Image: Rick Brandt/Happy Valley LaunchBox
Penn State is known for its highly ranked programs in the sciences, engineering and technology, as well as for producing graduates who pursue successful careers in these areas. While many alumni find positions in large industrial centers or technology hubs, others, like Tamela Serensits, founder of Argolytics, Inc. and brothers Stephen and Nick Wells, founders of TZero, have discovered Happy Valley as an environment conducive to starting or growing a business in the technology, manufacturing or industrial sectors.
Stephen and Nick Wells received undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering within five years of each other, but their early career paths were markedly different. Stephen traveled the East Coast (“from Chicago to Miami”) with a touring rock band, playing piano and guitar and living out of a van in which he had set up a recording studio, an experience that introduced him to the “science of sound.” When the band broke up, he returned to Penn State for an M.S. in acoustics, then parlayed his degree and experience into a position as an acoustician with Boeing, where he worked on vibration systems for experimental spacecraft. In 2015, he came back to Happy Valley for good, earning his Ph.D. in acoustics and following his dream of starting a company with his brother.
Nick, meanwhile, took a more conventional approach: He started working at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory as a student, then stayed on after graduation in the Systems Automation division. It helped lay the foundation for Tzero, which creates sensor technology and cloud-based software to enable real-time remote monitoring of industrial processes within the brewing industry.
“We connect the unconnected,” Stephen says simply. He handles sales and business development for the Happy Valley-based company, while Nick oversees operations, building and manufacturing functions. A third partner, Eli Hughes, specializes in electronics and software development.
“We wanted to create something larger than ourselves. Here, we have the community and support structure that allowed us to make that happen.”
Stephen describes Tzero as “part of Industry 4.0,” the current trend of using smart technology for automation and data exchange in manufacturing. And the Happy Valley talent pool is exactly right for Tzero’s needs, with highly skilled technical employees coming from both Penn State and the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
In addition, a tightly connected business network ensures the company has access to local resources for its custom manufacturing needs, Nick adds. “Most of our products are based in acoustics, which is strong in central Pennsylvania,” he says. As part of the Ben Franklin Technology Partners network, Tzero can take advantage of funding opportunities for startups and a host of support services for technology companies.
But the main advantage of coming home, Stephen says, is simply that he loves Happy Valley. “We wanted to create something larger than ourselves,” he says. “Here, we have the community and support structure that allowed us to make that happen.”
“It’s the people that encourage us every day”
As a first-generation college student, Tamela Serensits of Buffalo, New York, “had to find [her] own way.” She signed on with Navy ROTC, which provided a full scholarship for her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in animal bioscience at Penn State. Then, 9/11 happened. Shortly after graduating in December 2001, Tamela was on a ship preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf, where she remained for four years. During that time, she returned to Penn State to marry her husband, a fellow College of Agricultural Sciences alum, whom she met as an undergraduate. Following Tamela’s honorable discharge from the Navy, her husband had an opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in turfgrass science at Penn State. They returned again in 2006, and she looked for employment while he pursued his studies.
Through her local Navy connections, Tamela quickly found a succession of positions and eventually landed as an account executive at Minitab, LLC, where she worked her way up to commercial sales manager. It was there that she got an idea for a product to fill an unmet need expressed by customers who were quality control managers at manufacturing facilities.
“Happy Valley has a strong, well-connected entrepreneurship community that offers companies the support we need to take one of the riskiest leaps—starting a business.”
“Small manufacturers wanted simple tools for data collection and analysis rather than the whole statistics package” that Minitab offered, she says. Thus, the concept for Trendable was born.
Armed with her vision for a new app, Tamela needed the resources to bring it to life. She found them at Happy Valley LaunchBox, a signature program of the Invent Penn State initiative to spur economic development and job creation throughout the Commonwealth.
In 2017, Tamela founded Argolytics, LLC, to develop software solutions such as Trendable for customers’ data collection needs. The following year, she enrolled in LaunchBox’s FastTrack Accelerator, a 15-week program designed to help entrepreneurs test their market and build an actionable plan based on customer feedback. When she decided to develop a second app, she procured funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, through which she also found a valuable network of supportive technological entrepreneurs.
It’s this collegial network of like-minded connections that Tamela appreciates most about owning a Happy Valley business.
“Happy Valley has a strong, well-connected entrepreneurship community that offers companies the support we need to take one of the riskiest leaps—starting a business,” she says. “It’s the people here who encourage us every day to stay committed to our vision that make it absolutely worth the risk. It’s a small community, so you can feel connected to people and comfortable reaching out to them.”