Early-stage companies and entrepreneurs often look to venture fairs and pitch events to seek out potential funders and make strategic connections. However, many startups worry the application and registration fees will exceed their typically small budgets, said Julie Stapleton Carroll, program director for Blackstone LaunchPad at Temple University.
The result? They frequently miss out on these prime opportunities to advance their businesses.
To alleviate any such cost worries, the University City Science Center developed a scholarship program as the Regional Partner of Blackstone LaunchPad to cover the expenses associated with these events. Here are five young entrepreneurs who have benefited from it or plan to soon.
1. Abena Nyarko, Know My Arts
Abena Nyarko, like many students at Temple, wanted an on-campus job. But earning a BA with a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation management, she knew working at the bookstore or dining hall wouldn’t exactly give her the best real-world experience.
Instead, Nyarko became a venture consultant at the school’s Blackstone LaunchPad office where she helped other students identify resources and opportunities. This constant contact with like-minded individuals provided the inspiration for her to develop Know My Arts, an online marketplace that allows artists in developing countries to sell their work to the rest of the world at a fair market value.
Thanks to the Blackstone LaunchPad Scholarship Program, she attended PACT’s 2014 IMPACT conference and the 2015 Corzo Center summer boot camp, her idea came in third place and she won $2,000.
“That was a great step for me in terms of startup capital,” said Nyarko, a 2015 Temple grad.
Through the scholarship, she also attended the Forbes Under 30 Summit for the past two years. In 2014, the high point came when she received face time with Peter Boyce II, investor with General Catalyst Partners and cofounder of Rough Draft Ventures.
“The more you appear in this startup space, the more these angel investors and entrepreneurs see you and the more people start to talk about you,” said Nyarko, who will launch her website in beta this November.
2. Olga Dressler, Dressler Cider
By using only locally-sourced apples and forgoing natural flavorings, Olga Dressler wants to craft a unique hard cider not usually found on store shelves. To help make Dressler Cider a reality, she’s getting a big assist from Blackstone LaunchPad, which she first visited in August 2014.
“They were really excited to answer our questions,” said Dressler, a 2010 Temple grad who now works as a web developer in the university’s strategic marketing and communications department.
Blackstone LaunchPad connected Dressler with a broad range of experts, including lawyers, business owners who answered sales-focused questions and county employees who helped her identify licensing and zoning challenges.
Through the scholarship program, she also attended the Forbes event for the past two years. In a favorite breakout panel from this year, “Future of Flavor,” Dressler enjoyed Taylor Hanson’s (yes, of the band Hanson fame) talk about the craft beer company he started with his brothers, cleverly called Mmmhops, and how craft companies can showcase their authenticity through personal history.
“Despite the different industries the speakers represented, they all touched on the topic of passion,” said Dressler, describing a main theme from the summit. “It was so inspiring to hear their experiences and honesty. They admitted that failure and challenges are a reality, but there will always be something to learn in order to push forward.”
Dressler is in the process of finding the ideal spot to mass-produce the cider, which comes in three varieties: classic, farmhouse and English. With the right location, she hopes to operate a tasting room there as well. She’s eyeing a winter or spring 2016 launch.
3. Morgan Berman, My MilkCrate
Morgan Berman, CEO of My MilkCrate, works tirelessly to shift consumer spending into the local sustainable economy. The company generates revenue by promoting businesses that care about their impact on people, the planet and profit. “Usually in that order,” Berman said.
When money circulates closer to home, it creates more area jobs and helps to reverse the negative impact of consumption into a positive force in the world, said Berman, who earned a master’s degree in sustainable design from Philadelphia University in 2014. “All of our individual choices and purchases can add up to momentous collective change, creating more sustainable communities everywhere,” she said.
She doesn’t believe My MilkCrate would have flourished without the help of PhilaU’s investment in entrepreneurs, including providing guidance for her business model, and help with raising company awareness and building connections with investors.
The scholarship program allowed her to pitch at a regional Blackstone LaunchPad competition at the Science Center in the fall of 2014, where Berman met some high-level investors, such as the late David Freschman who invited her to present at the Early Stage East Venture Pitch Wars in late 2014. Her team also received tickets to Philly Tech Week.
“We are a proud Blackstone graduate,” Berman said.
4. Kyle Thorpe
Kyle Thorpe doesn’t have a business — yet. But before he graduates from PhilaU in 2017, he plans to use his industrial design degree and knowledge gained from Blackstone LaunchPad to change that.
“I’m always thinking of something new and consider myself an early adopter of products and services by other startups,” the 21-year-old said. “Blackstone has opened me up to the entire startup space, and I love being part of it.”
Thorpe has taken advantage of the scholarship program several times, including the Forbes event, Code for Philly’s hackathons and MIT Enterprise Forum events.
“These programs have helped me to get a feel for what the startup world can do if you are passionate,” he said, adding these networking opportunities fuel his excitement for the future. “We all want to make a difference in our communities and eventually the world.”
The LaunchPad scholarship program “is a fantastic early touch point for us to connect with students,” said Zoe McKinley, director of PhilaU’s Blackstone LaunchPad. “It allows entrepreneurially minded students like Kyle to gain exposure to the startup community and culture before they have a business concept. We reinforce what they learn in the classroom through our campuswide culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
5. Asante Lewis, Bluefin
Eager to continue the “honeymoon phase” with his girlfriend, Temple senior Asante Lewis brainstormed the idea for the Bluefin dating app. “There are two avenues when you’re apart: texting and calling,” he said. “Both can get boring after a while. Why isn’t there an app where people in a relationship can play games with each other, or people can get to know each other better through games?”
Bluefin will offer two-player cooperative and competitive games meant to create good vibes or break the ice, depending on the situation, he said. Lewis envisions them to be like Candy Crush and Temple Run, in terms of graphics and feel.
Knowing he’d be entering a crowded dating app market, Lewis — a bio major — set up a meeting with Blackstone LaunchPad in September to provide him with a strong baseline of business knowledge.
“They gave me access and networking ideas. Where to go, who to meet, what to look for in terms of equity,” he said. “They will also tell you if something is the wrong move. For example, one of the app developers I met with asked for 50 percent of my business. I didn’t think that was a good idea, and Blackstone agreed. They help to boost my confidence. You need people to push you when times are rough and you don’t know what’s next.”
Blackstone LaunchPad also suggested that Lewis start attending Philly Dev Nights to connect with game developers. If all goes according to plan, the app will be released in beta this December.
While Lewis hasn’t attended a program via a Blackstone LaunchPad scholarship yet, he hopes to do soon. “These networking opportunities can lead to absolutely anywhere,” he said.
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.