WNY colleges are helping entrepreneurs fine-tune their big ideas

Jay and Amy Berent walked into the Small Business Development Center at Niagara County Community College a few years ago with a solid business plan. They knew that Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics would fulfill a unique niche that could tap into multiple markets.

They had some business acumen, but they also knew they needed that extra boost to get their fledgling business to take off. NCCC’s center gave them just that.

The Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics owners are among the dozens of area entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of business development and assistance centers and other programs connected to colleges and universities across Western New York. These centers and programs are becoming increasingly valuable assets as the region’s startup and entrepreneurial scene continues to blossom.

The Berents certainly agree. The staff at NCCC’s Small Business Development Center helped them elevate their business plan.

“They explained that our plan was good, but they could help us make it great, and they sure did,” said Jay Berent, who manages Pulp 716’s shop in Lockport, which opened in 2015; Amy operates the North Tonawanda location, which opened last year.

“They went over every single step of the process with us, from ordering inventory, pricing for a profit, marketing to a targeted audience, preparing our taxes, and many more essential business necessities that, to be honest, we wouldn't have thought of without their direction,” Jay added.

The center at NCCC offers a range of services, such as classes, which the Pulp 716 owners continue to attend in an effort to learn all they can from the center’s staff. NCCC’s SBDC specializes in free and confidential one-on-one counseling dealing with small-business opportunities and problems. It also offers training and instructional programs. It’s also unique in that it has an agricultural specialist on staff.

“The center is, by far, the greatest asset that any local business has at their fingertips,” Jay Berent said. “One meeting with any of their reps will give a business owner fresh perspectives, innovative insights, and statistics that will help your business reach its goals.”

Achieving those goals through planning is a core part of the expertise the center provides business owners, according to its director, Lynn Oswald. “We are big on planning,” she said. “We guide our clients through developing a plan for their future, but only they truly know their business, their markets, their capabilities, and their future vision of their business. We help them define and refine that vision.”

UB lends support to vaccine company

Abcombi Biosciences is a pre-clinical vaccine and therapeutic development company dedicated to delivering “smarter” vaccine and anti-infective solutions. The company is developing a vaccine that could contribute to eliminating the spread of pneumonia.

Since forming in 2015, this University at Buffalo spinoff has received critical support from a variety of entities at UB, including the Small Business Innovation Awards, the UB Technology Transfer office, as well as state and regional programs.

“All of these programs were instrumental in enabling Abcombi to achieve the results we have thus far. Not only have these organizations played a role in directly impacting our company through funding, they have facilitated introductions to individuals who have accelerated our maturation,” said Andrew Hill, Abcombi’s chief science officer. He co-founded the company with CEO Charles Jones, who developed the framework for Abcombi while a doctoral candidate at UB.

UB’s support was particularly important considering the company’s co-founders had limited industry experience. “These resources provided our management team the opportunity to grow and gain experience in an environment that made our value proposition competitive with that of startups from time-tested cities like Boston,” Hill said.

The UB connections introduced Abcombi’s co-founders to Margie McGlynn, a UB alum who worked at Merck for 26 years, and who has been an instrumental mentor to the Abcombi management team.

UB faculty members have also been key collaborators, added Hill (who is not related to this writer).

“The support we’ve received from the University at Buffalo and the broader Buffalo community has been nothing short of inspiring,” Hill said.

The aforementioned programs are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what UB can offer aspiring entrepreneurs. Blackstone LaunchPad offers a variety of training, workshops, and competitions to develop the next generation of entrepreneurs. Its website includes a toolbox that provides tips and other guidance.

UB’s School of Management alone has a wealth of programs for its student entrepreneurs, including an Entrepreneurship Lab (eLab), a hands-on, three-credit course that helps develop skills needed to launch a new venture.

Moreover, the school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership provides an education that’s designed by entrepreneurs and for entrepreneurs.

Each spring, the school hosts the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, which awards $25,000 to the winning team.

Storillo finds its footing at Daemen, UB

This year’s second-place winner at the Panasci competition was Storillo, a company created by Daemen College graduate Thomas Wilkie and UB aerospace engineering doctoral candidate Tim Adowski, who went to high school together at Cardinal O’Hara.

The two co-founders developed Storillo.com to solve an all-too-common occurrence in school-based group projects: “One person does everything, one person does nothing, and everyone else tries to make it look like they're doing something,” Wilkie said.

“Our goal is to make group work easier for teachers and more educational for students so we can better prepare our students for their futures, where everything is group work.”

Wilkie credits a host of college-based programs for helping him and Adowski hone their idea, starting with the Interdisciplinary Minor in Entrepreneurship Program at Daemen. “I never thought starting a business was a real possibility until I did Daemen's entrepreneurship minor, which gave me the first opportunity to start working on Storillo,” he said.

Storillo’s next step was competing in the WNY Student 2 Biz Challenge sponsored by the WNY Consortium of Higher Education, where, after seeing other students’ projects, they realized they still had a lot of work to do.

Then it was on to Blackstone LaunchPad’s Buffalo Student Sandbox program, where accepted student entrepreneurs spend a summer immersed in their idea, working with advisers and venture coaches. “We probably wouldn’t be here today without that program. It really challenged us to take a long and hard look at what we were doing,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie said now is a great time to be an entrepreneur in Western New York because of all the support available from area colleges and universities.

“Each of these programs have helped us take the next step, and it's great that our colleges and community have the resources to support us as we've moved forward,” he added. “The best part is, there are so many people who want to help you.”

Extra Credit

In addition to the aforementioned programs, the following resources from other area colleges are also available to entrepreneurs:

Read more articles by David J. Hill.

A native of Hamburg, N.Y., David J. Hill lives in Buffalo and works in University Communications at UB. During his free time, he enjoys playing recreational kickball, sipping cold beverages on a waterfront patio, and spending time with his two adorable nieces.
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