With its massive glass windows and clear, open door, the Blackstone LaunchPad office is a centerpiece of the Kent State Student Center Hub. Filled with business advisers, industry experts and comfortable chairs, LaunchPad offers young entrepreneurs a place to pitch their business ventures.
Blackstone LaunchPad took form in 2012 as an organization to help young entrepreneurs get their feet wet in the muddy waters of starting a small business. Blackstone, which has 15 locations on college campuses around the country, is a co-curricular program, which means it is available to students from all the colleges on campus; not just business majors.
Kate Harmon, the Blackstone LaunchPad Associate Director, is in charge of the programming and acts as the primary adviser for any students who are looking for a little business advice.
“When students come into the LaunchPad, we are very purposeful in being nurturers,” Harmon said. “It is an educational program. We’re here to support them until they get ready to launch their business.”
In just over two years, LaunchPad has already served almost 750 Kent State students across multiple majors. According to numbers provided by Blackstone, 34 percent of its clients are business students, while 14 percent are fashion students, 12 percent are in technology, 11 percent are in healthcare and 10 percent are in communications/journalism.
Joseph Young, a student in the School of Visual Communication Design, works at Blackstone as a student marketing assistant and stresses that Blackstone is for the entire Kent State community.
“A lot of students think you have to be a business major to start a business,” Young said, “but if you have a venture and you’re really behind it, they’ll help you.”
He explained that one way LaunchPad promotes the idea of a co-curricular program is through some of the events they host.
“These events help promote entrepreneurship in general,” Young said. “Our last 24-hour event had students from the computer science and fashion schools team up to make wearable tech.”
The Fashion/Tech Hackathon gave teams of students 24 hours to come up with an idea revolved around wearable technology, design it and then produce the product. Some of the winning ideas included a glow in the dark bicycle shirt and an insole that tracks the pressure of each step in order to identify foot fall patterns.
“This was the first hackathon for wearable tech in the country,” Harmon said. “We combined with six other schools in the area and 15 projects were created, two of which were being pursued further.”
Students come to Blackstone with a variety of ideas, from a variety of backgrounds and they vary with how far along in the process they are as well.
“Sometimes they just have an idea, sometimes they already have a business started,” Harmon said. “They’ll come in, we’ll sit down and come up with an action plan. Then it’s up to them to come back to us for the next meeting.”
Brad Baumeister, a communications major, developed the website LowkeyLinks, which takes information from social media and classifies it into cliques so only certain people can see certain things.
“There is way too much noise now on social media and most of the stuff you see you really could care less about,” Baumeister said. “Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all about ‘look at me;’ LowkeyLinks is all about ‘look at this.’”
Baumeister has gotten help from LaunchPad with technical hiccups as well as assistance with start-up funds, which include hosting servers, which can be the biggest cost for digital technology companies, Baumeister said.
“Blackstone LaunchPad has been a huge help,” Baumeister said. “They always have someone lined up to connect with me when I run into an issue and they have given me nothing but encouraging support and positivity throughout the startup stages.”
Once students come up with an action plan for their venture and do research regarding the industry and the market they are entering, LaunchPad will help them develop a business plan and then connect them with industry experts who can help them take the next step.
“We are here as a support system as they launch,” Harmon said. “Our overarching goal is that we want to spur economic development and that with the more connections we give them, they remain in Northeast Ohio.”
The Blackstone LaunchPad is based on a program developed out of the University of Miami as a co-curricular program targeting all students interested in pursuing entrepreneurship. The national program receives funding through The Blackstone Charitable Foundation while the local program at Kent State receives funding from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, a charity aimed at increasing business opportunities. According to the Blackstone website, “these foundations have a commitment to invest in organizations and institutions that foster entrepreneurship, creating job growth and economic activity.”
“Kent was the second area selected for this program after Detroit,” Harmon said. “We already had a very strong entrepreneurship program and they believed Kent had a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem. We were selected based on the resources we could provide.”