$50,000 prize could turn the next Big Idea into reality

03/22/2022

This spring, Ben Franklin Technology Partners is looking for innovators with big ideas in Happy Valley, Clarion, Clearfield, and Jefferson Counties — and the winner takes home $50,000.

“The Big Idea contest is a great way for entrepreneurs to get involved with Happy Valley’s entrepreneur ecosystem,” says Annie Hughes, who is the project’s organizer as well as the director of Harrisburg LaunchBox. “It’s strategically designed to be an entry point into getting involved with Ben Franklin and our ecosystem partners. The more support your business has, the greater degree of success you’ll have. So in addition to pitching for up to $50,000 in funding, you will also receive coaching, pitch instruction and mentoring, which can be key to taking the next step for your idea.”

The Big Idea contest is notable for its support of early stage startups. 

“There is a gap in support during the early stages,” Hughes said. “Startups might need a little more money than they can bootstrap, but the amount might still be too small to be considered by a bank or investor. That’s where we come in. We fill that gap and provide funding needed to build out and test early idea business models.”

“It takes money to test ideas and make sure that they are viable, and that’s risky.  It’s a hard stage in business development, but we’re there to make it easier.” 

Happy Valley-based ConidioTec won the Big Idea contest in 2014. 

ConidioTec was one of those startups with a ‘big idea’ back in 2014. “We established the company around the time that we applied for the Big Idea contest,” co-founder Nina Jenkins said. “We were not ready to start business, but we needed to establish the LLC to receive the funds if we won.”

The company pitched their idea of creating a nontoxic bed bug treatment and won $25,000. “It was a great catalyst and moved us one step closer to realizing that our idea may become reality,” Jenkins said. 

“The prize money helped us to cover the additional costs of regulatory activities including the cost of submitting the dossier to the EPA. We were also able to start purchasing some equipment, which helped us to develop our manufacturing process.”

Jenkins echoes what Hughes said: the prize money was only a small part of the help that ConidioTec received from Ben Franklin. “We also received three cash loans, which really helped us with getting started and through the ‘valley of death’ when we were just initiating our first sales but had no actual income source,” she said. “We were able to commit to a lease on the small industrial unit that we still occupy in Centre Hall, and pay our CEO, and COO, both of whom moved from secure Penn State employment to join the company.” 

In the years since this strategic boost, ConidioTec has grown substantially. They have repaid their loans of $258,582.97 from Ben Franklin, and their product, Aprehend, has transformed bed bug control in the industry, confirming full eradication of infestations with a single application. 

Jenkins says that if anyone is on the fence about applying, just do it. “Take a look at the application form. It’s a great way to focus your mind on the potential for your business idea.  I remember working through each section of the form and thinking — yes, I have the answer for this question. By the time I had completed the form, I was certain we had something that had a good chance of commercial success.  Even if we had not won, the process of getting all those elements down would have given us the confidence to continue to pursue our idea.”

Hughes agrees. “If you are unsure if it’s for you, just apply,” she said. “When in doubt, throw your hat in. This is a very inclusive contest. We are restricted by counties, but that’s it. If your company can scale, you should apply.” Visit BIGIDEA.BenFranklin.org for contest rules, FAQ, and to see the easy application process. For more information, contact Annie Hughes/717-948-4301 or alh618@psu.edu or Liz Wilson/814-898-6541 or lizwilson@psu.edu.

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