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Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network Supports Launch and Development of Local Business

Adaptive CrayonsPosted: April 13, 2018

Just one year after starting their business venture together, Nancy and Jason Morris have transformed an idea into a patented product sold by the company they've established together-Two Sparrows Learning Systems.

Nancy, an instructor in Gannon University's School of Education, and husband Jason, engineering manager at Greenleaf Corporation, have been driven by entrepreneurial spirit to make a difference in the lives of children and families throughout the region. As they've worked to navigate an unfamiliar path of launching a startup over the past year, the now co-owners of Two Sparrows Learning Systems have made connections and discovered valuable resources within the Erie community to turn their idea into reality.

Two Sparrows Learning Systems started as a cross-disciplinary community project between Gannon's education and biomedical engineering programs, and was funded by an Erie-Gannon Alliances to Improve Neighborhood Sustainability (Erie-GAINS) mini grant to develop adaptive crayons for children with fine-motor skill impediments. Nancy Morris and Davide Piovesan, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at Gannon, connected the classroom with the community to collect recycled crayons from elementary schools across the county, and design and engineer an adaptive crayon mold with the help of Gannon engineering students.

"We wanted to build a company that makes products to help people," said Nancy. "Looking back, it's pretty amazing to see that idea go through a process to now have a physical product in just a year. We've learned how to be incredibly resourceful, and it is really special to know we're creating something that is helping someone and filling a need."

After experiencing the impact an initial donation of the crayons had on the children at Barber National Institute's Elizabeth Lee Black School, the Morrises were dedicated to evolving their idea into a business. With not far to look, they sought out the assistance of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) hosted by Gannon University to help with the next steps of establishing their company- a partnership that quickly opened doors to an integral network of connections and vital community resources.

"Erie has so many resources right at your fingertips and is becoming a very entrepreneurial community," said Nancy. "Being an employee at Gannon, I am blessed to have access to even more resources and people right at the University, too. I've learned that the networking and collaboration aspect of starting a business is important, and the resources and people we've worked with have made us feel like we're all in this together; they're here to make everyone stronger and more successful."

SBDC consultants and students in Gannon's marketing program worked one-on-one with the Morrises to complete a detailed analysis and business plan for the company that included data and strategies essential in identifying how to best market, sell and distribute their product. Nancy and Piovesan are now co-inventors on a provisional patent for an adaptive writing utensil, and the company has licensed the intellectual property to sell and distribute.

"Nancy and Jason have worked together to launch a business with a relevant first product," said Maggie Horne, the Gannon SBDC director. "With their energy and passion, we can expect this is the beginning of a full product line for the business."

Through the SBDC, the Morrises were connected with possibly their most valuable resource in expanding their company and business knowledge-the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network. The Morris' work with the Gannon SBDC made Two Sparrows Learning Systems an ideal candidate to continue expanding their business by utilizing the Beehive resources. "It was very beneficial we started at a University with lots of resources, because in a way, we stumbled across the Beehive before it was the Beehive," Nancy said.

The Beehive connects Erie County's four universities to create specialized nodes focused on the necessary elements to launch new businesses that provide entrepreneurs access to resources that drive business development through a collaborative framework. Depending on their needs, partnering businesses can utilize any or all of the institutions' specialized nodes, which include Gannon University's business node that is supported by the Small Business Development Center and Erie Technology Incubator for business development and analysis; Penn State Behrend's Innovation Commons for prototype design and development; Mercyhurst University's Ridge College of Intelligence Studies for business intelligence and market research; and  Edinboro University's Center for Branding and Strategic Communication for marketing development and implementation.

Since launching Two Sparrows Learning Systems, the Morrises have worked with the Gannon SBDC and plan to work with Penn State Behrend's Innovation Commons for future prototype designs. They are currently working with faculty and students in public relations, marketing and graphic design courses at Edinboro University to develop a public relations and marketing plan, a logo and brand assets for the company. Edinboro graphic design faculty and students are also working on a redesign of Effortless Art Crayon packaging and developing a promotional coloring book and point-of-purchase displays.

"The Beehive sites are a great, untapped resource of experts for quality advice and service in key areas a small business needs starting out. It helps make the process so much easier and is such a valuable thing," said Nancy. "It's great to involve the students, too. They're getting real-life, experiential learning creating something that will be used by the businesses."

Two Sparrows Learning Systems has been a pilot for how the Beehive interfaces with businesses and entrepreneurs. There are now over twenty entrepreneurs, small businesses or external organizations who have contacted Innovation Beehive Network for services or to understand how the model works so they can replicate it in their region.

"Nancy's idea is a perfect example of how going through various nodes will help a business develop," said Steve Mauro, Ph.D., Gannon University vice president of academic administration. "Part of the benefit of having the Beehive and business development services exist as part of academic institutions is that we are directly connected with institutional resources and the many great faculty who are inventors and idea generators. It positions us well to continue to assist these and other members of the community so they in turn can benefit students, our community and our local economy."

With a year of business ownership under their belts and a bright future ahead, the Morrises are focusing on sustainability strategies and community outreach as next steps to further the success and mission of Two Sparrows Learning Systems.

When asked what advice she had for others thinking of starting their own business, Nancy had this parting advice, "Don't let the fear of the unknown stop you from trying; just because you've never experienced it before doesn't mean you shouldn't jump in and try it. Starting a business is learning experience. Seek resources, use others' expertise wherever you can, and be willing to learn-a lot!"

For questions or more information on working with the Innovation Beehive node at Gannon University to advance your business idea or company, contact Maggie Horne at 871-7713 or horne001@gannon.edu