Center for Business Ingenuity
Entrepreneurship has long been the theme of the United States since the birth of democracy. In recent years, Erie, Pennsylvania has exemplified the hunger for an American revitalization, as the Northwest Pennsylvania Innovation Beehive Network and other start-up services have provided assistance to businesses in the Erie region. While manufacturing jobs move south, Erie is experiencing a 360-degree turnaround in the way it does business and it's creating a different story to tell.
Among the services offered to the public of Erie, the Beehive is particularly comprised of four universities which are: Penn State Behrend, Mercyhurst, Gannon and Edinboro. Within the Beehive Network are separate hives for each university that operate in each school's expertise. The beehives are mostly student-operated, as these universities focus on harnessing the talent of young minds from all edges of academia- and it's working.
"I think we've seen a lot of growth in the last few years, even from my office at Gannon. You're starting to see the Erie Insurance building rise, the skyline is changing and I think there is an excitement that I didn't experience five years ago with new businesses coming to State Street," said Will McAndrew, Ph.D., a finance and economics professor at Gannon University.
"Historically we've relied more on anchor firms," said Ken Louie, Ph.D., Director for the Economic Research Institute of Erie (E.R.I.E.). Louie then continued by saying that new businesses are playing a greater role in Erie and evidence suggests that start-up companies are important for job creation and to stimulate the economy.
According to the research provided by Louie, "Only 13-percent of Erie employment is in the manufacturing sector today." In contrast, manufacturing jobs accounted for half the total employment in Erie during the 1950's and since then the Erie economy has fluctuated, with many businesses now operating on a smaller scale.
As cited from the U.S. Census Bureau, Erie's population has slowly been declining for the past decade, therefore contributing to the "brain drain."
When asked how the Beehive at Mercyhurst was benefitting Erie, Brad Gleason, Director of Operations for the Ridge College, said, "Well, like anything, it doesn't happen overnight and the Beehive has been a slow and progressive tool to look at smaller businesses that are locally driven."
Gleason continued by emphasizing the need to keep the idea of the Beehive captured in Erie while sustaining the program until it starts generating jobs and revenue in the area.
"You need a tax base generated by a business, but you also need to be able to support your workforce," said Gleason. "We've been doing that in a variety of ways, I know the first effort was called Quickstarter and we changed the Erie county success rate of 45-percent of campaign success under Kickstarter's platform. We've raised that to a 93-percent success rate and of those businesses all of them are still operating, and there's not a ton of employees at this point, but one [business] alone has seven employees and this is their third or fourth year and they're still doing very well. If you do enough of those in volume you'll make an impact in the area," said Gleason.
With a central focus on intelligence and market research, the beehive at Mercyhurst sold Quickstarter to Erie Management Group, LLC and since then, they've helped support businesses with the goal to aid them long-term and were able to carry innovators further than Mercyhurst, said the Director of Operations for the Ridge College.
When asked if everything seemed to be moving fluently in terms of communication between universities, Steve Mauro, Ph.D. Vice President of Academic Administration at Gannon, said, "We have stayed in constant touch and communication, and the efforts and collaboration have been seamless, and our progress to date has been a reflection of that."
Gannon's Beehive focuses on the business development and analytical aspect of business start-ups, and they've worked with anyone from current students, to established businesses.
"A lot of the stuff that we've done thus far has really focused on either feasibility studies or more of a full business plan depending on where the business happens to be in their progression point," said Mauro.
Seven miles from Gannon operates the original Beehive where prototyping and product development are fostered inside the Innovation Commons of Penn State Behrend. Since 2015, Mercyhurst and Behrend have been working side-by-side through a program called the Ignite Erie Industry University and University Collaborative, while Gannon and Edinboro transitioned into the project. Overall, the goal of the program was to generate as much collaboration as possible.
"Our goal was to lower barriers to innovation in the region, specifically serving inventors, industry and educational institutions like high schools," said Jake Marsh, Industry Relations Coordinator for Penn State Behrend.
Marsh continued by describing how Ignite Erie Collaborative was able to give nineteen 3D printers to high schools in the region through the funding of Ignite Erie. "One of the things we do here at the Innovation
Commons is [provide] tech service for those [high schools], so if they have a problem they call us and we visit them and take care of it. Still, our largest group of clients is inventors. There are a lot of great ideas that just need a little design and prototyping help."
In a way, being inside the Innovations Commons represents the idiosyncrasies of an actual beehive, as students gathered academic sustenance for the progress of their mission, while the energy in the room was truly electric.
Providing the balance of right brain to left brain, Edinboro University harnesses the talent of artful minds to strategically market and brand companies to help reinvent their image.
"We have not encountered anyone on our campus who did not want to participate. It's interesting to see the new dynamics its created and the new relationships its building," said Rosemarie Graham, Director of Grants and Sponsored Programs for Edinboro University.
Graham continued by explaining, "A lot of people spend a lot of money on marketing and design, and getting their web pages up and social media pages going, and [the Beehive] allows them to save that cost and put it into other business production, and it also gives our students an opportunity to work with corporations that could potentially employ them in the future."
When asked how Edinboro was able to bring together members of the (communication, journalism and media department) with members of the art department, Graham said, "That's Tony Peyronel, Ed.D.- he's been amazing at that."
"We've involved five different courses and 58 students and that's the other thing we're supposed to show, not just how we're helping other organizations, but how we're incorporating classes and what type of experience our students are getting," said Tony Peyronel, Ed.D., a professor at Edinboro.
Like a pinball bouncing from hive to hive, clients are granted state-of-the-art information through the Beehive Network, and while universities foster the talent of young minds, their services are free-of-charge. Not only are services free, but it's easy. According to Marsh, you could essentially come in with a napkin sketch of an idea and one of the beehives would guide you in the right direction.
Not only is the Beehive Network contributing to the cessation of the brain drain, but it's creating jobs for students to gain hands-on experience for their fields of study. Graham describes the experience as an "internal internship."
The duality of the Beehive Network among students and faculty also offers an experience that cannot be measured in a traditional setting, because at the end of the day, students and faculty are pushing each other to produce a legitimate product in real-time. The Beehive may not single handedly stop the brain drain, but through the connections and information learned, Erie will surely benefit.