Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Lisa Getzler, the executive director of the Baker Institute. That quote was removed because it did not properly describe the relationship between the Baker Institute and the Ben Franklin Technology Partners expansion.
When Ben Franklin Technology Partners was founded in 1982, Governor Richard Thornburgh was looking for a way to solve Pennsylvania’s unemployment problem.
“There was an enormous amount of pressure on him to do something on unemployment, and this was all caused by the demise of Pennsylvania’s heavy industry, especially steel,” said R. Chadwick Paul, ’76, the president of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania. “And so he came up with the idea of Ben Franklin Technology Partners as a partnership between business, government and the state’s research universities.”
The company began a partnership with Lehigh in 2010, when the university launched the Baker Institute, an organization dedicated to advancing entrepreneurial education. In 2011, Ben Franklin TechVentures opened on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus.
On Oct. 20, TechVentures held a dedication event for its new west wing, a 20,000-square-foot expansion.
Paul said the expansion will provide office and meeting spaces for the companies housed in the building.
“As companies grow, they may have started out in a wet lab, and when I say wet lab, think of high school chemistry class on steroids,” Paul said. “So fume hoods and surfaces that will take care of your chemical mistakes, that sort of thing.”
Paul said eventually, growing companies need office space to market products and raise money for investment into those products.
Lisa Getzler, the executive director of the Baker Institute, said this expansion will allow existing Lehigh student and faculty companies to have work space on Mountaintop Campus.
Ben Franklin Technology Partners is a state-funded technology economic development organization. Paul said this means taxpayers fund the company. TechVentures, a business incubator, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lehigh, but it operates independently.
“Our operating budget — the money that we use to operate the programs and make investments in technology programs — all comes from the state government,” he said. “So Lehigh does not fund us.”
Paul said TechVentures is home to 41 companies at their Mountaintop Campus facility.
“Neil Simon, who is a Lehigh professor, is the CEO of one of our companies,” he said. “At various times we have housed undergraduate student companies in our building when that was the appropriate thing for where they were in the stage of growth of that company.”
Baker Institute is also housed at TechVentures’ facilities.
Paul said startup companies can benefit from university resources and faculty members. For example, if a company needs access to an electron microscope, it’s expensive to use or buy one. However, Paul said, a startup in the TechVentures incubator could use Lehigh’s electron microscope for a deeply discounted rate.
Asher Schiavone, Bethlehem’s economic development coordinator, said Ben Franklin TechVentures is a great partner to startup companies as they provide the financing to begin businesses.
“I would say that they provide a lot of mentorship for startup companies,” Schiavone said.
Schiavone also said the presence of more companies, some of which started through Ben Franklin TechVentures, has impacted the Lehigh valley community.
“We’ve seen a lot of companies that have come out of the incubator locate somewhere in Bethlehem or the greater Lehigh Valley,” Schiavone said.
One of these companies is Orbweaver.
“(Orbweaver) ended up graduating from Ben Franklin and they moved their 21 employees — 13 full-time and 8 part-time — into a 2,500 square-foot (office),” Schiavone said. “These are employees that were on the mountaintop and now they’re coming downtown.”
Schiavone said people supporting these local businesses helps to create a healthier local community. He said employees are going out for lunch, shopping and supporting local businesses.
“That is something we want to see more of,” Schiavone said.
TechVentures has a number of startup companies, but it does not plan to expand much further at the Mountaintop location. Although the company owns the building, the university owns the land.
“We’ve basically expanded as far as we can expand on this site,” Paul said, “so unless Lehigh is willing to give me more land, I’ve expanded as far as I can.”