Commonwealth, Local Partners Collaborate on Mercer Innovation Fund

HERMITAGE, Pa. – A new initiative being launched by Ben Franklin Technology Partners and some local groups, including Penn-Northwest Development Corp., will provide support for technology-based startups and firms moving into the tech space.

Brian Slawin, northwestern regional portfolio director for Erie, Pa.-based Ben Franklin Partners, joined Rod Wilt, Penn-Northwest’s executive director, at a news conference Thursday morning to announce the Mercer County Innovation Fund.

Local partners Penn-Northwest, Shenango Valley Enterprise Zone, Community Hope Investment Partnership Group, Greenville Area Economic Development Corp. and the city of Hermitage contributed a combined $410,000 to the new loan fund, which Ben Franklin Partners will use to assist Mercer County tech companies, in combination with its own funds, Wilt said.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners finds, mentors and invests in “innovative technology companies and small manufacturers,” Slawin said. “And with today’s announcement of the Mercer County Innovation Fund, we’ll be doing that more so and exclusively finding companies in Mercer County,” he added.

The partnership “really comes out of our need as the county’s lead economic development agency to have another tool to assist these entrepreneurs that are in a prelaunch phase or launching a new company, primarily in the technology area,” Wilt said. The Mercer County Industrial Growth Fund, which Penn-Northwest offers, is what he described as a “sticks and bricks and equipment lender” that serves to drive the commercial, manufacturing and industrial components of the county’s economy.

“We’re really good with hard assets, [but] we really had no ability to finance intellectual property, trademarks and emerging technology. We just had no way to collateralize that,” he said. So, using Ben Franklin as our underwriter and our lead lender, we’re able to partner with them so we didn’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel.”

That gap became apparent through local partners’ efforts to work with Kara Wasser, founder of OhanaLink Technologies, a technology-based startup launched in 2020 that provides a secure communications platform to connect family members and others during health-related events.

Wasser, whose company has received four rounds of funding from Ben Franklin Partners, brought to Wilt’s and Slawin’s attention that Mercer County lacked any kind of “matching-fund resources that aligned with technology,” she said. At the same time, there were “incredible innovation funds” in neighboring Ohio – specifically nearby Youngstown – that Pennsylvania-based OhanaLink was ineligible for, as well as in larger Pennsylvania communities like Allegheny County, she said.

“Why was there nothing in Mercer County similar to what’s happening right across our border?” she asked.

“We’re going to find more OhanaLink Technologies and more entrepreneurs like Kara Wasser and her team, and build that tradition here in Mercer County,” Slawin said.

There also were several existing firms that were adding “technology components to their business that we also couldn’t help with their funding,” Wilt said.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners will publicize the “great technology company enterprise opportunity” in the county and work with Penn-Northwest and the other local partners to spur activity, he said. The organization also provides support to startups though its various programs, including TechCelerator and the Ben Franklin Learning center, “all of the support that we can provide to those companies to literally take an idea on a napkin and turn it into a company that then grows and scales and does great things.”

In addition, the organization can write checks from $50,000 to $1 million from its own funds, “depending obviously on where the company is in their stage of growth, to support that activity,” he said

Companies can connect with Penn-Northwest or Ben Franklin directly, but Ben Franklin ultimately will put those companies through its process, Wilt said. Data shows that companies that go through that process are seven times more likely to succeed than if they elect to go it alone. Additionally, the goal is for those companies that the partnership assists to remain in Mercer County.

“We want them to stay and we want to build a piece of our economy around that,” he said. The partners also hope to add to the funds designated for county companies, he said. Funds repaid by companies would go back into the loan fund.

Wasser, whose company still works with Ben Franklin, said she plans to seek funds through the program as she grows OhanaLink. Receiving the Ben Franklin funds “puts you in line with eligibility for the innovation funds,” she said.

Any company that receives Mercer County Innovation Fund money that elects to move outside the county would be required to repay those funds, Wilt said. Having such a fund can help to retain more local entrepreneurs and college students who have an idea for a business.

“Up until today, we really didn’t have a tool in our toolbox to help them,” wilt said. “We hope it’s just another component that shows we’re open for all types of business, not just commercial [and] manufacturing.”

Pictured at top from left: Brian Slawin, northwestern regional portfolio director for Erie, Pa.-based Ben Franklin Partners, and Rod Wilt, Penn-Northwest’s executive director.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.