WYOMISSING, Pa. — In January 2019, the Berks LaunchBox opened its doors within the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading, Pennsylvania. Over the last three years, the Berks LaunchBox has grown substantially to become a cornerstone of support for budding entrepreneurs.
Throughout 2021, the Berks LaunchBox assisted 115 entrepreneurs with startup ideas, hosted 10 co-working companies, taught 110 community members a new skill in the makerspace, and welcomed more than 1,000 individuals to free classes and webinars.
An innovation space of Invent Penn State, the Berks LaunchBox was created through a seed grant in 2016. Their mission is to assist early-stage entrepreneurs by connecting them with the support, resources, and facilities that they need to build sustainable and scalable businesses with a viable plan for growth in the Greater Reading area.
The Idea TestLab offered through the Berks LaunchBox’s is the area’s newest resources for testing the validity of a new business idea. It teaches and empowers entrepreneurs to conduct smart customer discovery and product prototype testing with real customers before investing money on a new business idea.
Erica Kunkel, interim director of the Berks LaunchBox stated, “Most of us know someone who invested their nest egg into the dream of building a business, only to end up quickly out of funds and disillusioned. The Berks LaunchBox saves entrepreneurs time, energy, and money.”
In the Idea TestLab, weekly meetings with coaches help participants to identify and test critical business assumptions and find the best value proposition. Participants speak to at least 40 potential customers and experts in their field about the challenge they are trying to solve with their startup and get feedback on how others are currently dealing with this challenge. Through this process, they learn whether the market is interested in their solution and if it is willing to pay for an alternative to solutions that already exist.
Tom Wentling of Reading began the Idea TestLab with a concept for a home inventory mobile app that stores product warranties. Through customer discovery, he learned that there was no demand for his idea, which for a decade he had dreamed of turning into a business. But while speaking to manufacturers of expensive products, Wentling pivoted to an entirely different business idea. At that point, he restarted customer discovery with a different audience and found his product idea was something manufacturers wanted and were willing to pay for.
Cheri Dotterer of Reading, founder of Dotterer Educational Consulting, designs and delivers professional development materials for school-based occupational therapists and parents to help students overcome the challenges associated with dysgraphia, a term that encompasses issues with writing and affects one in three students, impeding college / career-readiness. Dotterer's business idea was well-supported through customer discovery, and through the Idea TestLab, she learned how she needed to communicate her idea with her unique value proposition to move the business forward. Now she is working on low-cost product prototyping.
Dotterer stated, "I spent $10,000 on a long personal development course and got a whole lot more clarity on my business at the Berks LaunchBox’s free, six-week Idea TestLab accelerator."
State grant helps expand resources
In 2021, the Berks LaunchBox received a $50,000 grant from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Department of Education to purchase equipment for its makerspace, including an enclosed CNC machine, Resin 3D printer, heat press and new laser cutter. Teaching technology has been upgraded to include smart boards, higher-end laptops to run engineering and design programs and equipment to better present hybrid programming. The supply of small hand tools has also been expanded to include drills, a miter saw, drill press, palm sander and more.
Highlighted below are just some of the ways that the Berks LaunchBox has empowered local startups, community members and students.
Free classes, webinars, workshops and equipment training in makerspace
Berks LaunchBox holds several seminars per month for entrepreneurs and small business owners focused on business development, social media marketing, legal issues, intellectual property, pitch presentations, minimum viable products, brainstorming and validating business ideas, customer discovery, and ways a business can pivot to address customer issues. In addition, the LaunchBox offers courses in basic CAD or computer-aided-design and 3D printing, as well as training in the use of available equipment and associated software.
Berks LaunchBox offers a rent-free space, allowing co-working companies to meet and collaborate with other entrepreneurs and mentors. Co-working companies benefit from 24/7 access to office space for one year, meeting and event space, high-speed Internet, legal support, community connections, and LaunchBox advisers. Startups also receive assistance with prototyping and marketing, free monthly seminars, and support from staff.
Youth and Community Outreach
The LaunchBox staff believes that growing an entrepreneurial mindset in youth helps to develop future entrepreneurs. The LaunchBox has held open lab nights for individuals and families with children to design and create 3D-printed and laser-cut snowflakes and holiday ornaments, build bridges, create electric circuit light-up greeting cards, and more in an effort to introduce these technologies and spark creativity and innovation.
Looking ahead to 2022
In the coming year, Berks LaunchBox staff said they are excited to expand their programming to include workshops on how to use new equipment in the makerspace, a two-night workshop to create a business model canvas (a mini-business plan), workshops to help new and existing business to create a unique identity in Internet searches and social media, webinars on improving Etsy shop sales, infographic design for business communication, and legal issues for startups.
About the Berks LaunchBox
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 berkslaunchbox.psu.edu or contact Erica Kunkel, Berks LaunchBox interim director, at [email protected] or 610-396-6221.