Student-centric business incubator points startups in the right direction
Inside the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, students are charting their own course.
This eight-suite business center on the West campus of York College of Pennsylvania is now home to a new student-centric business incubator.
“We have our own office,” says Mat Jones, one of four York College students behind the startup company, Episo. “It feels like we’re working for a real company and not just a school project.”
Episo is totally student-built; a development idea presented to the group last year as part of their Senior Software Design 2 course. They quickly accepted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We were all a little overwhelmed,” he says of their decision, “in a good way if that makes sense.”
Episo is a video-based content source, similar to Netflix, for people who aren’t in the mainstream movie scene yet but want to garner a following.
“In the same way that LinkedIn is a more professional place than Facebook,” Mat says, “Episo would be a more professional platform than YouTube.”
The goal for the Center’s new incubator is to give students the environment to turn ideas like Episo into fully functional business ventures.
“We want to promote this culture of entrepreneurship among the students,” says Oscar Winters, associate director of the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship. “We hope to create a natural cross-collaboration between, for example, the art department and engineering, or business students and communications.”
A noteworthy Community Hack
Travis Jones is a York College junior and sole proprietor of the incubator’s other student business: Provino.
“It’s essentially a digital administrator for small theaters,” he says.
He’s working on a web application that can receive and organize applications from actors and actresses.
“With Provino,” Travis explains, “a theater could view and organize applications or add notes in real-time during auditions or interviews.”
Travis participated in the school’s first hackathon last year and entered the “Community Hack” category. A friend, involved in York’s DreamWrights Theater, gave Travis the idea by saying that they needed a better way to handle the audition process.
That got Travis’ gears turning, and by the end of the hackathon, he presented his idea: Provino, which means ‘audition’ in Italian.
“I received Third Prize in the Community Hack category,” he says. “Afterward, the York County Community Foundation contacted me.”
The foundation offered some grant money to more fully develop the idea, the J.D. Brown Center matched the offer, and this fall, Provino officially set up shop inside the incubator.
“I live on campus and share a room with a roommate,” Travis says, “so having my own space is definitely beneficial.”
Travis also values having access to a desktop computer.
“It’s better for running heavy-duty applications than my laptop,” he says. “I don’t spend nearly as much time waiting for things to load — so I can get more accomplished.”
He says it’s also nice to be able to take these first steps with the center’s resources behind him and not worry as much about mistakes.
“It gives me more confidence to actually step out and pursue this,” he says.
Charting the course
Each business is given an office of about 100 square feet, as well as access to the center and its resources.
“It’s just really awesome that we can say, here’s an office, here’s a computer, and here’s a network of resources; how can we help,” says Winters.
Winters’ office is just down the hall, as are private sector companies, including a recent graduate of York College now working full time at his own business.
“That’s exactly what we want to see,” says Winters, “a student who can do this while going to school, graduate, and then work at it full time once they get on their own.”
Each business is its own venture; what happens to it is totally up to the students.
“It’s empowering and gives them that sense of responsibility,” says Winters. “Much different from walking into a classroom and being lectured on a topic.”
Dedicated space for success
For the Episo team, Mat says having dedicated space is key.
“It’s much more of a distraction-free environment than a classroom,” Mat says. “We have more focused meetings because we have the space to ourselves.”
“There’s also a conference center, with a projector,” he continues, “and that’s super useful for designing new architecture and the actual software design side of things.”
Winters says it’s all about the end-game.
“These kids are going to be able to say, 'I graduated and here are all the things I did and studied in college,'” he says. “'Oh, and by the way, I have my own business.' That’s phenomenal.”