Startup Weekends in St. Louis, Kansas City and Baltimore. The results will be made available to the Startup Weekend community through a YouTube presentation, as well as in a traditional academic journal.

As the weary contestants made their way to the parking lot, the statue of Ben Franklin, relaxing on a bench near the entrance of the building and holding out a key, seemed to be smiling in satisfaction.

SUSAN L. PENA is a freelance writer in Berks County who has covered business, development and the arts for more than two decades. Send feedback here.

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