Happy Valley LaunchBox helps spur alumnus’s red carpet-worthy startup
This article is part of a series celebrating the five-year anniversary of Invent Penn State’s LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network. Learn more here.
Nick Unis founded his sustainable footwear business, UnisBrands, when he was a Penn State first-year student in 2015. This past year, his product has been featured on the largest billboard in New York City’s Times Square and among the most noteworthy award shows.
Distinctive Assets, the marketing company that supplied swag bags for the 2021 Grammy Awards, contacted Unis. The company discovered his footwear startup on social media and wanted to include his product in its gift bags.
“We ended up putting out 140 pairs of shoes for the Grammys,” Unis says. “That was for anyone who was in the Grammys, a part of the Grammys, or performed at the Grammys who received a pair of our shoes. A lot of huge names now have our footwear in their possession, which is super cool.”
Unis, a 2020 graduate of the Smeal College of Business, founded UnisBrands during his first year at Penn State Altoona, where he spent two years before moving to University Park. He built his first printer and began prototyping at the Altoona campus prior to utilizing Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank at University Park, where he worked on customer discovery and creating a minimum viable product.
UnisBrands, which creates fully sustainable 3D-printed footwear from start to finish, sells direct-to-consumer via its website. When the company begins the creation process of a new product line, it sketches designs before creating 3D models, prototyping and printing, and finally sending the product out to customers. UnisBrands does not make size runs in advance, and the production process begins when the shoe is ordered. The company uses recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) plastic and polyurethane, a thermoplastic, to create the shoes, making them recyclable.
“Each pair of shoes is made with roughly eight plastic water bottles,” Unis says. “We’re able to take that water bottle and junk-ocean plastic and grind it down, make that into a filament or thread, and 3D print or 3D knit the shoe.”
When Unis arrived at University Park, he took advantage of no-cost services and resources provided by Happy Valley LaunchBox. He participated in LaunchBox’s 15-week FastTrack Accelerator, which helps early-stage startups refine and test their target market while building an actionable plan to acquire customers or expand their business.
“The help that Happy Valley LaunchBox provided means everything,” Unis says. “The FastTrack Accelerator helped with quality assurance, quality control, as well as getting a minimal viable product out.”
UnisBrands also utilized LaunchBox’s co-working space and obtained a $3,000 grant through the Invent Penn State NSF I-Corps Site for customer discovery. This grant allowed Unis to attend Sneaker Con in Los Angeles where he set up a booth, showcased his shoes, and received impactful customer feedback.
“Building your network and being persistent are critical factors in increasing a founder’s chances of success,” says Lee Erickson, chief amplifier of Happy Valley LaunchBox. “Nick did and continues to do both. He made great use of the resources in our entrepreneurial ecosystem to help him de-risk his business. He has shown remarkable persistence in continuing to perfect the process of making his one-of-a-kind footwear. We’re excited that he’s gaining traction and can’t want to see what’s next for UnisBrands.”
In addition to leveraging resources provided by the LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network, UnisBrands benefitted from other Penn State entrepreneurial ecosystem resources, including the Inc.U Competition, a Shark Tank-style pitch competition open to Penn State undergraduates. The company, a finalist in both 2018 and 2020, won $5,000 in funding during the latter year.
Unis also had the opportunity to present his company at the 2018 Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference in front of industry advisors and venture capitalists from across the country. UnisBrands was awarded $2,000 at the conference to help move the company forward.
“If you’re willing to put in the work and the effort and you’re able to reach out, someone within the Penn State network is willing to help you,” Unis says. “If they can’t directly help you, they’ll find someone who can.”
About Invent Penn State
Invent Penn State is a Commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success.
The Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network is made up of 21 innovation spaces embedded in Penn State campus communities offering no-cost co-working space, makerspace, accelerator programs, pitch competitions, speaker series, access to experts and mentors, and legal and IP advice through Penn State Law clinics. Five years since opening, the Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network has supported 3,325 community entrepreneurs, created 194.5 jobs, and helped to launch 164 new Pennsylvania companies. Gifts to support the network, as well as select economic development initiatives across the commonwealth, are a priority of the University’s current fundraising campaign, “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence.”
To learn more about how to make a gift and secure a match before the campaign concludes on June 30, 2022, please contact Heather Winfield at email@example.com. Information about the campaign is available at greaterpennstate.psu.edu.
To find a location near you, visit invent.psu.edu/programs/pa-innovation-hubs.