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For PA Wilds innovators, the next BIG opportunity is here


The Pennsylvania Wilds is rural, scenic, and filled with creative people, some toiling away at the seed of an idea that could easily grow into a thriving company. The task for members of the economic development community is helping those people and, even more importantly, finding them.

On the front lines of this exciting challenge are local organizations such as the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, and local Small Business Development Centers. 

Cynthia A. Nellis, director of the SBDC at PennWest University in Clarion

“Our mission is to help businesses start and grow,” says Cynthia A. Nellis, director of the Small Business Development Center at PennWest University in Clarion, which provides free, confidential services to anyone who wants them. “We do that through one-on-one business consulting, services and training. We are a resource that every business should seek out.” 

People like Nellis are key partners for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central & Northern PA as they launch the second of three planned Big Idea Contests, this one covering Cameron, Elk, Forest, McKean, and Warren Counties. The pitch contest boasts a $50,000 prize; the deadline is April 18, 2023, and the final presentations will take place on June 8.

“It was a bit of a marketing challenge,” says Ben Franklin’s Annie Hughes of the first iteration. “We were in areas where people don’t know Ben Franklin Technology Partners and in some rural areas where people are a little more isolated or don’t have broadband consistently. I think we’ve learned that the power of the network is the best way forward for getting the word out about the contest.”

The Small Business Development Center at PennWest University is part of a national program called America’s SBDCs. Pennsylvania is home to 15 centers, all connected to higher education institutions. Funding comes from grants, the Small Business Administration and the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. 

They really put your business under a microscope and take a fine look at it. I think that’s more beneficial than the prize money.Esperanzo Wilcox, PA Mushroom Company

“We focus a lot on getting information out there,” says Nellis. “Things related to the needs of small business owners — a lot of marketing and social media events, accounting and bookkeeping events. We do regular training on taxes, as well as worker safety.”

“I lead a team of business consultants who travel throughout our region,” she continues. “My particular center covers 10 counties, the largest footprint in Pennsylvania. We take our services on the road and meet with clients in their neighborhood. We don’t expect them to come to us. We do a lot of virtual consulting and training.”

They also connect local entrepreneurs with opportunities like the Big Idea Contest, using their email list to spread the word and reaching out personally to past clients. That’s what happened with Esperanzo Wilcox, founder of the PA Mushroom Company and co-winner of the first round of the contest.

“With PA Mushroom Company, [I said] you need to look into this opportunity,” recalls Nellis. “I encouraged him to go to one of the information sessions. From there, he got connected with Ben Franklin, who talked to him more in depth about the opportunity. We all worked to help him get ready for the Big Idea Contest.”

The 2022 PA Wilds Big Idea Contest winners

“I definitely felt more prepared due to the coaching I had before,” recalls Wilcox. “Going through the process — from being an applicant, and then being a finalist — the programming is pretty rigorous. Weekly updates, lots of meetings to prepare you and review what you have, how you’ll be presenting, so you get a lot of hands-on coaching.” 

PA Mushroom Company split the grand prize with Billett Electric.

“I was definitely surprised, especially after you see the talented companies you’re up against,” says Wilcox of his big win. “You go into it feeling like your company is the best, but once you see what else is out there in terms of innovation it’s definitely eye opening. And when we found out we won, we were definitely overwhelmed — overwhelmed with joy and excitement. It took a lot of work, so it definitely felt rewarding at the end of it to come away with something.”

The prize money funded a larger space and additional equipment. This year Wilcox is hoping to hire (he is still a one-man band) and expand production. The spoils don’t end with the cash. All the participating companies make a connection with Ben Franklin Technology Partners and are encouraged to apply to their TechCelerator Program, with the winners gaining access to mentorship and other valuable business services. 

We want to make sure we’re finding folks who don’t necessarily identify as entrepreneurs. That word sometimes doesn’t feel like a good fit for people even if they are.Annie Hughes, Ben Franklin Technology Partners

“The mentoring has been exceptional,” says Wilcox. “They help you cover everything from taking on investors, to expanding production, to making sure your business is going to be profitable. They really put your business under a microscope and take a fine look at it. I think that’s more beneficial than the prize money.”

Jeff Billett of Billett Electric, one of the 2022 winners

Wilcox is exactly the kind of entrepreneur Ben Franklin is trying to reach. His work falls under the umbrella of innovation, but touches many sectors including agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing. 

“We’re excited to see, with this next group of counties, what type of entrepreneurship is going on there,” says Hughes. “In particular, we want to make sure we’re finding folks who don’t necessarily identify as entrepreneurs. That word sometimes doesn’t feel like a good fit for people even if they are. They call themselves makers. They call themselves innovators. So we want to make sure we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot. We’re calling out to anyone who is crafting a product or process innovation. There’s a whole lot of outdoor recreation and forest products in those counties. What we’re looking for is very broad.”

Esperanzo Wilcox of the PA Mushroom Company

And what advice would Wilcox give to someone considering entering the 2023 PA Wilds Big Idea Contest?

“I would say just sit down, make sure you’re organized and have a good grasp on what it is that you’re trying to present,” he says. “Make sure to be really creative and really believe in what it is you’re trying to convey. You definitely want to do this great opportunity.”

If you’re a rural innovator or small-business owner, check out the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ Big Idea contest.

This story was created in partnership with The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship.

LEE STABERT is editor in chief of Keystone Edge.

Lead image: Downtown Warren in the PA Wilds

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