No challenge is too big for entrepreneurs in Lehigh Valley. Technology developed by new companies in the region solves problems across a range of markets. The first – and only – FDA-approved rapid HIV test for at-home use came out of Lehigh Valley, as has a genetic test for connective tissue diseases. The area is home to a firm that uses advanced technology to create micro-thin wafers for semiconductors, as well as a startup that makes lights and pumps for reef aquariums to promote coral growth without harming fish.
Support for Startups
For a small area, Lehigh Valley has big resources to get new tech ventures on solid ground. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeast Pennsylvania, part of a statewide network, is a major player. With a TechVentures incubator on the Lehigh University campus, the organization provides seed money, equipment grants, mentorship and networking. Technology sector jobs are vital to Lehigh Valley, and that's why nurturing startups is such a priority for the region, says Chad Paul, president and CEO of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“Ben Franklin TechVentures is a job creation factory that accelerates our region’s economic growth,” he says.
Incubators, innovation zones and mentor programs abound in the area. Wayne Barz, manager of entrepreneurial programs for TechVentures, says he is seeing more software startups and more student-run startups, but the need for early guidance is still a constant.
"Every person, every company is different, but what we offer is deep experience," he says. "We can help clients avoid some pitfalls to dramatically increase their chances of success."
The impressive track record of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania includes starting 429 new companies; developing 1,127 new products and processes; creating 15,479 new jobs and retaining 21,459 existing jobs in northeastern Pennsylvania since 1983.
Ben Franklin is part of a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem that includes Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone, which grants tax abatements and awards technology transfer grants to early-stage companies, and Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown.
Bridgeworks, a project of the Allentown Economic Development Corp., is housed in a former Mack Trucks property that has high ceilings and interior docks ideal for light manufacturing. Some of its current tenants include The Colony Meadery, which brews gluten-free meads, and ColdEdge Technologies, which makes cryogenic equipment used by government and university labs to conduct materials research and development.
Ben Franklin alumnus EcoTech Marine has its own facility in Allentown. The company, started by Lehigh University students, designs and manufactures high-tech products for reef aquariums, a growing niche market. Its pumps and lights create water flow and mimic the sun’s spectrum, fostering coral growth without harming fish. The rigs are outside the tank, and EcoTech rolled out wireless control in September 2013.
That same month, the company, which started in 2006 with three co-founders, hired its 51st employee. New, larger space allows on-site assembly of circuit boards, which makes the company more competitive in price and more flexible in product development, says Pat Clasen, a founder and director of finance.
“Soon we will be manufacturing all circuit boards in-house, giving us the ability to grow purposefully and carefully and expand while retaining our high degree of quality,” Clasen says.
EcoTech has grown substantially over the past three years and generated more than $12 million in revenue in 2012, increasing 2011 sales by more than 50 percent.
Firms Mature, Thrive in Region
Two fast-growing tech ventures and Ben Franklin alumni graduated from the startup category years ago. One is IQE, which began in 1989 with one founder and produces semiconductor wafers used to make chips for electronic, telecommunications and optoelectronics applications. With sales of $125 million and two strategic acquisitions of other epiwafer manufacturers, IQE, which is publicly traded, now employs nearly 600 people in 11 facilities worldwide.
Another is OraSure Technologies, which pioneered quick at-home HIV test kits. Clinics, health care providers and, in some cases social services and court programs, use OraSure’s nasal swab flu tests, saliva tests for alcohol and quick tests for HIV and Hepatitis C antibodies. Its fluid drug test doesn’t require urine or hair sample collection and analysis. OraSure got off the ground in Lehigh Valley, started trading on NASDAQ in 2000 and isn’t going anywhere, says Ron Ticho, senior vice president of corporate communications.
“The tremendous resources in the Lehigh Valley have served as the foundation that fuels our ability to drive innovation in health care on a global level,” he says. “It will be an extremely valuable asset to our success moving forward.”