Local College's Business Incubator Drives Student Entrepreneurs

A new incubator space at Philadelphia University is driving students, including two seniors set to graduate this weekend, to take the products developed through the school’s hands-on curriculum and leverage them into a business.

"Having a beautiful product is great for a project," said Zoe Selzer McKinley, director of the Blackstone LauchPad program at PhilaU’s Entrepreneurship Center. "But unless you build an entire business around it and understand your customers, it’ll just sit on the shelves."

The program began in January thanks to a $3 million grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation that established a partnership among Philadelphia University, Temple University and the University City Science Center. The goal is to introduce entrepreneurship as a viable career option and provide the schools’ students and alumni with the resources needed to transform ideas into companies.

Selzer McKinley helps PhilaU students develop a business plan and serves as a networking resource to connect the future entrepreneurs with investors, potential retailers and industry mentors. 

“It is a coaching based model,” Selzer McKinley said. “Depending on the individual product and student, we see where they need to go and work with them to progress towards that goal.”

She acknowledges that not every venture will be successful, but students can still learn from failure.

"If they try and it doesn't work, they have done it quickly and efficiently and can move on to something else or pivot their business model," she said.

Selzer McKinley's advice – doled out weekly over the past five months – helped industrial design classmates, Colin Hansel of Babylon, N.Y. and Morgan Gaumann of Havertown, both 22, take the handcrafted surfboards and snowboards they refined throughout a year-long capstone class and create a board development company, RodeoBird SurfCraft.

“Industrial design students don’t really have a background in entrepreneurship,” Hansel said. “So it is up to the student to decide whether it is just a product for their portfolio or if it’s more.”

Incubators, like LaunchPad, are an ideal place for Hansel and Gaumann to evaluate if their board could sell since it forces new entrepreneurs to incorporate the business side while creating their product, said Patrick FitzGerald, managing director of DreamIt Philly, a business accelerator program that offers young entrepreneurs funding and guidance.

“Having a safety net in an educational environment certainly allows people to play in a sandbox,” FitzGerald said. “In the real world, that could sometimes be very painful.”

Hansel and Gaumann, who met freshman year, began developing their boards in summer 2013 after connecting over a love for similar sports –surfing and snowboarding.

“We noticed both of the sports are the same in premise although they have kind of diverged from themselves a bit,” said Hansel, who explained many of the first snowboarders were surfers eager to test out their skills on a winter landscape. “We are trying to bring the sports back to center.”

The business partners spent the school year testing materials and rethinking the manufacturing process, eventually leading Hansel and Gaumann to use carbon, kevlar and Innegra in the surfboard’s formation.

“When you weave those together, you get the strength of carbon with the flexibility of Innegra, which is something that hasn’t really been done before,” said Hansel, who made his first surfboard nine years ago. “They give you the ability to engineer your flex patterns, the pattern in the board that allows it to have stability... that can provide you with grip.”

Even though the students knew their board offered surfers another great option, they lacked the knowledge needed to turn their invention into dollars.

“From the start, Zoe broke it down,” Hansel said. “What does this mean to an investor, what does this mean to a customer, what is your cost analysis, and what is the value of the product to the industry?”

The goal-setting sessions pushed them to form RodeoBird SurfCraft and secure a retailer, Garden State Surf and Art, for their boards.  They go on sale at the Beach Haven Crest, N.J. shop Memorial Day weekend.

The partners are currently testing a snowboard prototype and expect to sell their boards online by the end of the summer.

“Ultimately Launchpad made the product and the company stronger,” Hansel said.

PhilaU students and alumni interested in learning more about the school’s LaunchPad program can visit their website.

Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, alison.burdo@nbcuni.com or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.

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