Brad Thorne counts the empty kiosks and shop spaces at the Harrisburg Mall like a store owner taking inventory.
“Two, four, six. There’s six empty spaces right here in or near the mall’s center square,” he said, walking the lower level. But that’s potential, he said. “Each one of these empty kiosks could be a startup.”
Thorne is the founder of Harrisburg-based startup Prize Monkey, a gaming and marketing company that uses smartphone apps and vending machines to engage shoppers and promote brands. The company has a contract with the Harrisburg Mall in Swatara Township to place two gaming vending machines in the mall and rework its Wi-Fi Internet access.
However, his larger plan is to use vacant kiosks and a shop space to showcase technology startups in what he calls “The Futureland Project.” The idea is to have the public interact with the young companies — and specifically their technologies — for more visibility and to attract visitors to the mall, he said.
If it works out, one of the larger spaces at the mall — what was to be a Barnes & Noble bookstore before the recession — could become a coworking environment for startups and a showcase of Central Pennsylvania’s budding technology scene, Thorne said.
“We’re trying to create a name where people say, ‘Let’s go to Futureland and hang out, and maybe we’ll find something cool,’” he said.
The empty shop space would be sectioned off with software developers, tech gadget developers and other startups working together and feeding off each other’s entrepreneurial drive. They would build on the growing coworking movement that’s taking place elsewhere in the midstate and country, Thorne said.
Each startup would develop a physical, interactive element to educate the public as well as drive interest in the startup’s product or services, he said. For example, a startup with a Web-based app to help bands manage their music, performance dates and other business could put new music on the electronic guts of an MP3 player and use a 3-D plastics printer to make the player’s body for customers to take home.
Futureland isn’t final yet, partly because of a pending sale of Harrisburg Mall, management said.
“Unfortunately, it’s something that any future owner would have a say in, so decisions are on hold right now,” said Arletta Metzger, the mall’s specialty leasing agent.
New Jersey- and Maine-based TD Bank subsidiary Coba Inc. owns 70 percent of the mall. Harrisburg-based Metro Bank subsidiary M B Harrisburg Holdings owns 15 percent and Montgomery County-based Firstrust Bank subsidiary First Harrisburg Inc. owns 15 percent.
Thorne’s ideas are gaining attention, including from other startup founders around the midstate and a national nonprofit for entrepreneurs.
“I think the consensus is that this is good for early startups, even if you’re pre-product, to test your ideas with potential customer bases,” said Devin Lyttle, founder of Amplofi, a Cumberland County startup developing management applications for musicians.
Lyttle is one of more than a dozen startup founders who have signed up to help plan Futureland with Thorne. In coming weeks they’ll be finalizing an organizational framework, he said.
“I do see this overall sense and this demand for visible sites for startups,” said Derek Holt, managing director of national partnerships for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Startup America Partnership.
It is working with entrepreneurs, business organizations and companies to begin a Pennsylvania chapter. Startup America held an informational session last month at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, where Thorne and partner Jerry Broughton demonstrated Prize Monkey.
Small businesses such as bakeries have shops on Main Street, making them visible to the public, and large, multinational companies have their name in every magazine, Holt said. But startups lack similar public intimacy even though they’re working on cutting-edge technologies, he said.
“In the past, (startups have) been this hidden secret and then from that emerges this amazing company,” he said.
Futureland-like projects could work elsewhere, Holt said. Entrepreneurs need the attention, the public gets an education on tech business development and real estate firms fill vacant mall spaces and Main Street stores, he said.
Holt said he’s often asked, “Where’s the local startup scene?” However, answering it with a geographic location is difficult. Grouping startups together in a city section solves that problem, he said.
“Startups, by definition, are creating something new that doesn’t exist on someone’s procurement list,” Holt said, “so anything that helps connect big business and startups is good for both of them.”
For Thorne, Futureland is a solution to another problem plaguing entrepreneurs who don’t live in one of the established tech metro areas such as New York, San Francisco or Seattle. There’s no reason why a startup has to be there with today’s tech connectivity, he said.
“We’re constantly told (by consultants and investors) to leave the area,” Thorne said. “Well, that does me no good.”