Of projects that were aided by the Obama administration's stimulus program (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania's expanded TechVentures incubator, on the grounds of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, is one that most on both sides of political spectrum agree was worthwhile. The expansion, completed one year ago, added 47,000 square feet of space, bringing the total size of the facility to 109,000 square feet. The $18 million expansion was funded from several sources including $6 million in federal stimulus funds. Vice President Biden attended the 2009 grounbreaking ceremony. And Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett had nothing but praise for the incubator, its work, and economic contributions to Northeastern Pennsylvania in a visit two weeks ago. The original facility, once an R&D center for Bethlehem Steel, is not part of the University, though the two institutions work together in many ways.
The five story, LEED-registered building features 60,000 square feet of rentable office space, 11,000+ square feet of wet lab space, and conference facilities. It also houses offices for Ben Franklin Technology Ventures NEP, and space for Lehigh's Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, which has become nationally ranked among university entrepreneurship programs and a leading driver of entrepreneurial activity for students at Lehigh. TechVentures has received several awards, both for the facility itself and its incubator program.
The Lehigh Valley's tech legacy and current profile is somewhat different than the Philly area. Of course, the steel business went away, leaving a huge gap. The Valley has had a history and talent base in areas like chips and optics, largely related to
the past presence of AT&T's Bell Labs and Western Electric in the area. While that legacy lives on to some degree, with companies such as TechVenture incubator graduates CICLON (acquired by Texas Instruments) and IQE, Lightwire (acquired by Cisco Systems early this year) and CyOptics, and Lehigh's Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics, it is not likely to be a driving force and job creator that it once was. The Valley probably has a stronger manufacturing base than the Philly area does now, and some of the startups there are focused on incorporating new technologies into older industries. There is biotech and medtech activity (such as TechVenture grads OraSure Technologies and Saladax Biomedical), and promising IT firms. TechVentures grad Computer Aid, Inc. is one; others include Allentown-based cloud computing firm IndependenceIT and Bethlehem-based insurance software firm Adaptik. Bridgewater, NJ-based Synchronoss Technologies has a major engineering center in Bethlehem.
Wayne Barz, Manager, Entrepreneurial Programs at Ben Franklin TechVentures, told me via telephone that TechVentures currently has 26 tenants and two "anchor tenants": CICLON/Texas Instruments (TI chose to stay and expand after acquiring CICLON), and Saladax Biomedical. Barz also mention Micro Interventional Devices as a tenant that is approaching a breakout stage; it has developed a minimally invasive structural heart repair product. XiGo Nanotools, which makes a shoebox-sized device that quickly measures the surface area of nano-particles, is another promising tenant that has already built a solid revenue stream.
Barz, who received his undergrad degree and MBA from Lehigh,has been with BFTP-NEP for 12 years. Last week Barz was awarded Lehigh's inaugural MBA Entrepreneurship Award at its MBA Day. He maintains a blog, TechnomicMan, and tweets under the same moniker.
Of course, Lehigh University's P.C. Rossin College of Engineering & Applied Science is an important source of potential talent. It awards out about 400 B.S. degrees and 135 graduate degrees each year.
Another valuable component of the Lehigh Valley tech startup ecosystem is Pi: Partnership for Innovation, a 9,000 square foot space in the upper floors of a hardware store leased by the city of Bethlehem. The space has been filled in less than a year since its Fall 2011 opening. Tenants include graduates of TechVentures such as business video website Viddler and RFID startup ElementID.
TechVentures will be hosting the first Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend on the weekend of November 2-4. Organizers of the weekend include Anthony Durante, Tim Lytle and Mark Koberlein, energetic co-organizers of the always busy Lehigh Valley Tech Meetup group,which now numbers 261 members, and Barz. Philly Startup Leaders President and appRenaissance CEO Bob Moul will be among the judges.
Also coming up on the schedule at TechVentures is Ben Franklin Venture Idol 2012, a "Shark Tank"-like competition to be held on the evening of November 15.