Events / Pitches / Startups

StartUp Lehigh Valley’s pitch competition aims to show off ‘hidden gem’ of an innovation region

Organizers say the annual "Shark Tank"-like event showcases the quality of life and business ownership for the hub, about an hour outside Philadelphia.

The 2021 StartUp Lehigh Valley competition. (Courtesy photo)
When you think about growing startups and innovation hubs, you likely think of large metro areas.

But an annual startup competition about an hour north of Philadelphia is drawing in companies from “all over,” said Richard Thompson, managing partner at Factory, LLC. Thompson is part of the founding team behind the Lehigh Valley-based food and beverage innovation group that hosts StartUp Lehigh Valley, a pitch competition for early-stage founders.

In its fourth year, StartUp Lehigh Valley will welcome 10 finalists from across Pennsylvania to pitch their products and businesses to a panel of judges on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Thompson told he estimates about 250 to 300 people will attend in person, and thousands more will stream it live on 69 WFMZ-TV from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Up for grabs is more than $30,000 in capital— $20,000 for a grand-prize winner, with two runners up earning $3,000 and $2,000 respectively. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania will also present an award to the top early-stage technology-based firm for the first time this year, Thompson said. The winner, which may be the grand prize winner or another competitor, will receive a $5,000 business and technical assistance grant for a specific project crucial to the company’s development.

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What to expect at StartUp Lehigh Valley

The night will take a “Shark Tank“-like approach, Thompson said. The pitch competition accepted applications through Oct. 7, and although Factory focuses on food, beverage and pet companies, applications crossed a wide range of industries, including tech and healthcare. Penn State University’s Lehigh Valley LaunchBox will present the money for founders.

“These are the individuals who will  continue to fuel the Commonwealth’s economy — most importantly our job market — and the reason Penn  State has doubled down on our commitment to foster that innovation,” said Tina Q. Richardson, chancellor of Penn State Lehigh Valley, in a statement. “We’re pleased to again partner with  Factory to offer an event that spotlights these essential businesses.”

The event and the organization finds itself with a host of partners in the region, such as iHeartMedia, JPMorgan Chase & Co., HNL Lab Medicine, Lehigh Valley Health Network, the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. The buy in from community partners is a signal that the region wants startups to flourish here, Thompson said.

“Lots of people are encouraging this type of startup activity,” he said. “In order to create jobs, we need to create companies.”

StartUp Lehigh Valley judges will keep their eyes peeled for a few things when judging the competition next week, but an important attribute of a company is its founder — specifically, a “strong, enthusiastic, humble entrepreneur,” Thompson said.

Judges will also consider whether the company has any intellectual property concerns or movement happening, and how scalable the business is. While the industries are varied, Thompson said they’re looking for more than just an idea. An established business plan, product or service is needed, though companies could be making a range of revenue for the time being.

What does innovation look like in the Lehigh Valley?

While it’s not especially known for its technology output, the Lehigh Valley does count major employers in industries including healthcare and manufacturing, and in May, Bethlehem’s Lehigh University announced its first accelerator for early-stage companies in the form of Lehigh Ventures Lab. Allentown fintech company Shift4 Payments, too, gained national recognition around the same time it made two crypto acquisitions earlier this year.

Thompson said he considers the Lehigh Valley’s innovation scene an “extension” of Philly’s, calling the region “almost a suburb” of Philadelphia. It counts similar access to other large cities in the mid-Atlantic, like New York, Boston and DC.

He hopes the annual event highlights the work being done by startup companies in and around the Lehigh Valley, and showcases it as a great place to run a business.

“You really get more for your money because of the cost of living,” Thompson said. “I think comparing quality of living standards, the life value for families is high and there’s some really good talent here. It’s a hidden gem.”

Companies: Ben Franklin Technology Partners / Penn State

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