Berks LaunchBox provides services to entrepreneurs, startup companies

A great idea is only an idea without a framework on which to build it.

Berks LaunchBox provides that framework for entrepreneurs and business startups, offering no-cost coworking space, use of 3D printers and other equipment, business development classes, pitch competitions, access to mentors and experts, speaker series, a business boot camp, business accelerator programs , legal advice through Penn State Law clinics and other services.

The organization is supported by Invent Penn State, a statewide program started in 2016 to encourage entrepreneurship and economic development in communities across the state. Berks LaunchBox was established in 2017 as a collaborative effort between Penn State Berks and Penn State Health St. Joseph. Originally located in the lower level of Penn State St. Joseph’s Downtown Campus, it moved to the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading in 2019.

Participants attend a pitch-night competition at the LaunchBox makerspace in the GoggleWorks. (PHOTO COURTESY BERKS LAUNCHBOX)

Its mission, according to Erica Kunkle, interim director of continuing education at Penn State Berks and interim director of Berks LaunchBox, is to help early-stage entrepreneurs access the tools and resources they need to be successful in Greater Reading.

“We know that starting a business is not easy, but LaunchBox can provide a lot of support and assistance to help entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground,” Kunkle said.

The makerspace at the GoggleWorks gives entrepreneurs, students and others access to 3D printers, computers, a smart cutting machine, laser cutter, printers, education software and more.

Berks LaunchBox staff members, from left to right, Michelle Hnath;  Erica Kunkle;  Lisa Weaver;  and Patty Leshinski.  (PHOTO COURTESY BERKS LAUNCHBOX)
Berks LaunchBox staff members, from left to right, Michelle Hnath; Erica Kunkle; Lisa Weaver; and Patty Leshinski. (PHOTO COURTESY BERKS LAUNCHBOX)

Patty Leshinski, a mechanical engineer who serves as facilities coordinator, said the space is free to Penn State faculty, staff and students, but open to any adult interested in using the equipment and accessing the expertise of trained staff and mentors for a reasonable membership fee . Those under 18 can access the space for free when accompanied by a member. Many people have taken advantage of the makerspace, which provides opportunities for collaboration and classes.

“It’s just an inspirational place to work,” Leshinski said. “There’s a lot of creativity in that space.”

Berks LaunchBox, which uses the motto “Don’t Quit Your Daydream,” in 2021 assisted 115 entrepreneurs, half of whom were people of color. Anyone the greater Berks County area can seek advice and input at no cost from LaunchBox; there is no requirement for Penn State affiliation.

LaunchBox Success Stories

DN Organics, a Reading-based company that’s released a natural hair care line for women with curly hair, is one startup that benefited from the services of Berks LaunchBox.

Founded by sisters Cory Dahlia Varona Corniel and Nicol Varona Cancelmo, DN Organics is the result of their desire to embrace their naturally curly hair and enable others to do the same.

“Our mission is to honor curly women in their authentic sense,” said Corniel.

Sisters Cory Dahlia Varona-Corniel, left, and Nicol Varona Cancelmo founded DN Organics with assistance from Berks LaunchBox. (PHOTO COURTESY BERKS LAUNCHBOX)

The sisters, both graduates of Penn State Berks, began working with LaunchBox early in the process of getting their business started and said the help they received was invaluable.

“They connected us with a mentor who had previously launched a product and who gave us great advice,” Corniel said. “We also got a grant from Berks LaunchBox that we used to enhance our website.”

Designated as a co-working company, they worked with LaunchBox staff to design and print product stickers in the makerspace at the GoggleWorks. They were introduced to other entrepreneurs and given a chance to present a virtual pitch for their product, an ultra-defined curls leave-in hair cream they introduced last year. A second product – a styling gel – became available earlier this year, with both products available in full and sample sizes on the DN Organics website.

Of all the help they received from LaunchBox, the mentors they connected with have been the most valuable, according to Corniel.

“You can not put a monetary value on those mentorships, which are so important to a small business,” she said.

The sisters also value their continuing relationship with the organization.

“We go back and ask for help with reviewing grant applications and other things,” Cancelmo said. “We can tap into them and keep asking for help.”

Other local businesses that connected with Berks LaunchBox include Mindful Roots Yoga, which developed a program to teach elementary-age children mindfulness and yoga, skills that have been shown to boost self-confidence, relieve stress, build strength and flexibility and increase self-control ; Verde Mantis, LP, which produces high-quality, low-cost 3D printers; CarToCamp, which designs and manufactures a sleeping platform that fits into most SUVs; and RISQUE by Talonda Healthcare Consultants and Educators LLC, a company that is working to reduce maternal mortality rates, particularly among women of color.

Tolanda Rogers, founder of Talonda Healthcare Consultants and Educators LLC, delivers her business pitch to other entrepreneurs during a LaunchBox pitch competition.  (PHOTO COURTESY BERKS LAUNCHBOX)
Tolanda Rogers, founder of Talonda Healthcare Consultants and Educators LLC, delivers her business pitch to other entrepreneurs during a LaunchBox pitch competition. (PHOTO COURTESY BERKS LAUNCHBOX)

Talonda Rogers, founder of RISQUE, participated last year in LaunchBox’s idea test lab, an intensive six-week “bootcamp” for early-stage entrepreneurs. LaunchBox staff members have been extremely supportive, she said, introducing her to potential investors, helping her identify potential customers and connecting her with legal advice.

“I never knew there was so much help available to people who want to be entrepreneurs,” Rogers said. “I can not place a value on what LaunchBox has done for my company.”

Other Services and Events

In addition to its GoggleWorks presence, Berks LaunchBox partners with Penn State Health St. Joseph to offer a “Veggie Rx” program that benefits patients with diet-related health concerns and a weekly farm stand on Tuesdays from 11 am to 2 pm at Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Downtown Campus.

Those programs are part of LaunchBox’s social entrepreneurship endeavor, headed by Lisa Weaver, social entrepreneurship specialist.

This summer, Berks LaunchBox will sponsor “Maker Mondays,” during which its makerspace will be open to the public from 2 to 8 pm It also periodically hosts free, community events at which participants can use makerspace equipment, and groups can request to use the makerspace events for learning opportunities. Upcoming events, including classes, webinars and speakers, are listed on the “Updates” section of LaunchBox’s website at https://berkslaunchbox.psu.edu.

How to Learn More or to Help

Budding entrepreneurs can contact Berks LaunchBox through its website and will be contacted by Michelle Hnath, a software entrepreneur who first meets with entrepreneurs to discuss ideas and strategies and also mentors startups. You can fill out a contact form online, email at BK – InnovationHUB@psu.edu or call the LaunchBox at 610-396-6400.

While Berks LaunchBox receives support from Penn State and has been awarded grants, it is always looking for additional investors to assure it can continue to provide support for as many prospective entrepreneurs as possible. It also could use more volunteers to provide advice on various aspects of starting and running a business, particularly in the area of ​​accounting.

“We’ve been doing the best we can to make sure our services remain accessible to the community, but we also need to be sure we remain sustainable,” Weaver said. “It’s great to have community partners who are willing to help us do that.”

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