Harrisburg tech accelerator Catamaran aims to trigger startup wave
David Hickethier believes Central Pennsylvania is home to many entrepreneurs eager to launch new businesses.
But some local visionaries hit pause because they don’t know where to turn for help, said Hickethier, founder and CEO of Harrisburg-based Andculture, a design and innovation consultancy. It makes digital products designed to improve customer experiences in health care, education and government.
In Central Pennsylvania budding business owners can struggle to find enough customers to prove the value of their concepts, or they don’t know how to reach local investors willing to give them money and help make connections.
Some startups leave for bigger cities in search of both.
That’s where Catamaran LLC, a new standalone venture created by the leaders at Andculture, comes in.
Launched last month, Catamaran plans to host rotating groups of four early-stage startups under what it calls an accelerator model. An accelerator is a place for people to turn an idea into a tangible business; an incubator, on the other hand, usually helps companies with established products find markets.
Hickethier believes the region is ripe for an accelerator as the role of technology grows more influential in every business.
“We are saying you can do this and we know the startups are here,” Hickethier said.
Catamaran debuted on Oct. 13 following a visit to Central Pennsylvania by AOL co-founder Steve Case and his “Rise of the Rest” initiative. Rise of the Rest is a national tour that aims to find entrepreneurs outside of traditional tech centers like Silicon Valley.
Hickethier believes the buzz generated by the tour’s local stops will encourage more startups to feel they can make it in the midstate. Catamaran has already seen early interest from startups looking to get a spot in the accelerator, though Hickethier declined to name any of the companies. The application period runs until Nov. 20.
The tech scene in Harrisburg has been building over the past few years in part because of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, which has been adding students, creating new programs and hosting tech-related events in the capital city.
Other changes are in the works.
Harrisburg University and the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp., have been looking to open new tech-focused facilities in Harrisburg. But the chamber first wants to sell its existing tech incubator, the Murata Business Center in Carlisle.
Harrisburg University and chamber leaders see Catamaran as a springboard for other developments.
“It motivates the rest of us to get moving and build on the momentum they have created,” said Eric Darr, the university’s president. “I like the approach of providing support to startups on real meaningful things like marketing support and help building prototypes.”
For startups hoping to attract investors, a convincing prototype can make the difference, Darr said. But most early-stage companies don’t have the resources or skills needed to create a prototype.
Hickethier welcomes other initiatives.
For now, though, Catamaran is focused on the accelerator and providing temporary space for Andculture staff, along with tech, legal and finance partners, to help midstate entrepreneurs develop products that could eventually attract investors.
The companies chosen by Catamaran will spend three months, beginning in January, on the second floor of Andculture’s offices in downtown Harrisburg. The space is about 2,000 square feet, with another 3,000 square feet available to support other initiatives. If the accelerator takes off, for example, Catamaran plans to open its own incubator, Hickethier said.
While Catamaran has the space, money might be harder for startups to find, at least in the beginning.
“The challenge Catamaran will have in generating interest from angel investors or venture capital is that I’m not sure you will get the deal flow,” Darr said. “(Investors) want to see a number of new startups. If your focus is only on four companies, that may not be enough to generate interest.”
However, Harrisburg University is incubating several startups itself and other innovations may be in development at universities and regional health systems. Collectively they could be enough of a magnet for investors.
Hickethier also said it will take regional coordination and a number of viable startups to entice investors.
“That’s why we started with an accelerator, to get fundable startups,” he said. “I believe the money is here, but it hasn’t easily found a vehicle.”
David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, is optimistic that Catamaran will help create a critical mass of startups.
How it works
Catamaran plans to host two so-called cohorts of four companies per year.
Andculture values the services its staff will provide at about $35,000 per company.
Hickethier expects at least one company from each cohort will move into an extended incubation period, possibly six to nine months, through Catamaran.
But he hopes that every company will at least come out of the three months with a product.
Over time, Hickethier said he believes the venture will branch out into more locations.
“This is not a Harrisburg accelerator,” he said. “It’s a Central Pennsylvania accelerator. I see several in this region.”
For his 42 employees, Catamaran is a chance to help other dreamers build a business. Hickethier plans for Catamaran to be certified as a B Corp, a company that makes a positive impact on society and the environment beyond making a profit.
The work with companies in the incubator also should keep Andculture staff sharp for work on client projects.
Down the road he envisions partnerships with universities that offer entrepreneurship programs.
Connections will be a key to success for Catamaran, Darr added.
“With the startup community, it’s going to take all of us,” Darr said. “That’s the reality. One of us on our own can’t make this successful.”
Want to apply?
Catamaran is offering tours of the startup space on Nov. 7. These are two sessions available for entrepreneurs to sign up. For more information, visit www.catamaran.cc.