Vending machine entrepreneur wins grand prize in M&T Bank pitch competition

Josue Osorto, a son of El Salvadoran immigrants and the founder of Bespoke Vending, won the $6,000 grand prize in a pitch competition held June 21 to culminate the second annual Capital Region Multicultural Small Business Lab sponsored by M&T Bank.

A 34-year-old Hummelstown resident and former hospitality industry employee, Osorto started his vending machine company that sells popular, trending, nostalgic and hard-to-find snacks from around the world in September 2022. He plans to use the prize money to buy new vending machines and launch a Bespoke Vending website.

Corey Dupree, owner of Men Raising Black Boys, earned the pitch competition’s second-place prize of $4,000. BreAna Blount, owner of Bre’s Eats-n-Sweets, won the third-place prize of $2,000.

The pitch competition capped the seven-week business accelerator program that began May 10 in partnership with the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

The Capital Region Multicultural Small Business Lab focused on business planning, establishing credit, accessing capital, marketing, branding and networking. It was offered to entrepreneurs who met the following eligibility requirements:

· Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx or Asian American;

· In business no more than three years;

· Annual business revenue of $350,000 or less; and

· A resident of the Greater Harrisburg area.

Nearly 40 entrepreneurs participated in this year’s program – the sixth in a series of programs launched by M&T Bank in Buffalo in 2021 to help multicultural small businesses access resources and expand their knowledge.

“The Capital Region Multicultural Small Business Lab empowers Greater Harrisburg’s entrepreneurs and provides their small businesses with the resources to grow,” Nora Habig, M&T’s regional president for Central and Western Pennsylvania, said in a release. “Supporting small businesses remains at the core of M&T, and we’re proud to invest in diverse small businesses within the Harrisburg community.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Central Pa., Lehigh Valley businesses get KIZ tax credits  

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday the approval of $14 million in 2021 Keystone Innovation Zone tax credits for 197 early-stage technology companies, including 10 in central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. 

In the Northwest Lancaster City KIZ, tax credits went to Triode Media Group Ltd., $100,000; Creative Coding Group Inc., $9,074; and VIZpin Inc., $95,826, while ReturnLogic Inc. in the York County KIZ got $100,000 in tax credits. 

In Southside Bethlehem KIZ, Soltech Solutions LLC, $100,000 and $50,326; Almas Foods International, $88,569; Paro AI Inc., $100,000; UBMe Inc., $2,824; Seven Sirens Brewing Co., $100,000; and Optamo LLC, $14,895, received tax credits. 

The Keystone Innovation Zone program provides tax credits for companies that have been operating for less than eight years, have increased gross revenue over the previous year, are located in a KIZ, and are within a targeted industry sector such as information technology or advanced manufacturing/diversified materials, a release explained. 

The program provides young companies with working capital to meet critical needs, whether that’s capital expenditures, workforce expansion, operational expenses or making these businesses more attractive to investors. 


M&T Bank, Harrisburg University launch Multicultural Small Business Innovation Lab

M&T Bank and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology are partnering to create the Capital Region Multicultural Small Business Innovation Lab.

The free, six-week program aims to provide multicultural business owners “with the guidance and skills needed to build strong businesses, spur economic growth for Harrisburg’s Capital Region and help build generational wealth for their families,” according to a release.

With weekly courses May 5 to June 9 at the university, the Innovation Lab will focus on business planning, establishing credit, accessing capital, marketing, branding and networking. It will conclude with a pitch competition and opportunity to win grants of up to $5,000 funded by M&T. Interested entrepreneurs must complete an online application by April 25 and meet the following eligibility requirements:

· Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx or Asian American;

· In business no more than three years;

· Annual business revenue of $350,000 or less.

Qualified applicants will be enrolled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Of the 60 businesses started in Harrisburg since the beginning of the year, nearly half are owned by Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx or Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, according to city officials.

“Since our administration has taken office, we have seen a boom in multicultural small businesses across the city,” Harrisburg Mayor Wanda Williams said in the release. “… The City of Harrisburg is beyond excited to partner with M&T Bank and Harrisburg University to usher in a new era of minority-owned businesses throughout the Capital City.”

Added Nora Habig, M&T Bank’s regional president for Central and Western Pennsylvania:

“The program’s curriculum was intentionally developed to create an environment that helps multicultural small businesses overcome obstacles to success, and we look forward to partnering with Harrisburg University to offer it in the Capital Region.”

In 2020, M&T created its Multicultural Banking & Diverse Market Strategy segment to prioritize the needs of multicultural communities, businesses and individuals

Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship opens location in Harrisburg’s Strawberry Square 

The Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, powered by the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, will be opening a location this summer in Strawberry Square. 

It will be housed on the first floor, in the 4,000-square-foot former Hallmark store. 

“We’re excited to welcome the CIE to … Strawberry Square,” Brad Jones, president and CEO of Harristown, the owner of Strawberry Square, said in a release. “Harrisburg University has been an incredible driver for economic development in the downtown and this new lease for CIE is another fantastic example of their positive impact here in downtown Harrisburg.” 

The CIE works to assist innovators – including Harrisburg University students and faculty, as well as entrepreneurs in the community – to build successful ventures. It also provides opportunities for partners to invest in scientific discoveries, technological innovations and academic research. 

Its director, Jay Jayamohan, explained in the release, “The CIE is a multipronged hub that aligns entrepreneurial activities across the campus and business disciplines that feature active learning laboratories, technological suites and a makerspace.” 

Harrisburg University is a private, nonprofit institution offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in the fields of science, technology and math. 

Lancaster private school pivots online

Henry Dennis, a student at Veritas Academy in Lancaster County, takes his Latin class online. PHOTO PROVIDED

Veritas Academy in Upper Leacock Township, Lancaster County has not only managed to get its classes up and running online for its 300 students, but is looking to offer a selection of video classes to students outside of the academy.

When the closures of schools statewide caused Veritas Academy to send its K through 12 students home, the Christian school’s headmaster sought help from an economic development program focused on small tech startups.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pa. is part of a network of Ben Franklin Technology Partners across the state that offer funds and assistance to growing technology firms. The organization’s director of business development, Andrew Long, is an advisor to Veritas’ school board and agreed to offer the school guidance with help from his staff at Ben Franklin.

“The school needed advice and wanted to reach out to us for help to get up and running as a community partner,” Long said. “Ben Franklin was able to help them run down their resources in the same way we would do with a company we were investing in.”

With help from Ben Franklin, Veritas was able to go from its brick-and-mortar school to completely online classes within a week. Headmaster Ty Fischer said that the difference between Veritas and other schools is that through Zoom conferencing, the school’s faculty have been able to resume their classes while other schools are using online resources but may not be moving forward on their curriculum.

Fischer said that during his conversations with Ben Franklin, Long and his team gave the school advice on technology and entrepreneurial issues and gave Fischer guidance on taking opportunities in a disrupted market.

Bruce Etter, academic dean at Veritas Academy, instructs teachers Harry Myrick and Kikuli Mwanukuzi how to record their online courses. PHOTO PROVIDED

Finding innovative ways to keep Veritas’ parents in the loop was also a source of conversation. Long said his team suggested adding video components to newsletters or releasing informal fireside chats.

Because Veritas’ classes are continuing as normally as they can in the current situation, Fischer said he can now turn his focus to using the opportunity to grow Veritas’ name in the currently disrupted private education market.

The school plans to do this by releasing videos of their classes for free online.

“It’s a great opportunity to be better known,” he said. “We are going to take some of our classes of every grade and put them out into the community.”

Fischer said that the school is in talks with area school districts to try to get students credit for the classes, particularly in preparation for AP exams that aren’t changing their testing dates.

Lancaster’s private education market is competitive and the offering of free classes could be what the 24-year-old school needs to stand out.

“We are still a young school and it’s hard to get everyone to know you,” Fischer said. “Giving these classes away is how we want people to get to know us.”


Mechanicsburg photography firm shifts focus to live 3D tours from home

A Mechanicsburg real estate photography firm is offering real estate companies a way to continue touring houses despite the state-wide lockdown.

360 Tour Designs has taken 3D photography of houses on the market for real estate companies for five years but previously offered the service as a way for potential buyers to see a house before they toured it.

Real estate firms across the state are currently unable to take their clients on tours of homes in compliance with Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent order for all non-life sustaining businesses to close their doors.

Because 360 Tour Designs already offers 3D tours to its clients, it was a no-brainer to offer the service as an alternative to live tours, said Greg Drake, the company’s co-owner.

“We’ve had this 3D imaging capability for a while and it allows you to virtually walk through a home by five to eight feet at a time,” he said. “This new service is a modification of that. Now you can sit down in front of it and over the phone, the realtor can walk you through the address.”

The change to the service is the simple addition of a phone call but a guided tour by a realtor offers much more than what a potential buyer can see from the 3D tour without a guide, said Drake.

360 Tour Designs is a franchisor with 18 franchisees in 15 states. The company primarily works with realtors, offering basic photography, 3D imaging and home staging.

If real estate agencies continue to be unable to show homes to buyers into April, 360 Tour Designs will be looking at other alternatives like getting cardboard virtual headsets into the hands of buyers.

Buyers could place their phones into the virtual headsets and use a virtual reality app that would let them see the 3D images as if they were standing in the house.

Antarctic explorer finds profit by selling surplus gear in the Poconos

AntarcticSurplus CEO Jonathan Weber poses in his “Big Red” parka at the South Pole. PHOTO PROVIDED

The Arctic fascinated Jonathan Weber, so he was excited when he was chosen from a competitive field for a position with the United States Antarctic Program in 2016.

But, while the South Pole excited him from a distance, he learned even more when he felt how cold the freezing, desolate continent could be.

“At the South Pole, the summer season ranges from -60F to about -10F on warm days,” he said. “During the winter it can go down below -100F. So, your gear needs to be able to handle these intense temperature ranges.”

To cope with the extreme weather, the men and women stationed there need specialized clothing and gear, including “Big Red” Canada Goose USAP-exclusive parkas that are rated to keep you warm down to 40 below.

Little did he know it would end up leading to a lucrative side gig; one he plans to grow.

Knowing other cold-weather science and adventure enthusiasts, Weber believed there was a demand for high quality outerwear, not just for their function, but for their rarity and unique style.

“I became very familiar with the Antarctic Program’s specialized clothing and gear while I was deployed,” he said. “Like military surplus, most government agencies sell or auction off surplus gear. I made some connections, and was able to participate in this process after I came back from my first season in Antarctica. This led to purchasing my first few pallets of used gear.”

He set up a warehouse in East Stroudsburg and started selling the surplus gear through the website www.AntarcticSurplus.com. He was joined by Pat McGee, who became the co-manager of Antarctic Surplus. McGee helped organize the gear that Weber was buying.

They knew little about the items since they were bought in bulk, she said. They needed to sort through them to rate them by size, age and quality, and repairs older gear damaged or showing signs of wear.

There was variety, but the traditional “Big Red” parkas were their signature item, and the hardest to get.

“Some of this gear you can’t even find unless you’re from the Antarctic program,” McGee explained. “You really need to be on the lookout for this gear.”


The learning curve

United States Antarctic Program crew depart a U.S. Air Force plane. PHOTO PROVIDED

They weren’t sure what to expect when they started selling in 2017. The parkas are not cheap, Weber said. Depending on the style, vintage and condition they can sell for up to $1,000.

“While I knew that there was demand for cold weather gear, I did not know if it would be profitable after the costs, shipping, repairs, etc.,” he said. “Luckily, our first experience was positive. We had a smaller amount of parkas and were able to completely sell out relatively quickly.”

Weber said he grossed about $40,000 in sales in just the first 24 hours of sales. But, there was a problem blocking the growth of his new business; he had to rely on the surplus auctions of the Antarctic program to gather new inventory, and those only come around when the program has extra gear to sell.

That next auction occurred earlier this year, and with their first experience giving them the confidence to go bigger, Antarctic Surplus bought even more parkas in a larger variety of styles. The also bought boots, ice picks and Antarctic-weather rated tents.

They learned from the customers who bought their batch that there was a market for a variety of items, McGee said. Their customers were mostly Antarctic explorers themselves, or just cold-weather sports enthusiasts.

“We hit a very niche demand,” she said.

A cool trend

“Big Red” Parkas hang at the Antarctica Clothing Distribution Center. PHOTO PROVIDED

The downy parkas caught the eye of the trendy crowd. Many Hollywood celebrities and trend setters wear the commercially available Canada Goose parkas. To own a vintage, exclusively made Antarctic program parka was a step up.

There were simple, practical buyers, too. Stacey Jones of New York City never owned a parka, so when he decided to buy only one, he wanted one that would last. So, he decided to go for the best. He wanted one super-warm layer that would protect him from the cold, but be easy to slip off inside.

He always had an interest in the cold continent, and his research led him to Weber’s site, and the Big Red parkas. For Jones, they were the perfect solution.

“Living in New York City the idea of layering isn’t practical. You go from one heated building to the next,” Jones said.

Learning who their customers are and what they want is an ongoing process, McGee said.

“It’s a trial by fire with the new items, but last time was pretty successful for us,” she said. So she and Weber are keeping an open mind about how to grow the business with their new inventory and the goods they hope to obtain in the future.

“The biggest limitations are obviously around inventory,” Weber said. “But now that we have been able to build up a good customer base we are considering different options for offering ongoing inventory; for instance, new products, or military surplus cold weather gear with regular availability.”

And as McGee minds the store, Weber is heading back to the place where it all began.

“I am about to deploy to a different area of Antarctica, Union Glacier, with a private operator within the next few days,” he said. “I’ll be working in communications and I’ll be bringing a good bit of ex-USAP gear back to Antarctica with me.

It’s an opportunity for him “to get back on the ice,“ he said, and maybe find some additions for his inventory while he’s down there.

Clean pet teeth and cricket protein among highlights at pet event


Richard Thompson, founder and CEO of Factory LLC in Bethlehem, addresses group at the inaugural Pet Innovation Challenge Oct. 3. –

Two Midwest companies were the big winners at the inaugural Pet Innovation Challenge held in Bethlehem this month.

Shameless Pets, a Chicago-based company that turns unused food from grocery stores and other food operations into pet food, and Teef, a Minneapolis-based company whose product, when added to water, can improve the dental health of pets, were named the winners during the conference hosted by Factory LLC on Oct. 2 and 3.

Shameless earned the top prize at in the “Pitch Slam” competition that evaluated participants on their ability to pitch ideas effectively. It took home a cash prize of $1,000, six months of entrepreneur services from Factory LLC and a free booth, valued at about $6,000, at Natural Products Expo East 2020 to be held in Philadelphia next September.

Teef, which claimed the top prize in the overall innovation challenge, earned a $5,000 cash prize, 60 hours of services from Factory LLC and a free booth at the Natural Products Expo East.

The Pet Innovation Challenge, sponsored by New Hope Network, was a showcase for innovative and emerging pet health brands hoping to break into the nearly $100 billion U.S. pet products market.

The “entre-pet-neurs,” as they were called, participated in a Shark Tank-like competition in which they pitched their business model to potential investors and other pet product experts.

In addition to forming potential relationships with investors, the entrepreneurs got valuable feedback on their overall business plans from the assembled experts. More than 100 pet product companies applied to participate in the event, but only 10 were selected.

Shameless Pets pitched the idea that its products are “a different way to enable concerned pet owners to do their part for the planet.”

Shameless was started by James Bello, an ex-corporate food buyer who was shocked to learn that some 63 million tons of food from grocery stores and other food supply chain locations gets tossed out every year.

With a Puggle and treat-tester named Mina at his side, Bello linked up with Boston-based food scientist Alex Waite who shared his passion for the environment and had the know-how to formulate treats made from unused food. In October 2018, Bello and Waite co-founded and launched Shameless Pets.

Several other companies took home prizes for their unique products. Philadelphia-based company Because Animals, which specializes in cultured meat grown using biotechnology and without raising or slaughtering animals, was the first runner-up in the innovation challenge.

Chippin, a Takoma Park, Md.-based company that produces pet treats out of cricket protein, was chosen as second runner-up. Both companies took home a $1,000 cash prize and 10 hours of services from Factory LLC.

Factory LLC, which opened earlier this year, is based in a former Bethlehem Steel mill on Columbia Street in south Bethlehem. It’s a business innovation specialist working with, and supplies space for, emerging companies between $2 million and $20 million to help them grow. It was founded by Richard Thompson, a former pet food company executive who wants to put Bethlehem on the business innovation map of the U.S.