When the Berks LaunchBox first opened nearly seven years ago, it provided a glimmer of hope to Berks County entrepreneurs and innovators. Since then, its impact has grown to be more than its staff could have imagined.
The Berks LaunchBox is celebrating its four-year anniversary of its expansion from Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Downtown Reading Campus to the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in downtown Reading.
An innovation hub of the Invent Penn State initiative, the Berks LaunchBox was created through a seed grant in 2016. Its mission is to assist early-stage entrepreneurs and startup companies with accessing the tools and resources they need to launch and grow in Greater Reading. In January 2019, it expanded its operations and moved to GoggleWorks Center for the Arts.
Throughout 2022, the Berks LaunchBox supported 148 entrepreneurs with startup ideas, hosted 10 coworking companies, taught more than 400 community members a new skill in the makerspace, impacted 280 students (elementary school through college), and welcomed more than 1,100 people to free classes and webinars.
“The innovation and creativity the LaunchBox sees from community members and entrepreneurs continues to inspire us every day in our work,” said Erica Kunkel, director of the Berks LaunchBox and continuing education and outreach. “We take great pride in being able to impact our community through education, makerspace resources, and connections to our team of advisers.”
One example of this collaboration is the LaunchBox’s work with The Salt Box Soap Company, founded by Nigel Walker. Walker began working with the LaunchBox in late 2022. Located in the Shillington Farmers Market, where more than half of the vendors are women and/or minority-owned small businesses, Walker turned her passion into her business, hand-making body butter, bar soaps, and more.
“I’ve had the most impactful experiences working with the Berks LaunchBox. Michelle Hnath, education specialist, takes the time to truly listen to my needs and then provides actionable steps, resources and connections including to the Penn State Law Clinic to help me move forward with my business. Ryan Light, makerspace assistant and Penn State Berks student, taught me how to better use my laptop to manage my business. The entire team has been very patient, informative and highly supportive” said Walker.
State funding helps expand resources
For the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Invent Penn State received $2.35 million in new funding to help strengthen and grow the LaunchBox and Innovation Hub Network. $50,000 of this funding is available to the Berks LaunchBox to support staffing and programmatic expenses.
Free classes, webinars, workshops, and equipment training in makerspace
Berks LaunchBox holds several seminars per month for entrepreneurs and small business owners focused on business development, social media marketing, legal issues, intellectual property, pitch presentations, minimum viable products, brainstorming and validating business ideas, customer discovery, and ways a business can pivot to address customer issues. In addition, the LaunchBox offers courses in basic CAD (Computer Aided Design) and 3D printing, as well as training in the use of available equipment and associated software.
Berks LaunchBox offers a rent-free space, allowing co-working companies to meet and collaborate with other entrepreneurs and mentors. Co-working companies benefit from 24/7 access to office space for one year, meeting and event space, high-speed Internet, legal support, community connections, and LaunchBox advisers. Startups also receive assistance with prototyping and marketing, free monthly seminars, and support from staff.
Youth and community outreach
The LaunchBox staff believes that growing an entrepreneurial mindset in youth helps to develop future entrepreneurs. The LaunchBox has held Remake Learning events and open lab nights for individuals and families with children to design and create 3D-printed and laser-cut snowflakes and holiday ornaments, build bridges, create electric circuit light-up greeting cards, and more to introduce these technologies and spark creativity and innovation.
Looking ahead to 2023
In February 2023, the Berks LaunchBox received a $53,000 grant from the County of Berks to revamp the coworking space with new desks, storage, and sound dampening, and to add a small meeting space for entrepreneurs to work collaboratively. Funds will also be used to purchase new laptops, makerspace materials and a 3D scanner to support computer-aided design and modeling of prototypes, and to help fund workshops on how to use this valuable software and hardware.
The Berks LaunchBox will be offering a five-week Social Impact Accelerator in spring 2023, in partnership with four other LaunchBoxes across Pennsylvania. Accepted ideas and teams will be able to leverage internationally renowned e-learning platform, Social Shifters. This program is designed to help individuals and early-stage businesses with a social impact business idea to clarify their mission, understand their customers, and design sustainable business models.