Blackstone LaunchPad is on only 15 campuses across the country. Philadelphia has two of them.
The program, which helps students pursue entrepreneurship as a career path, is helping early-stage startups at Temple University and Philadelphia University.
Originally developed at the University of Miami, Blackstone LaunchPad, which is funded by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, has been recognized by President Obama’s Startup America Initiative as a way of encouraging students to stay on after graduation, strengthening the economies of their local communities.
It’s a unique approach toward developing local entrepreneurs, one that helps students, regardless of major, turn their dreams into businesses and gain ties to the local business community.
The Blackstone LaunchPad program, operated out of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Temple and the President’s Office at PhilaU, navigates students through a four-step process. Students begin by fleshing out their business concept, expected market, competition and development needs. A member of the LaunchPad staff has regular meetings with the student and provides them with advice on how to further their idea. Once the idea has matured enough, the student is introduced to mentors from the local business community.
The program is also open to alumni and faculty, who have access to the same resources as current students.
This effort is further aided by the Blackstone LaunchPad Philadelphia Scholarship Program, which makes networking, educational and pitch events in the city more accessible to students by eliminating the cost barrier. The scholarship program was developed and is run by the University City Science Center, Blackstone LaunchPad Philadelphia’s regional partner.
“Early-stage companies and entrepreneurs often look to venture fairs, pitch events and other innovation-centric programs to seek out potential funders and make strategic connections,” said Jeanne Mell, the Science Center’s VP for Marketing Communications and Community Engagement. “However, these events can be expensive to attend, and bootstrapping startups often struggle to come up with funds to cover application and registration fees. For students, it’s even tougher and they often end up missing out on opportunities to advance their ventures.”
Here’s how Blackstone LaunchPad has helped five student startups gain traction and become connected alumni businesses in the city.
Matt Cook (PhilaU ’15), a recent graduate of PhilaU’s industrial design program, wanted to create a line of soft goods. Like any good entrepreneur, he first did a bit of market research to find a product angle he could build a community around.
After discovering that streetwear fashion was booming, he drew on inspiration from the sleek, dark aesthetic of Philadelphia street artists and created a four-piece collection, to kick off the start of his business, aided by the mentorship of Todd Kramer, an adjunct professor of industrial design at PhilaU and president of Bluekiwi Designs.
But the industry is competitive and, as Cook notes, he primarily is a designer and didn’t yet feel like a full-fledged entrepreneur.
It wasn’t until he saw what the LaunchPad did for other PhilaU design students, such as Ben Stack (who uses rapid prototyping to create rubber band shooters), that he decided to apply for the program.
“As a junior, seeing that student-designers could do something that they love, apply their skills and education in design and reveal something spectacular to the public is all that I needed to be inspired,” said Cook.
Cook said PhilaU LaunchPad director Zoe Selzer McKinley recognized his product’s potential and pushed him forward to make it better. Cook now is using her financial advice to get his scarves into the hands of consumers. He also was introduced to investors — as well as marketing professionals who showed him the different options he had to promote his products — at the PhilaU Showcase, the school’s senior design show.
LaunchPad even set Cook up with Joe Guagliardo, a partner at Pepper Hamilton’s Center City office and a board member of social enterprise incubator Good Company, to help him navigate the complexities of intellectual property law. These are resources Cook admits he would never have been able to afford on his own as a college student — which are helping him move his company forward.
He plans to keep his business’ base of operations in Philly, the city that he credits with helping inspire his love of street art and skateboard culture — and helping him grow into an entrepreneur.
Temple students Matt Morgis (Temple ‘15), Connor Skiro (Temple ‘15) and Bill Zangardi (Temple ‘15) founded Rappid Development, a dev firm that that builds websites for clients in order to fund the creation of their own apps, back in 2013 before LaunchPad arrived at Temple.
They thought they may be past the stage where the LaunchPad could help, but they decided to check it out anyway.
“They were exceptional in helping us organize our thoughts and implement a rollout plan that would take our product from 0 to 1 then to 2 and 3 before reaching 100,” Morgis said.
CoverID (a joint venture with Dryrain Technologies) turns a bouncer’s iPhone into not only an ID verification device and allows bar owners to receive analytics on customers coming through their doors.
“The Temple Blackstone LaunchPad office has been strategic planners with us,” Morgis said. “We tried rolling out CoverID ourselves before we met with Blackstone. I don’t want to say we failed, but we learned quickly we didn’t really know what we were doing. Because of that we now have a small pilot program of bars using CoverID and are expanding our client base with the app each week.”
The guys say LaunchPad showed them how to file taxes as a business, pay employees, budget their expenses, contact investors and even had lawyers help them write contracts for their products.
“LaunchPad didn’t have a cookie cutter answer for everyone who walked into their door,” Morgis explained. “Rather they sat with us and tailored their answers for the business at hand.”
“Blackstone isn’t the only reason we decided to stay and operate in Philadelphia, but knowing that we always have them as a resource played a big role,” he added.
3. Happy Hippy
Yogis Nicole Beddow (Temple ‘13) and Justine Carmine had a seedling of an idea to use a food truck to bring fruits and vegetables to Temple’s campus, which was severely lacking in fresh produce.
So they created Happy Hippy, LLC to be a wellness blueprint, which they eventually hope to grow into more food trucks and a yoga studio.
One month after developing their idea, Beddow and Carmine applied to the LaunchPad program, and within 24 hours they were in the Blackstone office on Temple’s campus discussing their idea with Temple LaunchPad director Julie Stapleton Carroll.
Carmine, who’s a Marywood University alum but jokingly now calls herself an honorary Owl, was worried LaunchPad wouldn’t let her join Beddow in getting resources but found that she “was welcomed with open arms.”
The cofounders, like other student entrepreneurs, didn’t have any money to fund the idea, and they worked with LaunchPad to learn how to bootstrap the business.
Carroll helped Happy Hippy begin creating social traction in the city, as well as revenue, by working with them on a unique social media campaigns and a flash sale, which allowed Beddow and Carmine to start gaining capital to save up for their first food truck.
They used Instagram to hold a contest asking for pictures of the best yoga pose and awarded the two winners special mason jars.
The campaign was used to promote sales of the mason jars, which they offered for $10, and put the money toward the food truck.
Carroll also introduced Beddow and Carmine to their lawyer, Michael E. Adler and Robert M. Fleming R.A., Leed AP, a sustainable design professor at PhilaU who’s designing Happy Hippy’s first food truck to be sustainable, free of charge — possibly as part of lab in a summer class for PhilaU students to work on.
“Doing things on your own will cost a lot but everything in LaunchPad is free and they are always willing to help you,” said Carmine.
4. My MilkCrate
Morgan Berman (PhilaU ’14), an alumna of PhilaU’s sustainable design master’s program who also took several UX classes at the school, has worked with PhilaU’s LaunchPad to learn how to “get into the head of an investor.” The program has subsequently helped her make inroads in the local investor community.
According to Berman, the LaunchPad team taught her to focus on the potential return to the investor, a thought-out exit strategy and the startup’s scalability, when pitching investors on My MilkCrate, the buzzy sustainable shopping app she founded.
McKinley introduced Berman to one of My MilkCrate’s earliest angel investors, Sid Amster, an investor and clinical professor at Temple whose cumulative exits exceed $50 million. Also, Berman met the late David Freschman of Early Stage East at a Blackstone LaunchPad practice pitch session held at Quorum at the Science Center, last summer.
“[Freschman] was the first investor that was interested in [My MilkCrate] that wasn’t an impact investor and saw us as a scalable company,” Berman said. “It was really great to have someone like Freschman excited about my company and felt that we stood out amongst the other entrepreneurs.”
“The LaunchPad helped me think more strategically and challenged me to confront my business model and how I was handling my company,” she said. “Get executing, jump in and take full advantage of the resources LaunchPad has to offer.”
Colin Hansel (PhilaU ’14) started making surfboards about nine years ago, but it wasn’t until PhilaU’s senior-year capstone project rolled around that he and fellow industrial design student Morgan Gaumann (PhilaU ’14), who also specialized in marketing, combined their skills to create Rodeobird.
LaunchPad taught the two how to create a business plan and helped them step-by-step to file an LLC and make Rodeobird an up-and-running company, specializing in innovative surfboards.
LaunchPad has stuck with Rodeobird even after the partners graduated, giving the guys a place to turn to for help if needed.
“Use this program to help you understand if you really want to undertake starting your own business,” Hansel said. “It really teaches you everything that you need to know.”
They now have their own space in Kensington where they handcraft the surf boards. The boards, a marriage of informed design and innovative composites, are designed for the types of waves surfers encounter on the East Coast.
Blackstone LaunchPad Philadelphia supports student entrepreneurship in the Greater Philadelphia region through a partnership between Philadelphia University, Temple University and the University City Science Center.