Harrisburg accelerator Catamaran propels first group of startups
Harrisburg-based entrepreneur Mark Wieder had an open mind when he began researching the product he thought he wanted to create.
It’s a good thing, too, because he found little to support his initial idea: creating a curriculum to instill business and life skills in school-aged children.
Instead, Wieder said, he heard over and over again about another need: a way for young artists, designers and other creative types to showcase their work visually and professionally.
The result is Poprietor, a website Wieder launched in mid-April after spending three months in a startup accelerator created by andCulture, a Harrisburg-based technology design company. An accelerator is a program designed to help entrepreneurs develop viable products.
He didn’t mind the switch-up, which was prompted by his work with the accelerator, called Catamaran. “It’s all about trusting the process and being open and ensuring what you are building is based on evidence and feedback from potential customers,” said Wieder, a former environmental attorney who also is founder of Popped Culture, a popcorn company in Harrisburg.
Wieder was one of three entrepreneurs in the first class to go through Catamaran, a standalone entity launched as a social enterprise to benefit the community. Its goal is to help entrepreneurs hone their products into something people will use and buy, but also to build a network of resources for startup ventures in Central Pennsylvania.
So far, andCulture has poured about $500,000 into the Catamaran effort, including direct and indirect costs, said Lauren McAteer, one of four andCulture employees who staff the accelerator.
The investment includes about $50,000 in design and engineering time provided by andCulture staff for each of the three startups. In return, the accelerator takes a 3 percent equity stake in each business. If and when those stakes are cashed out, the money will flow back and be used for the benefit of future entrepreneurs, McAteer said.
Additional funds may come from an incubator that andCulture and Catamaran hope to establish this fall. Incubators typically host more mature startups than do accelerators.
Catamaran now is gearing up to host a second group of entrepreneurs from October through December, with applications being accepted between May 15 and July 2. In the meantime, it is absorbing the lessons of the first group.
One question was whether three months was enough time to hone products, McAteer said. “We didn’t know how far we could get the companies in this short time period.”
She said she was pleased with the results. “All three of the companies really got potential customers using their tools and providing feedback and were at least able to make some changes to their initial rollouts, which was really great to see,” she said.
While the next group also will spend three months in the accelerator, Catamaran is eyeing other changes. Among them is a longer orientation process, McAteer said, saying the goal is to make entrepreneurs better customers of the technology and services available to them.
The accelerator also is interested in connecting founders to mentors and other partners in the community, McAteer said. For the first round, Catamaran collaborated with Lancaster nonprofit Assets; Harrisburg law firm Penwell Bowman + Curran; sales consulting firm Sandler Training; and marketing firm Ruby Shoes Inc., which was founded by Kim Schaller, a former marketing executive with Hershey Entertainment and Resorts. All volunteered their time and services.
The question is how many partners are needed, McAteer said. “We’re not quite sure how to not bombard these young companies with too much advice, but we know as well that we can’t do this alone and we don’t have all the answers.”
Another priority is finding co-founders, not just solo entrepreneurs, McAteer said, and helping founders build teams around them. “The highs are really high but the lows of a single founder are really low, and it’s a tremendous amount of work.”
The work culminated for Catamaran’s first group at an event April 17 at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology where Wieder and the two other entrepreneurs — Martha Harris and Justin Stimpson — presented what they had built with Catamaran’s help.
Wieder’s Poprietor site went live on April 9. He said he wants to see how the site is being used before he promotes it more heavily or decides how best it can make money.
Among other possibilities, he said, recruiters may pay for access to professionals on the site, or users may want to pay for digital storage of their work.
In the meantime, he said he is hoping to raise $450,000 to build up Poprietor’s staff and to cover other expenses.
Stimpson is founder of a venture called Daddio. It offers a subscription service through which fathers can order boxes filled with games, activities and toys designed to match their children’s interests. The boxes, which arrive on a quarterly basis, aim to help fathers connect with their children.
“Probably the coolest part is it’s super customized,” Stimson said at the Catamaran event in April.
By next year, he said, he hopes to launch an online community as well as local in-person communities for dads.
Harris, meanwhile, created an online platform, called Fizikaflex, that lets senior citizens track their activity, food intake and other factors that affect their brain health. It is something she initially pitched last year to AOL co-founder Steve Case when he was in Central Pennsylvania on a national tour called Rise of the Rest, which sought to bring attention to entrepreneurs outside of big cities.
Her initial goal was to help people stave off cognitive decline. But during the time she spent in Catamaran, she found that potential users were more interested in being able to live independently as they aged.
Harris also sought to measure more data, but whittled it down with assistance from experts she worked with in the accelerator.
“That focus emerged from the human-centered design discovery process, the market research, the competitive analysis and the very practical reality of what can we build in six weeks that’s launchable,” said Harris, whose Lancaster-based company is called b_Fizika LLC. Its operating subsidiary is called Fizika Group LLC, which manages other products Harris has developed.
She is hoping to raise $300,000 from investors to move the social benefit company forward. She also is working with retirement communities in Lancaster County to test her product with their residents.
“It costs much less to maintain someone who lives independently than to provide skilled nursing or assisted living,” Harris said. “So an immediate benefit is cost savings.”
Communities also may find that by encouraging physical activity, more residents are using their recreational and exercise facilities, as well as connecting with their friends and families, Harris said. Fizikaflex has a social component that lets users see what others are doing and encourage each other to be more active.
Overall, Harris was happy with her experience at Catamaran. “It’s really pretty phenomenal, the level of commitment and professional value that they donate to the founders,” she said.
As it looks for the next group of entrepreneurs to go through its startup accelerator program, Catamaran is holding office hours at its office in downtown Harrisburg.
Entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas and get feedback from the Catamaran staff.
Office hours are every Monday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., said Lauren McAteer, director of the Catamaran Foundation, which runs the accelerator.
Slots must be reserved online at www.catamaran.cc.