Ben Franklin Technology Partners: Investing in rural innovation across the PA Wilds, beyond

Ben Franklin Technology Partners: Investing in rural innovation across the PA Wilds, beyond

BIG IDEA Spotlight: Ben Franklin Technology Partners

By Jodie Dello Stritto

Editor’s Note: Designed to shine a spotlight on the services available to entrepreneurs, this article is part of a series that features the core partner organizations that supported and implemented the 2022-2024 PA Wilds Big Big Idea Contests.

The PA Wilds BIG IDEA Contest series offered entrepreneurs and innovators in the most rural section of Pennsylvania the opportunity to compete for major prize money and the training, experience and connections that can propel their business concept forward. 

Starting in 2022, finalists each year competed for the chance to win up to $50,000 in cash, and the winner also has a chance to win an additional $2,500 in the People’s Choice Award and pitch their business concept for a $10,000 Seed Grant from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the contest’s developer and lead partner, in cooperation with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship.

The largest seed investor in the region, Ben Franklin has been providing investment capital, business support services, and operational assistance to emerging tech startups and small manufacturers for nearly 40 years. Since the start of the BIG IDEA contests, more than $3 million in cash prizes have been awarded throughout the organization’s 32-county footprint in central and northern Pennsylvania. 

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Although other BIG IDEA contests take place throughout the state, Ben Franklin Technology Partners teamed up with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship for a three-year grant-funded project of the PA Wilds BIG IDEA Contest for 2022-2024, leveraging the PA Wilds Center to connect with entrepreneurs in the highly rural region. Each year of the PA Wilds BIG IDEA Contest focused on a different geographic location within the 13-county PA Wilds region. In 2024, the final year of the three-year grant-funded project, the contest offers entrepreneurs and innovators in Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Potter, and Tioga Counties the opportunity to compete for major prize money and the training, experience and connections that can propel their business concept forward.

“This year, the BIG IDEA Contest included Lycoming and Tioga counties, which are part of Ben Franklin Northeast’s territory,” explained Josh Bradley, Regional Manager for the Upper Susquehanna region of Ben Franklin of Northeastern PA. “We’re grateful to our partners at Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA and The PA Wilds for their collaboration to cultivate innovation in rural PA and we’re thrilled to shine a spotlight on businesses in Lycoming and Tioga Counties.”

Josh explained that while the contest rewards innovation, on a deeper level it highlights the people behind the businesses. “It is a testament to the people who live here in Appalachia,” he said. 

Karly Scala, Marketing & Communications Manager at Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, reinforced this sentiment. “Appalachia and PA specifically have brilliant people who want to make the world a better place, and this contest allows us to spotlight a region that is often overlooked,” she said. 

This year’s BIG IDEA contest finalists are advancing a diverse range of ideas, such as converting biomass to a fuel source, changing the way children read and comprehend books, and creating new ways for people to find and experience the region through mobile applications. 

While Ben Franklin’s financial support makes a big impact on these ideas, other elements of the contest, like business training, pitch experience and industry connections, make a lasting difference. “This support helps to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation in rural areas, driving economic growth, creating job opportunities, and retaining talent within the region,” Josh said.

Cathy Von Birgelen, Executive Director of the Ben Franklin Learning Center, agreed that the impact of the contest is transformative not only for the participating businesses but also for the communities in the PA Wilds who benefit from a more diversified economy and a talented workforce. “Seeing innovative ideas being developed into viable businesses and contributing to the economic prosperity of rural areas is incredibly fulfilling. By supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, we’re not only fostering a vibrant business ecosystem but also enhancing the quality of life for individuals and communities within the region,” she said. Our entrepreneurs are empowered to pursue their dreams, create jobs, and drive economic growth in this region and beyond.”

Josh reminded entrepreneurs that the more they engage, the more the entire region benefits. “My biggest advice to entrepreneurs is to be an active part of the entrepreneurial community because great networks get funded,” he said. Develop relationships, build your network, make connections, and stay engaged. Talk to everyone because you never know when someone will be the resource you may need.” 

About the PA Wilds BIG IDEA Contest Series: The PA Wilds BIG IDEA Contests were part of a three-year initiative funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Made possible by a collaboration between Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program and Small Business Development Centers that serve the Pennsylvania Wilds, the contest took place annually, with each contest focusing on a different portion of the rural 13-county region and offering a chance to win up to $50,000. The 2022 contest included counties in the I-80 Frontier landscape, the 2023 contest included counties in the Allegheny National Forest & Surrounds and Elk Country landscapes, and the 2024 contest focused on counties in the Dark Skies and the Pine Creek Valley & PA Grand Canyon landscapes. After the three-year series concluded, more than $150,000 was invested in rural entrepreneurs, while participants who did not win cash prizes received invaluable technical assistance and business support. Additional details can be found at CNP.BenFranklin.org/BigIdea

About Ben Franklin Technology Partners: The largest seed investor in our region, Ben Franklin Technology Partners (an initiative of the PA Department of Community & Economic Development and funded by the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority) has been providing investment capital, business support services, and operational assistance to emerging tech-startups and small manufacturers for nearly 40 years. Since the start of the BIG IDEA contests, more than $3 million in cash prizes have been awarded throughout Ben Franklin’s 32-county footprint in central and northern Pennsylvania. The contest offers start-ups and entrepreneurs some much-needed seed funding, as well as business training, pitch experience, and industry contacts – often more valuable than the prize money itself. Learn more at www.CNP.BenFranklin.org. For more information, contact Karly Scala at karlyscala@cnp.benfranklin.org.

About the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship:  The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc., is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that inspires the communities of the Pennsylvania Wilds. The Pennsylvania Wilds is a 13-county region that includes the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Warren, and northern Centre. The PA Wilds Center promotes the region and its 2+ million acres of public lands as a premier outdoor recreation destination as a way to diversify local economies, inspire stewardship, attract investment, retain population and improve quality of life. The PA Wilds Center’s core programs seek to help businesses leverage the PA Wilds brand and connect with new market opportunities, including: the Wilds Cooperative of PA, a network of more than 575 place-based businesses and organizations, and the PA Wilds Conservation Shop, a retail outlet primarily featuring products sourced from the WCO. For more information on the PA Wilds Center, visit www.PAWildsCenter.org. To learn more about the WCO, visit www.WildsCoPA.org. Explore the PA Wilds at www.PAWilds.com. Find regionally made products at www.ShopThePAWilds.com.

This story was created in partnership with The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship.

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