CastPak taps Invent Penn State resources and pivots to find new product and market
CastPak was one of eight student startups invited to present their concept in the Student Startup Showcase at the Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference last October. At the conference President Barron presented each of the startups, including CastPak, received a check for $2,000 to help move their ideas forward. The student companies were selected for their winning participation in Inc.U and/or the Summer Founders program.
CastPak’s entrepreneurial journey, like that of many trailblazers, was a circuitous path with a number of false starts and pivots. In fact, the team almost didn’t get to participate In the Summer Founders program that eventually made it eligible for the Venture & IP Conference.
In spring of 2018 College of Engineering junior Ben Cutler and Jack Mentch were selected to work in Hedy’s Garage, a program through Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank. Hedy’s Garage was created to encourage collaboration between local Happy Valley businesses and Penn State students to help the companies build and advance entrepreneurial ideas they didn’t have the bandwidth to pursue and to fully engage talented student entrepreneurs.
If students were successful, a new company would be formed, and the student entrepreneurs would get credit for their inventions–and share in the profits from the new company. [Hedy’s Garage was named after a 1940s inventor Hedy Lamarr who invented technologies for aerospace magnate Howard Hughes, though most people knew Hedy Lamarr as a movie star and she didn’t get credit or compensation for many of her inventions.]
Cutler and Mentch were paired with State College based tech company to build a wearable sensor technology. They also had applied and were accepted Into the highly competitive Summer Founders program based on the wearable sensor technology they were building. They were excited to take advantage of the expert mentors and the $10,000 in funding Summer Founders provides to advance participant’s businesses.
Except, on the eve of the start of the Summer Founders Program – the wearable sensor technology failed. Cutler and Mentch learned it was not going to go forward.
That’s when the team’s entrepreneurial mojo was tested. They dug deep and, taking the advice of Lee Erickson, chief amplifier at Happy Valley LaunchBox and others, Cutler and Mentch set off to research other ideas to develop as part of the Summer Founders program.
While in the Hedy’s Garage program Cutler, Mench and a new member of their loose-knit team, Keri Nicolich, an industrial engineering student, had met an engineering science senior, Andrew Przyjemski. Przyjemski was working on a different team with another State College-based company, Videon. Videon specializes in digital media solutions and wanted to use their technology to reliably stream high definition (HD) video.
The entrepreneurs all hit it off and the group began developing the CastPak concept and prototype. Jason Chhay, a computer science student, joined the team later to lend his skills to the startup effort.
The group first imagined CastPak as a turnkey, portable solution for live streaming sporting events in HD. The technology would enable parents and other family members to virtually attend their children’s sporting events when they couldn’t be there in person.
Typically, live streaming HD video requires a permanent setup and is expensive. Instead, CastPak puts the whole setup in one portable and convenient backpack, which enables the users to livestream events while unrestricted by cords or costs.
While CastPak was designed to help individual consumers with a “do-it-yourself” solution, when the team began testing the marketplace, early adoption by schools and everyday consumers was not robust. “While there was initial interest in the product and the use of the technology, it became apparent our real target audience is more likely to be a business-to-business segment” Cutler says.
Time to pivot and change the business model again.
“Now, with what we’ve learned, we are aiming to move this concept into the commercial videography market – allowing the professional marketplace to leverage the technology to augment their businesses with their customers,” says Cutler. This business model is what they pitched to a room full of investors at the Venture & IP Conference.
Access to so many no-cost resources has been good for Cutler and his colleagues. Not only did they get good advice, no-cost working space, and industry connections, they didn’t spend their tuition money, or friends’ and families’ money, to get their ideas off the ground.
“The Summer Founders program allowed us to see a hotbed of ideas with other like-minded people to bounce things off of,” says Cutler. “I don’t think we would’ve been as successful at changing direction if we didn’t have those types of resources and guidance at our disposal.”
Cutler also credits the broader commitment Penn State has to student entrepreneurs, particularly the Invent Penn State initiative.
“President [Eric] Barron has enabled Invent Penn State to provide important resources, such as the Summer Founders program and the Happy Valley LaunchBox to encourage students to dream and create new ideas,” Cutler says.