By Holly Riddle
Left to Right: Liz Wilson, Sherry Davidson, Jennifer Wingard, Michelle Cook and Pam Asencio at Ben Franklin’s State College office.
Anyone who’s even remotely connected to or familiar with the Happy Valley startup scene knows Ben Franklin Technology Partners — and for good reason. The organization impacts Happy Valley, as well as the entire state of Pennsylvania, in a big way.
Within the last year, Ben Franklin clients generated $2.4 billion in revenue and secured $1.1 billion in post-Ben Franklin financing. The tech-based economic development program also supported 2,018 companies and helped clients create nearly 1,508 jobs while retaining 10,145 more positions. In 2022 alone, its clients developed 130 patents and software copyrights, and commercialized 249 new products.
Ben Franklin Technology Partners works from various hubs around the state and Happy Valley is home to the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania office. There, the team supports the myriad startups that call this 32-county region home and, for two decades, Liz Wilson has headed up the organization’s marketing and communications efforts — a role that has undoubtedly increased Ben Franklin’s reach and impact to the magnitude we see today.
However, as of this summer, Wilson has passed the baton and is looking forward to a well-deserved retirement. HappyValley Industry caught up with Wilson to discuss her career, the secret to startup success, Ben Franklin’s indelible impact and her tips for young professionals.
I was able to attend college and graduate school while working full-time for an Erie-based engineering and manufacturing company. The management was very forward-thinking, especially for the time, and had an education trust available for the employees that paid 100% of any higher education expenses.
Several years after I graduated, the company was purchased by another local manufacturer that had four distinctly different divisions that ranged from high-tech, engineered products to an advertising agency. I worked for them as a marketing manager for several years prior to coming to Ben Franklin.
In 2002, I was hired as the director of marketing and communications for the 32-county footprint Ben Franklin Technology Partners serves in central and northern Pennsylvania. I had spent more than 20 years in the private sector and, while I enjoyed it, I never had the opportunity to work for a university-based program, which, of course, Ben Franklin has been since its inception.
Without the foresight of the Commonwealth in its support of Ben Franklin over the past 40 years, many of our current employers in Pennsylvania would not exist.
In addition to planning, managing and performing the tasks one would normally associate with a marketing position, I also had the opportunity to see, daily, the kinds of funding and business support services our tech entrepreneurs need in order to become successful employers in our communities.
Tech startups have few options when it comes to funding opportunities. Banks and angel investors have requirements related to assets and revenue generation that make it difficult for an early-stage tech entrepreneur, who likely owns only intellectual property, to receive investment dollars other than from friends and family. Without the foresight of the Commonwealth in its support of Ben Franklin over the past 40 years, many of our current employers in Pennsylvania would not exist.
I enjoyed many aspects of my job — especially the creative ones related to telling our story — but what I liked most was meeting and working with our entrepreneurs. There is no one mold that creates a tech entrepreneur. They come in all shapes, races and sizes — men, women, young or old — and can just as easily be found in very rural counties as in larger, more metropolitan areas. Those who are successful will take advice from more seasoned business owners, but, at the end of the day, those who make it do so because they just refuse to give up. Starting and running a tech company takes a lot of guts and my hat is off to everyone I met over the years who stepped forward and took the plunge.
Our investment capital is the conduit between the work being done in Penn State research labs, classrooms and the community as a whole and the commercialization of these technologies.
Happy Valley is blessed to have a very robust entrepreneurial eco-system largely due to the presence of the university, the SBDC, Invent Penn State and the resources provided by Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Our investment capital is the conduit between the work being done in Penn State research labs, classrooms and the community as a whole and the commercialization of these technologies. Our business support services and BIG IDEA contests, as well as the TechCelerator 10-week startup boot camps, help teach emerging entrepreneurs how to channel those ideas into sustainable businesses.
Ben Franklin is the first institutional investor most tech entrepreneurs meet. While that may sound very formal and a little scary, the people I’ve met here are some of the nicest, most caring individuals any emerging entrepreneur could ever meet. They genuinely care for the well-being of those we invest in and want nothing more than to see them succeed. What I’ll miss most is our team and the friends I’ve made along the way, who in many ways became like family to me.
I would caution the young professionals just entering the ecosystem to recognize the value of office-born work relationships. People who don’t know you won’t have your back when things go awry — and of course, eventually they always do.
Ben Franklin is an award-winning program, and there’s a reason for that. The leadership team is always looking for new, exciting ways to support innovation in the Commonwealth. Our governors and legislators, regardless of political affiliation, have supported the program for more than 40 years. This is not only because of our program’s phenomenal return on the state’s investment, but because of the thousands of jobs that have been created and retained, the products that have been developed and the hundreds of startups that have become established, successful, tax-paying companies in Pennsylvania.
The emergence of [the Covid-19 pandemic] changed so many things for those of us who have spent our careers working in a traditional office environment. While those changes were certainly necessary to keep our employees safe and healthy, I feel that some of the camaraderie, trust and team building that is so important in any organization got lost along the way. It’s so much easier to be dismissive, suspicious or negative about the input of someone you rarely see. I would caution the young professionals just entering the ecosystem to recognize the value of office-born work relationships. People who don’t know you won’t have your back when things go awry — and of course, eventually they always do.