Over the past 13 years, the Keystone Innovation Zone has invested more than $7 million to support young innovators and entrepreneurs who aim to take their businesses to the next level. Students, young innovators and public figures gathered in Iacocca Hall for a presentation from the South Bethlehem branch on Nov. 21.
Through the KIZ, local leaders and private investors provide funding and networking resources to help young minds launch businesses on a larger scale.
The event highlighted many of the young men and women who used the resources provided by the KIZ to develop their own startups and ventures in the business world. Presenters from companies such as SolTech Solutions and UBMe spoke about their personal experiences working with the program.
Asher Schiavone, the economic development coordinator for the City of Bethlehem and director of South Side Bethlehem KIZ, led the event. He works to introduce young minds, such as college students and graduates, to the business scene.
“A big part of my job is going out and making sure that students who have ideas for companies are aware that this program exists,” Schiavone said. “We connect companies that are interested in interns to local students. We work with the LVAIC, the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges, and they have a list of personnel that’s in charge of internship opportunities and involve students that way.”
Paul Hodges, one of the event speakers and founders of SolTech Solutions, spoke to the drastic impact the KIZ had on his business ventures. He discussed how Bethlehem was once a destination for their business efforts, but eventually became the grassroots for their company, describing the KIZ as not only a headquarters, but “a place you could call home.”
“Since locating to South Side Bethlehem, we’ve also felt a significant spike in business activity and can’t help but think we have the KIZ to thank,” Hodges said in a press release. “It’s been a wonderful experience so far and we’re looking forward to continue growing here.”
To qualify for assistance from the KIZ, businesses must be located within specific regional boundaries, relatively young in the business world, in operation for less than eight years, and function within at least one of the South Side Bethlehem KIZ industry clusters — which include information technology, life science, advanced materials and more.
One of the innovators, UBMe CEO Val Arzunain, spoke to how he personally benefited from the program and its connections to Lehigh.
“Lehigh University was our initial test case of how the app could adopt in a college campus and how well it could work within a school,” Arzunain said. “So far, we have been getting a lot of positive feedback.”
In addition to funding partnerships, Lehigh also introduces eager interns to local businesses involved with the KIZ.
The program offers a variety of grants to young entrepreneurs, including their smaller Student Internship Grant, which ranges from $2,500 to $3,750, and the KIZ Tax Credit Program, which goes up to $100,000 and operates through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
“The KIZ has given us an office space for very little money,” Arzunian said, “and they offer tax credit, which becomes very attractive to different investors.”
After the closing of Bethlehem Steel, industry in the Bethlehem area temporarily halted. However, programs like the KIZ aim to sustain Bethlehem as a hub for young innovators and entrepreneurs.
“The KIZ is a great program,” Schiavone said. “We’re starting to see that others from outside the area are beginning to recognize that this is a place where they can establish their company, grow it, establish roots and hopefully have a successful business.”