By Matthew Rink Erie Times-News, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Several Erie area universities are pooling their money, passion and creativity to create the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network. At some of the universities (or beehives) the focus will be on advertising, marketing and public relations. At others, the focus will be on business development.
Erie County's four universities have formed a collaborative to help entrepreneurs and small business start-ups make their dreams reality.
A $200,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and another $200,000 of matching funds provided by Ignite Erie Industry+University Business Acceleration Collaborative will help establish a support network for business ventures.
The project is being coordinated by Penn State Behrend, but involves three other Erie-area universities: Gannon, Mercyhurst and Edinboro.
Together they will create the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network.
Each will host entrepreneurial or "beehive" labs that will focus on different stages of business development.
Behrend's innovation beehive opened in 2016 with the assistance of the Invent Penn State Initiative, which has funded 17 such hubs across the Penn State school system.
Called the Innovation Commons, the site offers engineering and design expertise to prospective start-ups.
3D printing and product design, CAD assistance and consulting is also offered at Innovation Commons through Gannon University's Small Business Development Center, which thus far has assisted on more than 50 projects, according to a news release from Penn State Behrend. Students staff the lab.
The $400,000 of grant money allows the vision of establishing a network of beehive sites to take shape.
That vision began forming in 2014, when the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority established Ignite Erie Industry, an initiative to nurture an entrepreneurial culture and spark job creation and business growth.
ECGRA set aside $750,000 to distribute over three years to the local universities.
Then came Ignite Erie Industry+University Business Acceleration Collaborative, a partnership of ECGRA, and Behrend and Mercyhurst, two applicants that applied for funding. Gannon and Edinboro were brought aboard in an advisory capacity.
"When you look at the number of students graduating and the faculty expertise, to leverage all of that into kind of a standalone but also integrated system means that all of those rise together," said Amy Bridger, the senior director of corporate strategy and external relations at Behrend. "We're leveraging the strengths of all four universities. We're also coordinating our efforts."
ECGRA continues to provide funding for the initiative today.
Mercyhurst Provost and Executive Vice President David Dausey, the university's representative on the Ignite Erie Industry board, said it's typically difficult to bring universities and other organizations together.
However, officials from each school have worked hard to find their niche and capitalize on their strengths to avoid overlapping services. This type of collaborative is indicative of where the business world is moving, he said.
"For every 10 good ideas maybe one of them will be successful, so you have to give entrepreneurs an environment where they can grow and thrive."
The other labs will open within three to six months. Here's how they'll work:
--Edinboro University's lab, which will be located in Baron-Forness Library, will focus on advertising, marketing and public relations.
--Gannon University's lab will focus on business development and analysis. Located in the Center for Business Ingenuity, Gannon's lab will also offer access to its Small Business Development Center and the Erie Technology Incubator.
--Mercyhurst University's lab, which will be located in the Ridge College of Intelligence Studies, will help developers commercialize their ideas by providing business intelligence services. Teams of faculty members and students will use high-end computers and plotters, for example, to assist entrepreneurs, according to a news release.
Brad Gleason, director of operations at the Ridge College of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst, said the program is "all about the students." While entrepreneurs will gain the valuable insight of students and faculty members, students will receive hands-on, real-world experience in their fields of study.
"We're blending teams so we can do a multi-disciplinary, multi-university effort when supporting local businesses," he said.
These "beehives" can function independently to cater to specific needs of an entrepreneur, or they can operate as a larger network.
Blasco Library, which will open the Idea Lab later this month, will also have a role. It will feed projects into the universities' network.
The business support network is the first of its kind in the region.
"It's important for this region to act like this," Gleason said. "In order to attract business and in order to change the profile of what the capabilities are of our universities we have to come together and do these things. We just have to. If not we'll have the same old university that's not talking to another university that's not talking to another university. We need to highlight how we can do things differently, together, to make our workforce and our students more attractive so businesses will come here."
Dausey said it is an exciting time for the region. The Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network will complement other agencies charged with business development, such as the Innovation Collaborative, the Erie Innovation District, the Erie Technology Incubator, Radius CoWork and the Erie Downtown Development Corporation.
"You're really starting to see a nucleus of activity, which really to me is suggestive that bigger things are about to happen for Erie," Dausey said. "I'm incredibly optimistic about Erie's future, and I'm delighted to see this collaboration among the universities."