From fire safety to cash loans, FastTrack startup teams are looking for solutions

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – Several new startups started by community entrepreneurs and students recently graduated from Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank FastTrack Accelerator. Their ideas covered the treatment of acne; a better way to find a dream tech job or sublet an apartment; and a smoke barrier system that increases the length of time a person trapped in a fire can survive while waiting to be rescued.

The nine teams were chosen for the FastTrack 2018-19 accelerator from a pool of 30 applicants. The teams met weekly for 16 weeks and had one-on-one mentoring sessions with Lee Erickson, the Happy Valley LaunchBox Chief Amplifier. As part of the program, each team received free workspace at LaunchBox, expert mentoring, free legal and IP advice, and more. The goal of the program is to move teams up quickly and help them avoid common and costly mistakes made during start-up.

One team, Pinch, founded by Penn State graduates Connor Amos (Class of 2019, Business Innovation and Entrepreneurial Studies) and Rick Carabba (Class of 2019, Materials Science and Engineering), had a business idea that enabled students lend and borrow small amounts of money for short periods of time from open source individual lenders. One of the first business assumptions they made was that it was legal, when in fact it wasn’t; businesses cannot charge interest like a bank does. However, by working with the Penn State Law Entrepreneurial Assistance Clinic and LaunchBox’s network of mentors and financial advisers, Pinch has learned that it is legal to charge transaction fees. As a result, the company is lending money at this time.

One of the primary goals of the FastTrack program is customer discovery. Teams find customers, meet them, collect feedback, and often change their product or business based on that feedback.

While some startups mainly needed help verifying the legality or feasibility of their business, startups like Argolytics used FastTrack to beta test their program with real customers. Customer feedback indicated that the platform’s interface needs to be more user-friendly and that they need to incorporate a predictive element to add real value. Since making these changes, they have been busy testing the new and improved product again.

For Nicholas Welch, founder of Smoke Shield, the customer discovery process hasn’t changed his product, but it has changed his view of the entire company.

“Forget what you think you know,” Welch advised. “Focusing on developing your product is only about 15% of running your business. The FastTrack accelerator and other programs give you a 10,000 foot view so you can see the big picture.

Welch was inspired to create Smoke Shield when he was putting his young children to bed and noticed the switch was hot. He realized that the smoke detectors in their rooms probably wouldn’t alert them in time to escape safely. After an exhaustive search, he said, he could not find satisfactory fire safety options, especially for children. Despite just graduating from medical school, Welch began to develop his product, which provides users with breathable air for up to an hour in their closets.

“Smoke deaths outnumber fire deaths,” Welch said. “People can’t always escape, but if they can breathe where they are and have more time to be rescued, it could mean the difference between life and death.”

Welch began by bringing a sketch of his idea to Ray Hayden at the Small Business Development Center in Wilkes Barre, and that connection opened the doors to a multitude of other programs. Hayden put him in touch with Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance and IP Clinics, which helped him patent his idea and get incorporated.

Welch also used the Learning Factory to meet and hire engineers to help build Smoke Shield. The engineers Welch met, Mark Boudreau and Colby Geary, both work full time for the company now.

“Nick has done a great job leveraging multiple entities across the state,” Erickson said. “He’s worked with everyone from engineers at the Learning Factory to marketing managers at Think Center. ”

“For a very low cost, incredible resources are available to entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania,” Welch said. “The bonds I made along the way will always be there for me. ”

Erickson says the FastTrack Accelerator is ideal for entrepreneurs who have a clear idea of ​​the problem they are trying to solve, think they know who their customers are, and have taken action to bring their idea to life.

“Ideas are easy,” Erickson said. “The execution is difficult. FastTrack helps prevent common mistakes made at the start of a run.

The Fall 2018 FastTrack Accelerator teams were:

  • Aspire software helps position Penn State computer science students to be candidates for internships at top tech companies.
  • DermatoloMe has developed a faster and cheaper way to identify the best treatment for patients with acne.
  • AIODA uses chatbots to connect students and counselors around the clock.
  • Argolytics creates web-based software that helps manufacturers assess the quality of their product with affordable and accurate QC report software.
  • fountaa helps sites reduce waste and increase safety with low cost, portable water stations.
  • Club Companion is an interactive plush animal created to reduce anxiety in cancer patients aged 6 to 8 years.
  • Pinch makes it easy to lend small amounts of money and get reimbursed.
  • Southern Safety Products, LLC, is developing a system that provides clean air to people unable to leave their homes during a fire.
  • Looped Lease streamlines subletting by connecting tenant sub-letters.

Past graduates of the Happy Valley LaunchBox program include startups such as Phospholutions, Project Vive, Moichor, and Reflexion Interactive.

The FastTrack Accelerator 2019-20 apps will open on August 20. For more information, visit

Troy M. Hoffman