Lehigh celebrates entrepreneurial spirit

This year marks two pivotal anniversaries for Lehigh University entrepreneurship programs, celebrated recently at the annual Innovate! Celebrate! awards dinner hosted by Lehigh’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation.

As nearly 30 student project exhibits ringed Iacocca Hall’s Wood Dining Room, the event recognized student, faculty and alumni innovation and thanked those who support student entrepreneurship.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition, which has provided funding to more than 100 Lehigh students to pursue over 70 projects they developed into entrepreneurial ideas and businesses through support from the Joan F. and John M. Thalheimer ’55 Entrepreneurship Ventures Endowed Program Fund.

At the dinner, Lehigh Interim President Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P announced that in recognition of John Thalheimer’s 60th Lehigh reunion in May, the Thalheimers have pledged an additional gift to Lehigh to supplement the endowment fund, which includes support for student competitions and entrepreneurship programming.

This spring also marks the fifth year of Lehigh’s Baker Institute, founded in 2010 by a gift from The Dexter F. and Dorothy H. Baker Foundation and named for patriarch Dexter F. Baker ’50 ’57G, who passed away in 2012. Since its founding, the institute has become Lehigh’s cross-campus, interdisciplinary hub for entrepreneurship programming, competitions and resources. Last summer the Baker Foundation provided an endowment that secures funding for Baker Institute core operations in perpetuity.

“To John and Joan Thalheimer, the Baker family and Foundation trustees, you’ve made so much possible and we are so grateful for your generosity and your insight,” said Lisa Getzler, Baker Institute co-executive director, at the April 21 event. “To all of our alumni, your generosity and dedication provide us with the resources we need to make Lehigh a destination for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The event also celebrated student and alumni entrepreneurs, with an “Innovation Alley” displaying winning and finalist student projects in the EUREKA! Ventures Competition Series and i Prize competition, and 24 awards given to outstanding student entrepreneurs.

Award-winning student venture ideas

Winning projects ranged from a mobile application to help children be more active to a thermoelectric medical device to aid in injury rehabilitation and a line of customizable sunglasses. The EUREKA! competition awarded more than $58,000 in cash and in-kind prizes to students, including space in the Baker Institute student office suite in Ben Franklin TechVentures business incubator to help grow their ideas into ventures.

Award categories included the Thalheimer competition for-profit ventures award; Levin Advanced Technology Award for engineering students; Social Ventures; Legacy award for students who were previous winners and received continuing access to resources to move their projects forward; and Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Grand Prize, the EUREKA! competition’s overarching award of excellence.

This year’s Grand Prize went to Briana Gardell ’14 ’15G, a Technical Entrepreneurship master’s degree student whose company, Mezzimatic, produces a science kit for children that turns into a toy.

For the i Prize, a “people’s choice” award that recognizes the best new idea, invention or innovation, guests voted at the event for their favorite projects by “investing” with $3 million in “cash,” with the winners receiving the most investment announced during the ceremony. Winners Steve Boerner ’15G (first place) for Hatch House, an entrepreneurial live-work space; Brian Flynn ’15G (second place) for Munchr, a food delivery app; and David DiFrancesco ’16 and Tyler Bond ’15 (third place) for Crafty, a craft beer discovery tool app, received cash prizes.

Student presenters also shared their stories of inspiration:

Lauren Purdom ’15 discovered her calling to design products to improve others’ lives through her experience growing up with a brother who is autistic and developing an assistive device in Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development program. Purdom starts Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship master’s degree program in July.

Elena Ramirez ’15 gained experience developing 3D-printed prosthetics for children through last summer’s Lehigh Mountaintop Project in conjunction with Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital, a project she continues this summer with an expanded Mountaintop team. She plans to start a medical device company. “We turned our research into innovation because we could identify where there was demand,” Ramirez said. “I gained confidence to pursue my dreams as well as the determination to make a difference.”

Past EUREKA! award winner Shannon Varcoe ’15 created an educational toy product as an undergraduate and participated in last summer’s LaunchBayC student idea accelerator Mountaintop project. She will start Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship master’s program this summer.

“The ripple effect of investing in and supporting students at Lehigh is evident in the outstanding exhibits and stories we see here tonight,” Varcoe said. “The staff, faculty and alumni involved at the Baker Institute are unwavering in their commitment to cultivating entrepreneurship at Lehigh and through this, I’ve been inspired not only to pursue entrepreneurship in my future but also to give back as an alumna and continue the ripple of impacting future entrepreneurship students at Lehigh.”

Outstanding alumni and faculty

Provost Patrick V. Farrell presented the John B. Ochs Award for Faculty Achievement in Entrepreneurship Education at Lehigh to Pat J. Costa, lead instructor in Lehigh’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship courses, foundation of the entrepreneurship minor degree, where he teaches more than 200 students a year.

“He developed the curriculum to engage students from all disciplines and to excite them about the possibilities in front of them when they learn to think and behave entrepreneurially,” Getzler said.

Costa is also a professor of practice in the Integrated Business and Engineering honors program and the primary marketing instructor at the Iacocca Institute’s Pennsylvania School for Global Entrepreneurship. The Ochs award celebrates substantive long-term contribution to the entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation culture, ecosystem and curriculum at Lehigh.

“We’re fortunate to have Pat here for the past 15 years as we have developed and expanded Lehigh’s entrepreneurial footprint,” Farrell said.

Costa recalled how Dexter Baker often told him that his job “is to inoculate the students with entrepreneurial thinking and change – almost like I was giving flu shots. Every time we’d see each other, he would bring that up: ‘How many you got? How many are you doing?’” This spring alone, more than 150 students were registered in Lehigh’s three Introduction to Entrepreneurship undergraduate courses, Costa said. “So we’re meeting his mark – I think we’re really meeting his dream,” he said.

Costa praised Lehigh’s entrepreneurship students, who “challenge us, push us, make us better and hopefully through that process, we help them as well,” he said. “Through the Baker Institute and its programs, we have created an environment where it’s OK to fail, it’s safe – surrender, just dive into the process and we’ll go along the journey with you.”

Baker Institute Advisory Council member Geoff Schneider ’88, 2014 Farrington Award winner, presented the Farrington Award for Outstanding Commitment to Entrepreneurship at Lehigh to alumna Alita Friedman ’87 ’17P ’19P, Baker Institute Advisory Council member, former chief brand officer of UglyDoll and CEO of Alita’s Brand Bar. The award is given in the name of Gregory Farrington, Lehigh’s 12th president, a champion for entrepreneurship education.

“Not a day has gone by where she has not made a connection, facilitated an introduction, taken student entrepreneurs by their hand to help them understand the next steps in their careers and the things that should be considered when they launch their products or businesses,” Schneider said of Friedman, who is the first woman to receive the Farrington Award in its 10-year history. “She has given them the benefit of her amazing insights and wisdom and generally made herself available to all student entrepreneurs.”

“You are my family,” Friedman said to the Lehigh students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters in the audience. Friedman said she will continue to work with companies around the nation to help ensure that Lehigh students have the best opportunities and preparation to succeed as entrepreneurs.

Baker 2.0

Lehigh University and the Baker Institute are at the forefront of educating the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators, said Clayton, who served on Lehigh’s Board of Trustees with Dexter Baker.

“He believed passionately that our future depends on the implementation of innovative ideas,” Clayton said of Baker. “That’s exactly what we are celebrating here this evening – outstanding achievements in entrepreneurship, by our students, startups and members of our Lehigh entrepreneurship network.”

As the institute celebrates its fifth anniversary, it’s “moving out of startup and into growth stage,” Getzler added.

The future will continue to include events, support for student entrepreneurial endeavors, extra- and co-curricular programming, and contributing to building Lehigh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, she said. But it will place an even greater focus on the experiential and immersive experiences that most resonate with and deeply engage students, she added, citing examples such as the LehighSiliconValley, LaunchBayC, Founders Fitness Bootcamp and Technical Entrepreneurship programs.

“‘Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation’ are still our key ingredients,” Getzler said. “But moving forward the ‘E,’ the ‘I’ and the ‘C’ will additionally remind us that Engagement, Immersion and Culture Change are the watchwords – through these, we see transformation.”

Story by Amy White
Photos by Ryan Hulvat