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From Steel to Silicon: Ben Franklin uses partnerships to forge new economy in Lehigh Valley

by Lisa Lopez

October 2001

For decades, men and women toiled at the Bethlehem Steel Corp. mills in Bethlehem, Pa., part of the Lehigh Valley. There, they fabricated steelwork for landmarks including the George Washington Bridge and Rockefeller Plaza in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. After decades of decline due to automation, failed market strategies, foreign imports and aggressive domestic competition, Bethlehem Steel ceased steelmaking activities at that location on Nov. 18, 1995.

Today, another era emerges not far from the defunct blast furnaces and foundries, where technology entrepreneurs are fashioning a new economy characterized by innovation and the lexicon of information technology – "microchips," "software customization" and "digital data."

Many of these entrepreneurs are clients or graduates of the Ben Franklin Business Incubator Center (BFBIC), a 21,000-square-foot building on the Mountaintop Campus of Lehigh University.

BFTP/NEP has helped start 282 companies and create more than 9,000 jobs since it began in 1983 as one of four organizations in a state economic development initiative called the Ben Franklin Partnership Program. BFBIC's contribution to the Lehigh Valley region – essentially the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton – includes the launch of 56 companies and a hand in creating more than 2,400 jobs since the incubator opened in 1983. In recognition of such efforts, NBIA presented BFBIC with the 2001 Randall M. Whaley Incubator of the Year Award, its highest honor recognizing overall program excellence.

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Keywords: best practices, economic impact of incubation, in-house loan and equity financing program, partnerships -- organizational/corporate, technology incubator

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