Berks LaunchBox startup challenge propels entrepreneurs forward

Startup Challenge

Kylie Johns startup was one of eight to compete in the challenge

Credit: Penn State

WYOMISSING, Pa. — The Penn State Berks LaunchBox recently partnered with several other Penn State LaunchBoxes – Abington LaunchBox, Corner LaunchBox, Great Valley LaunchBox, Happy Valley LaunchBox, Harrisburg LaunchBox – and Invent Penn State to offer the startup challenge virtual accelerator, a one-week program that aimed to help entrepreneurs to build their business idea and craft an elevator pitch. Eight startups were hand-picked from a large pool of community members, students, and professionals who applied. 

Entrepreneurs who were selected received extensive virtual coaching, training, advice and pitch feedback from experienced entrepreneurs and mentors. In one week, the startups interviewed customers, built their early business model, and crafted a powerful pitch while competing for prizes.

The following teams placed in first, second and third place:

— 1st place: Tiger Resilience – Bernie Tiger and Valerie Laboranti. Tiger Resilience offers online, interactive, substance abuse counseling and treatment services through holistic and evidenced-based practices.

— 2nd place: AccountABILITY – Nancy H. Meyers, Esq.
AccountABILITY is creating an organizational, reporting and connectivity app to help those who are helping others.

— 3rd place: SchoolStack – Sarah Schwartz and Hal Schwartz.
SchoolStack is an easy-to-use virtual infrastructure that supports pre-K–eighth grade students’ cognitive and socio-emotional growth.

Although no Berks LaunchBox contestants received top honors, they gained valuable experience that propelled their business ideas forward considerably.

Kylie Johns

Kylie Johns product idea for an adaptive shower accessory has further developed due to the challenge.

Credit: Penn State

For example, Berks County participant Kylie Johns' product idea for an adaptive shower accessory has further developed due to the challenge. Johns, 2017 advertising and public relations graduate, met with LaunchBox facility coordinator Patty Leshinskie, a mechanical engineer and LaunchBox facilities coordinator, to begin prototyping her idea after attending a free 3D printing class at the Berks LaunchBox in October. Her next step was meeting over Zoom with Michelle Hnath, LaunchBox entrepreneur and facilities coordinator, reviewing steps for customer discovery to determine the demand for her product, and obtaining free legal help for starting her company.

Johns commented on her participation in the startup challenge, "COVID-19 pivoted my life and pushed me to tap into my entrepreneurial spirit, while the Berks LaunchBox's free webinars presented opportunities to learn how to turn little ideas and sketches into something tangible,” explained Johns. “By participating in the Startup Challenge, I learned so much about the development and pitch of a business idea, and gained great insights from my mentors, that I now have so much more practical knowledge moving forward.”           

Demarr Ward

Demarr Ward entered the startup competition and gained many new insights through customer discovery for the product, targeted at new drivers.

Credit: Penn State

Demarr Ward found the Berks LaunchBox after attending a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Creation class in October and has worked with Berks LaunchBox staff on several new product ideas. Ward entered the startup competition and gained many new insights through customer discovery for the product, targeted at new drivers. Those insights pivoted the product in new directions, improving the design considerably. Ward, already an entrepreneur with an apparel company, stated that they learned a lot through creating a pitch for this new product.

"The number of positives from participating in the LaunchBox competition made the hard work worth it. This is especially true for aspiring entrepreneurs who don't quite know what avenues to travel when starting a business or creating a new product,” states Ward.

The startups were well-prepared to pitch to three judges for six minutes at the end of the week. The judges were challenged to choose three winning teams from the outstanding group of startups.  Judges included: Jeffrey Held, medical doctor, vice president of medical affairs, Penn State Health St. Joseph; Keleigh Asbury, director of alumni career services, The Smeal College of Business, Penn State; and Chuck Thomas, software entrepreneur, business consultant, and retired adjunct professor of entrepreneurship, Penn State Great Valley.

Those who have a business idea are invited to visit for more information, and to consider applying to the winter 2021 Idea TestLab. Applications are due by Jan. 17, 2021.

About the Berks LaunchBox
The mission of the Berks LaunchBox, located in Suite 105 of the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading, is to support economic development and entrepreneurship. An innovation hub of Penn State Berks, the Berks 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. Services include assistance with prototyping, conducting market research, and connecting with advisers. The Berks LaunchBox offers entrepreneurship workshops, coworking space for startups, Meetups focused on business development and a makerspace with 3D printers for prototyping.

The Berks LaunchBox is supported by Invent Penn State — a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student success, launched by Penn State President Eric J. Barron in 2016. For more information, visit or contact Erica Kunkel, Berks LaunchBox interim director, at [email protected] or 610-396-6221.