By Staff Writer
Photo: Happy Valley Launchbox
In the summer months, most Penn State students head out of Happy Valley for summer jobs, internships or vacations, but for these seven student teams, their summer looked very different. They were part of Invent Penn State’s Summer Founders Program that has launched many businesses and helped countless students bring their startup vision to life.
In the past 13 weeks, seven teams were given $15,000, a network of 60+ advisors, and 24/7 access to Happy Valley Launchbox to jumpstart their business idea. In addition to business help and weekly training sessions, they participated in community volunteering, took several field trips to learn about successful startup strategies in the region, and even hosted a baby shower for one of the founders. Here’s how they’re making strides to transform their industry.
Bindr is a free-to-use bisexual dating app started by Mary Richardson and Brandon Teller to provide an inclusive option for those who haven’t found a place on other dating platforms. As Bindr has grown organically, it has become a haven for transgender, non-binary, pansexual, and everyone in between that may not fit in “gay, straight, lesbian” labels for their sexuality.
Why it was started: Richardson and Teller began Bindr because of the need in the market for queer dating apps. Richardson, the company’s CEO, experienced discrimination from mainstream dating platforms. “I was banned from Tinder multiple times, and after customer discovery, I found this is a common problem with bisexual women,” said Richardson. “Other dating apps that are specified for the bisexual or LGBTQIA+ market feel predatory and unsafe, or are pay-to-use and feel discriminatory for that reason.”
How it’s solving the problem: Bindr is specifically aligned to avoid the discrimination that bisexual and queer individuals experience from all ends of the spectrum. To enhance every user’s experience, they created a label-free dating system. “We want to focus on everyone in this outlier market,” said Richardson, “though we accept everyone and we choose to be a label-free platform to reinforce the inclusivity that everyone can belong without having to label themselves or fit into a specific niche.”
Now the app has almost 30k organic active users and is beating out competitors such as Grindr, Tinder, and HER in the top spot for bisexual and lesbian dating. Richardson was recently nominated and selected as a finalist for a Women In Technology award for Diversity and Inclusion.
Summer Founders’ impact: “Summer Founder’s Program has taught us vital information to make our company successful in the startup industry,” said Richardson. “The funding allowed us to go out to Pride events and talk to our community and get feedback in person about what the LGBTQIA+ community wanted to see in a dating app. The connections we have made in the program will turn into lifelong friendships with the other teams, and lasting professional relationships to turn to when I need advice.”
Zoils & Pigments creates a range of art supplies such as watercolors, crayons, and chalks to meet the demands for eco-conscious products. Co-founders Zoelie Rivera-Ocasio and Eric Appeldoorn merge ancestral techniques and modern science to produce handmade soil-based art supplies.
Why it was started: “According to the recent Global Consumer Insights Survey, people have become more sensitive to the environmental impact of their shopping decisions,” said Rivera-Ocasio. “Zoils & Pigments strives to meet the growing demand for art supplies created from non-toxic and environmentally friendly materials.”
How it’s solving the problem: “We use only non-synthetic pigments, from soils hand-gathered and processed by ourselves. Our company is distinctive in that we source our pigments directly from Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania's diverse soils and use storytelling to reveal the identity, traits, and origins of each pigment,” said Rivera-Ocasio. “This satisfies customers’ desire to learn about and forge a personal bond with the origin of the materials they use in their artistic work.”
Summer Founders’ impact: With help from the Summer Founders Program, Zoils & Pigments has been able to achieve significant goals throughout the summer, including developing a plastic-free wooden palette to prioritize eco-conscious practices, launching their Happy Valley Collection at Webster’s Café, and enhancing their branding design. “The Summer Founders Program has been a jam-packed bag of tools and opportunities for our business, all in less than 3 months,” said Rivera-Ocasio.
TDAY Sports is a social media news brand targeting Gen Z to bridge the gap between traditional sports media and the next generation of fans. CEO Justin Leusner brings his decade-plus of social media experience to the world of sports entertainment.
Why it was started: “ESPN and other major platforms aren’t reaching Gen Z at scale,” said Leusner. “This generation is used to content creators and internet personalities, and they’ve come to expect fast-paced authentic content rather than the traditional media outlets.”
How it’s solving the problem: “TDAY Sports’ goal is to build Gen Z’s ESPN through social media video content,” said Leusner. “We hope to solve the disconnect between Gen Z and traditional sports media outlets, by having things broken down and transformed to appeal to every viewer. We’ve already made over a thousand videos and we have 6 brands posting content.”
Summer Founders’ impact: Leusner appreciates the mentorship and challenge the Summer Founders Program afforded their company. “We’ve had a seamless flow from the LaunchBox to the FastTrack Accelerator to Summer Founders, which enabled us to hire full-time employees and we’re projected to make six figures in profit this year. The Summer Founders program has been absolutely instrumental—we couldn’t have done it without them. The leadership is constantly pushing and challenging you to make things happen.”
UniTru is a virtual tour program designed to help international and out-of-state students find their university match through tours from current and recent university students. Co-founders Eric Olah-Reiken and Jordan Dikoum strive to give every potential student the chance to see an honest point of view, no matter their location or budget.
Why it was started: Olah-Reiken was inspired to start UniTru after witnessing a need for unfiltered reviews of universities. “Two times in one week, random people came up to me and overcame the uncomfortable act of talking to a stranger to hear my honest opinion,” said Olah-Reiken. Dikoum resonated with the idea because of his own experience as an international student. “My experience of going to uni was difficult. I applied internationally all over the world, but I didn’t know anything about the schools before I applied. There were significant things I didn’t know about Penn State before I moved thousands of miles.”
How it’s solving the problem: “We’re unfiltered and unaffiliated,” said Dikoum. “I wouldn’t say we’re pioneers, but we’re certainly innovators in this industry. Having information about who you’re talking to is so important when making a decision. Students spend so much money to visit and then they’re put in front of a person who wants to sell the whole experience. We are saving time, saving miles, and saving money with a 30-minute consultation.”
Summer Founders’ impact: “Coming into this program, it was just Jordan and me,” said Olah-Reiken. “Now we include tours for almost 60 schools and represent 65 countries with our guides. The Summer Founders Program has helped us with the structure and the ability to have a physical space to work out of. There are resources all around us, including a law clinic, a graphic designer, and the chance to collaborate with other entrepreneurs. We’ve made our first revenue and onboarded an amazing team of guides.”
Preventi is a medication adherence program and health education app. The doctor purchases the HIPAA-compliant Preventi software, inputs their basic information and their diagnosis, then receives personalized information and reminders through the app. CEO and recent Penn State grad Noah Wiggins hopes to use the app to minimimize health illiteracy and educate patients on their healthcare needs.
Why it was started: Wiggins’ passion for health education began as a kid growing up in a healthcare home. “It’s always bothered me that there’s such huge disparities between different communities—in Pittsburgh, if you are born on the wrong side of a bridge it could mean a difference in 10 years of life expectancy. I studied behavioral health in college and I’ve found a niche that works for me and it’s impactful in the community.”
How it’s solving the problem: “When a patient leaves a doctor’s office, they forget 40-80 percent of the information they’re given, and only 50% of the remaining information is correct. It’s estimated that poor health literacy adds an additional $106 to $238 billion cost to the health care system. There’s a really simple solution: we send reminders to patients and educate them on their condition, and doctors can control what they’re reading and send them approved websites.”
Summer Founders’ impact: “Getting the Summer Founders program was pivotal to making the switch in my career. It put us in the spotlight and now we have a lot of student interns to build out the functionality and platform, making it more of a complete product. Summer Founders put our name on the map and opened doors for advisors and investors to know who we are, and we also have the Penn State name backing us.”
WaveBreaker Technologies is dedicated to making outdoor activities more accessible for people with physical limitations. Their flagship product is specifically designed for recreational sit-in kayaks, making it easy and stress-free to store your most used items. Owner and Army veteran Kevin Harris invented the solution to make the outdoors more enjoyable for people of every ability.
Why it was started: “When I medically separated from the Army in 2016, I spent a lot of time kayaking in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon,” said Harris. “However, my enjoyment was often hampered when water would come into my boat, and accessing my dry well was a cumbersome task. At that time, I couldn't find any products on the market that could address these issues, so I decided to invent my own solution.”
How it’s solving the problem: WaveBreaker Technologies aims to make the outdoors more accessible and enjoyable,” said Harris. “The first product we are developing is suited for recreational sit-in kayaks. Traditionally dry wells (water-tight storage containers) on this type of kayak are located behind the seat and are difficult to access. The WaveBreaker ‘Alpha’ (working name) offers kayakers a conveniently positioned dry well, mounted on the kayak's deck and situated in front of the cockpit. This design eliminates the inconvenience of reaching behind to access your storage.”
Summer Founders’ impact: The support of the program was invaluable to Harris. “One of the most concrete forms of assistance is the $15,000 grant we received,” he said. “What may not be immediately visible is the extensive network of expert support available to us. I've had the privilege of meeting with several of these individuals, and each meeting has left us more knowledgeable than before. Additionally, the LaunchBox team dedicated time to meet with us on a weekly basis. These meetings provided invaluable guidance in navigating the rapidly changing conditions that come with startup life.”
“We can't fathom attempting this journey on our own. We initially began in the 4-week Idea Test Lab program, subsequently progressing through the 10-week FastTrack Accelerator program, and now, we're graduating from Summer Founders. We are profoundly grateful for the unwavering support that LaunchBox has extended to us, and we eagerly look forward to the day when we can give back in return.”