The LaunchPad: “Through the Looking Glass”

   

Blackstone LaunchPad celebrates one-year anniversary

At Syracuse University, E.S. Bird Library is one of the busiest buildings on campus. As people stroll through the doors, they often pass a glass cube on the first floor. Inside, white tables, green and gray swivel chairs and rolling whiteboards lay scattered throughout the room.

This is the Blackstone LaunchPad, an entrepreneurship hub that serves students, alumni and faculty. Depending on the day, any number of people can be seen through the LaunchPad’s transparent walls. Sometimes it’s the LaunchPad staff or a few entrepreneurs quietly working on their own. Late at night it might be a startup staff talking at one of the large tables.

The LaunchPad, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last month, works as a resource center for entrepreneurs and a connecting crossroads for students who want to join a venture. It provides mentoring, workshops and networking for startups in all stages, and serves students, alumni and faculty. Over the last year, it has seen over 1,600 people from 44 countries walk through its doors.

“Since this is not in any specific school, and it’s not based off Whitman or Newhouse or the iSchool, everybody comes here,” said Erin Miller, founder of Out There Productions and one of the first patrons of the LaunchPad. “It’s a place where you meet people that you don’t necessarily share a class with.”

The LaunchPad opened last April with a $900,000 grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. It opened in a cohort with other New York schools — Cornell University, New York University, University at Buffalo and University at Albany — that also opened their own LaunchPads. Ireland and other states like Montana, California and Texas also have their own hubs.

Over 100,000 people have participated in one of the Blackstone programs, and the LaunchPads have supported over 15,000 ventures, creating over 21,000 jobs in the process. For a city like Syracuse — which ranked last in economic growth of the top 100 metropolitan areas for 2010- 2015 — these jobs can be vital for attracting businesses. In its first year, SU’s LaunchPad has already supported 275 ventures.

Yet while SU’s physical LaunchPad space is small — only clocking in at 625 square feet — it is centrally located, one of its key strengths, Miller said. Other entrepreneurship centers are often hidden and students have to seek them out, she said, but the LaunchPad is centered in one of the highest-traffic buildings on campus, where people of all disciplines and interests pass through.

In fact, the Martin J. Whitman School of Management isn’t even the most represented college at the LaunchPad — the College of Arts and Sciences leads with 19.2 percent and the School of Information Studies is second with 18 percent.

The glass walls have provided some trouble though — often students will say they didn’t know where the LaunchPad is because they unintentionally looked straight through the walls, said Braden Croy, the hub’s program manager.

Still, the LaunchPad has already fostered success. On April 28, Syracuse University teams took home four out of the six prizes at the New York Business Plan Competition, winning $140,000 in total. This sweeping win is a testament to the strength of the LaunchPad community, Croy said.

“For the university to go into a statewide collegiate entrepreneurship event and dominate in that manner just proves that it’s not about the physical location, it’s about the community that gets built and the learning that happens,” Croy said.

Additionally, entrepreneurship is generally male-dominated — about 64.5 percent of entrepreneurs are male, according to the Kauffman Foundation. At the LaunchPad, though, women outnumber men 51 to 49 percent. Linda Hartsock, the LaunchPad’s executive director, said she thinks it’s because there is significant female representation in leadership positions at SU, which might make women feel more comfortable taking risks knowing there are other women around to support them.

The LaunchPad is also a networking resource for students who may not necessarily want to start their own business, but want to be involved in a startup. Michael Ger, a fifth-year industrial design student, has interacted with entrepreneurs in the LaunchPad as an interface designer. For Ger, one of the best parts has been getting the opportunity to learn from so many people who have visions, he said.

This first year has been helping a lot of students launch ventures, Hartsock said, but the next year will be more about helping these ventures get funded. Additionally, she wants to start building more resources for international students, who have more trouble starting businesses because of visas. She said she would also like to raise funding to bring successful business owners to the LaunchPad.

Hartsock said some of her most memorable moments this past year have been the simplest: sitting in the LaunchPad, watching students help each other. The success at the New York Business Plan Competition is a testament to the community the LaunchPad has fostered — especially evident when the teams were waiting to hear the results, she said.

“We all looked at each other and they said it doesn’t matter who wins — whoever wins we all won,” Hartsock said. “We’re a team, we’re a community, we’re family, so that to me was this magical moment.”

Story by  Haley Kim, Syracuse University, Class of 2019, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Martin J. Whitman School of Management