Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BFTP/NEP) has played a major role in reviving a regional economy that for many years focused on heavy industry. The revival came with the development of a strong technology section, driven by the organization’s mission to link technology entrepreneurs and established companies with people, technology, ideas and funding to help them succeed. BFTP/NEP is one of four internationally recognized, state-funded economic development organizations the state created in 1983 to build Pennsylvania’s technology economy.
BFTP/NEP’s incubator, the Ben Franklin Business Incubator Center (BFBIC), is located on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem. The nonprofit incubator, which can accommodate up to 15 technology start-ups in 10,500 square feet of a 21,000 square-foot building, currently houses seven clients.
BFTP/NEP’s Robert S. Thomson, Lehigh Valley regional manager, and Wayne K. Barz, manager of entrepreneurial programs, credit BFBIC’ s success to its custom-tailored client services and to continued networking and other assistance for graduates.
Thomson, who headed the BFBIC operation from 1987-2000, says that BFBIC offers a wide range of services and that the staff meets with each client company on a regular basis. "As facilitators, we determine on a case-by-case situation what we think is the best service or group of services," he says.
BFBIC’ s assistance doesn’t end when clients graduate. For instance, to encourage BFBIC graduates to remain in Bethlehem, BFTP/NEP teamed with the Bethlehem Economic Development Corp., the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. and Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Inc. to secure financing for two postincubator facilities. Two BFBIC graduates moved into a facility constructed in 1993, and three other graduates moved into a second building that was completed in 2000.
Since it began, the incubator has graduated 29 successful companies, which have, in turn, created more than 2,400 jobs, grossed in excess of $330 million in revenue each year, introduced 70-plus new products and received more than 50 patents.
One of those graduates is Millbrook Inc., a software developer and 1999 BFBIC graduate. After Millbrook moved into the BFBIC facility in 1997, it utilized the resources of 20 Lehigh University students to help design BEACON, a data mining software management program for insurance companies. Today, Millbrook employs 25 people — including 10 of the former university students — who are now working full time. Company sales have increased by 50 percent each year.
BFBIC maintains this type of statistical information on all graduate companies, surveying them to track their success and inviting them back to speak with clients. "After a company graduates, we try to stay in touch with them for at least five years, and we keep track of their employment and any new processes or products," Thomson says. "We also maintain contact to track their sales figures and to see if they have any additional business needs."
Staff say that BFBIC’ s 18 years of financial success began with its relationships with Bethlehem Steel Corp., Lehigh University, the Lehigh Valley community and the Ben Franklin Technology Partners. In 1983, Bethlehem Steel agreed to offer one of its facilities for use as a technology incubator. BFTP/NEP then renovated the building with $90,000 it raised from the community. In 1986, the state awarded Lehigh University a grant to help in the acquisition of Bethlehem Steel’ s research and development site (seven buildings, including BFBIC). The statewide Ben Franklin Partners program pays for BFBIC staff salaries and rent for administrative space, but BFTP/NEP does not assume that such funding will last forever. Therefore, it collects royalties from its early-stage firm investments and is a limited partner in two venture capital funds. Some of the returns on those funds have been used to do further renovations on the incubator.
BFBIC’ s evolution occurred on the cusp of the entrepreneurial explosion in the mid- to late 1980s, Thomson notes. "When BFBIC first started in 1983, there were virtually no technology start-ups in the region. Big corporations pretty much dominated the region," he says. "Then the technology trend took off, with biotech companies becoming the hot item in the early 90s." Barz, who now heads the center, notes that BFBIC staff quickly learned that although technology was hot, a good idea didn’ t go far without the right entrepreneur. "When we first started working with tech companies, we were dazzled by the technology. We soon realized that the technology is only a small part of the company. The biggest thing by far is the people and their experience."
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