Startup America Lands in PA to Galvanize State's Entrepreneurs
Harrisburg-area entrepreneurs Brad Thorne and Jerry Broughton threw a souped-up vending machine in the back of a minivan and trekked across the country, 40 hours straight, to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January.
The pair had just co-founded Prize Monkey
, a startup that works to put standard vending machines on the cloud so they can communicate with devices and allow customers to instantly unlock and dispense items from activated machines by doing fun things, like playing games or watching videos. After four hours of setting up their machine in Vegas, they noticed a pretty popular exhibitor getting lots of attention directly across the convention floor in Eureka Park, an area specifically established for startup companies.
"There were people from Dell there, people doing podcasts from there, and we were like 'Who are these cats?'" remembers Thorne. "We went over there to talk to them and they asked us where we were from, and they told us they were coming to PA."
It was Startup America
, the independent nonprofit launched at the White House in 2011 as an engine for startups across the country. As promised, three months later, Startup America landed in Pennsylvania on Wednesday before a sold-out room of about 100 entrepreneurs and economic development professionals on the campus of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
, full of entrepreneurs from across the Commonwealth.
"There was a lot of truth here today," says Thorne. "We shouldn't have to drive across the country to show off a product or move to (Silicon) Valley to find funding.
"Everybody has a goal and knows what they want to be. Taking our idea and proving it and making it scale, that's what Startup America is really all about and that's what Startup Pennsylvania is all about."
Donna Harris, Startup America's managing director, has been to similar events in more than 30 states. She was impressed by the level of engagement and honesty in the room on Wednesday that aimed to begin to create an agenda specific for Pennsylvania's regional startup ecosystem and to help young companies grow.
"Sometimes you go into a community and sense defensiveness, but there was none of that,' says Harris. "There was an open interest in making PA the best possible state for entrepreneurship."
The day included basic frameworking, like defining startups as as companies less than five years old with more than one employee and various surveys, like entrepreneurs giving the state a 3.2 overall rating on a 5.0 scale for entrepreneurship or ranking the strength of the state's talent assets ahead of entrepreneurial support organizations. Among the next steps is an electronic survey that will be sent to all attendees to help create a framework for officially launching and executing Startup Pennsylvania. Among potential focus areas discussed on Wednesday were corporate engagement with the entrepreneurial community, access to capital, and consistent mentorship across the state and across industries.
Startup America has received plenty of attention with more than $1 billion in funding commitments, including from the likes of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Case Foundation, as well as corporate sponsors Microsoft, Intuit and American Express OPEN and Dell. Startup America provides support in expertise, services, talent, customers and capital, but ultimately lets local regions create their own roadmaps to a better entrepreneurial ecosystem.
With the federal government as a partner, Startup America has received plenty of attention for the more than $1 billion in funder commitments it has amassed. A common misconception is that the movement is government-funded, which it is not.
Startup America comes to PA at a time when entrepreneurship is increasingly eyed as a tool for improving job creation and the economy at large, particularly at the federal level. AOL founder Steve Case was among those in the tech sector who advocated for the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act
, which President Obama signed into law on April 5. Also, U.S. Senator Bob Casey is pushing the Business Incubator Promotion Act
(S. 2140), legislation he cosponsored that ensures U.S. Economic Development Administration funding can make its way to small business incubators in the communities that need it the most.
Some 162 PA companies have registered on the Startup America website, according to a report
from the Team Pennsylvania Foundation
, which co-hosted Wednesday's event. Ryan Unger, Team PA's director of policy and programming, says it was an opportunity to bring together entrepreneurs from across the state to best capitalize on PA's assets -- like universities, strong urban centers, support systems and talent -- in a way that has previously not been attempted.
"This is one more step to galvanize people and get them working together," says Unger
"We're trying to figure out what the best model is to move forward. We want entrepreneurs to lead this."
Thorne said visibility is key for PA startups -- to help each other and for potential customers and clients. Thorne, coincidentally, is working on creating a space specific for startups to show off their products or services in a vacant store in the Harrisburg Mall.
"We're not going to wait for government or banks," he says. "This is very much an entrepreneurial-led movement across PA."
JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.