By Cara Aungst
Six Penn State student startups each received a $15,000 grant and participated in Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank programming this summer as part of the 2022 Summer Founders Program. Credit: Penn State.
This summer, six Penn State student startups participated in a 13-week accelerator in a bid to jumpstart their new companies. Through the Invent Penn State Summer Founders Program, they were each given a $15,000 grant that allowed them to forgo summer jobs and focus full-time on their startups. Along with the grant, each team was given 24-7 access to Happy Valley LaunchBox, mentorship with industry experts and $3,000 for customer discovery.
So how much progress can a startup make in one summer? As it turns out, a lot. With 13 weeks to focus on just their startups, supported by mentorship and instruction from the Happy Valley Launchbox, many Penn State-born companies have received a critical leg up in their commercialization journey. Phospholutions, for example, recently received funding from global ag companies, and credits the program for helping it get going.
Here’s how this year’s participants are poised to change their industries.
Hey! is a revolutionary dating app that empowers its users to meet new people and make meaningful connections entirely through voice. Penn State graduate student Kevin Lord Josue and his cousin Vaillant Domingue III, an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, are spearheading the project.
Why it was started: “Users of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge report mental exhaustion, wasting time on bad dates that don’t meet expectations, ghosting and catfishing,” Josue said. “[The] top three biggest problems are fake profiles, toxic chat conversations and awkward or non-enjoyable dates. There’s a need and opportunity to solve the problems users are experiencing on existing dating platforms.”
How it’s poised to solve the problem: “Our app focuses on fostering emotional connections over judging others based on physical appearance,” Josue said. “Plus, it’s a Black-owned business, built with marginalized groups in mind, and we want to build something that brings our divided world together.”
Summer Founders’ impact: “It propelled our idea to reality,” Josue said. “The program gave us the time and support system needed to acquire new skills that empowered us to turn our idea into a product. It gave us confidence in ourselves and a path to de-risk our efforts.
Ballet Scout is the first (and only) industry network for dancers, called the “LinkedIn for dance.” The startup founders are Penn State students Robert Fulton, Sasha Ahrestani and Eugene Ryoo.
Why it was started: “There was no centralized platform for dancers and dance organizations to connect,” Penn State student and professional ballet dancer Fulton said. “Many times, people want to pursue a career in dance but can’t continue training because of a lack of organization. Dance organizations lack dancers and dancers can’t find opportunities. There’s a disconnect.” He added that there are more than 1 million ballet dancers and 72,000 dance organizations in the United States alone.
How it’s poised to solve the problem: By solving a “non-technical problem in a technical way,” Ballet Scout connects dancers, dance parents, teachers and professionals with opportunities across the country, offering filters for tuition, starting pay, housing, style of dance and location.
Summer Founders’ impact: “The program offered incredible resources. We developed a lot of technology this summer,” Fulton said. “Funding gave us a way to employ some other people this summer and work faster to develop the site.”
“Mentoring helped us to get a clear focus on our exact model and execution,” Ahrestani added. “We’re now ready for the next step — starting the first round of seed investments. We’re looking to grow this thing really big.”
Break free from hotels and Airbnbs by camping. CarToCamp makes car camping easier than ever with an easy-to-use sleeping platform that turns your car into an adventure vehicle. The startup founders are Penn State alumni Nathan Bonslaver, Robert Miller and Kevin Gulick.
Why it was started: “Car camping has been a growing market for many years now, and exploded during the pandemic. It offers a more comfortable camping experience than sleeping in a tent on the ground, and can take you further than exploring on foot,” Bonslaver said. “But most people don't have the expensive tools or DIY knowledge to build a custom sleeping platform in their vehicle for car camping.”
How it’s poised to solve the problem: “Our no-tools-required design helps people to hit the road for adventure,” Bonslaver said. “We are the first to offer several key design elements: no tools required for assembly, uninterrupted storage space underneath the sleeping platform, hinged wings for easy access to the storage space and many more features that have been attracting customers to our product over our competitors.”
Bonslaver said the design came after a year and a half of research and development by a team of three mechanical engineers. “We designed, prototyped and tested six different stages of prototypes before launching our first product.”
Summer Founders’ impact: “It has been instrumental in the growth of CarToCamp,” Bonslaver said. “Coaching from our mentors helped guide our marketing strategies. Going into Summer Founders, I thought we were getting into the business of product design, but I've learned that, in order to find long term success, we'll be getting into the business of manufacturing.”
ImaniK Travels is a consultation-based service that educates, de-risks, plans and executes guided international trips to make travel more accessible for young students of color. The startup founder is Imani Murray, who said: “I want to elevate people from tourist to traveler with inspiration, education and aspiration.”
Why it started: “I wanted to decrease barriers that minoritize people of color from ages 18-26, especially college students,” Murray said. “This demographic is 26% less likely to travel than white people in the same age group. Many want to know what will happen when they travel, and how they want to be treated. They want reliable people to travel with and they want to have authentic experiences. I wanted to show people of color that not only is international travel feasible, but it won’t break the bank.”
How it’s poised to solve the problem: “I am a travel, experience and lifestyle content creator, and started ImaniK Travels to document my experiences and help others in their travel journey, whether they're just starting, experienced or somewhere in between,” Murray said. “I want to help elevate Black travelers out of their time zone and into their element.”
Summer Founders’ impact: “Oh my goodness! I was the first influencer/content creator to go through the program, and it was great to see that there was space for me,” Murray said. “I knew that I had a brand, but I wasn’t sure if I had a business. Summer Founders opened a lot of doors for me. Aside from the resources, networking and people, they gave me confidence. They showed me that my business isn’t risk-free, but it is feasible.”
AIMADETHIS aims to utilize the power of artificial intelligence to inform current fashion trends in terms of color and pattern to create patterns that are then dyed in small-batch manufacturing and cut and sewn into high-quality garments. The startup founders are Penn Stater Nisarga Kadam and Yasmeen Collins, a graduate student at Columbia University.
Why it started: “AIMADETHIS was born with a mission to change the narrative of technology and fashion alike,” the founders said. “With a focus on sustainability and diversity, we are here to ensure every person finds their place in the future of fashion.”
How it’s poised to solve the problem: Using machine learning, AIMADETHIS turns data sets into colors and patterns, which are utilized to create sustainable clothing.
“With a small team made up of computer science and fashion experts, AIMADETHIS finds a niche nestled in the intersection between apparel, technology and wearable art,” Collins and Kadam said.
Summer Founders’ impact: “We had imposter syndrome before entering Summer Founders,” the team said at the Startup Showcase on Aug. 10. “The program helped us gain confidence and learn to take advantage of all of the opportunities available to us.”
Clove and Sprig is a soy wax, wood-wick candle company that produces products with high quality materials, unique scents and unequivocal attention to detail. The startup founder is Penn State third-year student Kelsey Lauer.
Why it started: “Customers are tired of repeated fragrances, unattractive packaging and fast burn times in traditional commercial candles,” Lauer said, “And candles produced by small businesses were seen to have shortcomings such as product inconsistencies, weak fragrances and (despite their larger price tags) the use of low-quality materials.”
How it’s poised to solve the problem: “I made it a priority to identify the most sought-after qualities — as well as the biggest problems — in candles in the current market. By creating products with compelling scents, high-quality materials and unequivocal attention to detail, I have been able to satisfy my customers' needs in ways that other candle businesses have fallen short.”
In addition to creating a better product, Lauer said she’s identifying issues other small candle companies face, and overcoming them. She said, “The market is relatively easy to break into, but it is much harder to scale a business successfully without sacrificing quality. This is something that I have been able to avoid this far and will strive to maintain.”
Summer Founders’ impact: “The program has been monumental in propelling my business into the growth mindset,” Lauer said. “I learned how to optimize production, manage my finances and utilize customer discovery. Since my involvement in Summer Founders, I have entered into three new stores and recently reached 700 candles sold, all of which would not have been possible without the guidance and funding provided by the Summer Founders Program.”