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Stay up to date on the latest news in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Penn State Altoona.

Student Entrepreneur Competes in Two Competitions

May 2020

Izaak Lustgarten is a fourth semester sophomore at Penn State Altoona, double majoring in Economics and Information Sciences and Technology.  He’s also a finalist in two competitions with his business idea, D’Vote.  Izaak will be competing this week in the final round of Penn State Altoona’s Pechter Business Plan Competition for a share in $8,500, and in June as one of six finalists in Penn State’s Inc.U Competition, where the six finalists compete on “The Investment” TV show for a share of at least $30,000 in funding.

Izaak’s business idea is a community focused app where people can donate money through rounding up their purchases.  We caught up with the student entrepreneur and asked what inspired him.

Izaak: “I’m from Venezuela. I grew up in a large Jewish community there. As time passed by, I realized that the younger generations were not as interested in religion as the other generations and I started wondering why. The only money these institutions have comes from donations and if younger generations don’t donate, then these institutions will eventually disappear.

According to EuroMonitor International, a strategic market research company, people are tranding toward the desire to give back to their communities and get back to their roots. So, I saw this as an opportunity to help institutions and to help people more easily give back to their communities.

I’m developing a community-focused app where people can donate money through rounding up the cost of their purchases.  It is an app used not only for donating money but for interacting with each other, to know what is going on around your community and to be part of it in every way.

I want D’Vote to be part of every community. In these times of uncertainty, now more than ever, we need to be with our community, our loved ones, and give back to them. We need to help each other in every way possible. Helping others is not always an easy thing to do, with D’Vote I want to help people help each other.

My goal is to have the app fully developed by the beginning of 2021.

The process has definitely been a challenge. Most of the things I’m working on to develop the app are new to me, so I am learning a lot along the way.

Some of my interests outside of school include things like tennis, blockchain & cryptocurrencies, the stock market, traveling, playing the guitar, and learning new things every day.”

Details of his business plan will be unveiled this week in a video he will share with a panel of judges in the final round of the Pechter Business Plan Competition.  He is one of three finalists vying for awards of $5,000, $2,500 and $1,000. During this process, all three finalists have been working in the incubator at the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, under the direction of Paul Cooney, Entrepreneurship Professor of Practice and Competition Coordinator.

In June, Izaak will submit his video pitch to a panel of judges in the Penn State Inc.U Competition, and then appear with the other finalists before the judges in a Zoom Q & A session for the monetary awards.

The Penn State Inc.U competition, managed by PennTAP, has evolved to become a Penn State program partially funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (USEDA) in partnership with Invent Penn State and their entrepreneurial assistance centers.


– by Sue Stevens


Innovation Happening at Penn State Altoona

January 2020











Do you know somebody who is always trying to use technology to solve a problem or to make things more efficient? Let me introduce you to Dr. Chris Martin, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Penn State Altoona. About eight years ago, Dr. Martin was looking to solve the longtime challenge of providing computer control of gas flow rates in the welding industry. He believed that by creating a valve using a simple on/off switching control mechanism, the gas flow rates would be more efficient and uniform by using this technology rather than human control. Such an innovative part could be used to solve similar problems in markets other than welding.  The vision to create this new part and system was clear and the journey to create it began.

Dr. Martin taught and conducted research at several institutions, both home and abroad before coming to Penn State Altoona.  About four years ago, he teamed up with Dr. Todd Batzel, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Penn State Altoona, creating a partnership of mechanical and electrical/magnetic engineering to work on this “on/off” or pulse width modulation system.  This became a side-project in addition to their teaching loads.

Drs. Martin and Batzel’s first step was to design a valve that could switch on and off (cycle counts) quickly billions of times and last for decades.  The first prototype they designed and demonstrated got exactly the results they wanted in terms of fast switching, but the material they used failed over time.   The project continued by using a different design at the core of the valve, specifically they used a solenoid-style magnetic operator instead of a voice coil. To aid in the development process, the duo connected with Invent Penn State and its signature program, the Fund for Innovation.

The Fund for Innovation aims to de-risk and accelerate the development of Penn State’s commercially-promising-research for the purposes of licensing or company formation. This program also awards funding to help with design, production, and testing of prototypes. One of the requirements to apply for the Invent Penn State Fund for Innovation is participation in a Business Bootcamp. This shows that the innovators are connected to the Penn State entrepreneurship philosophy.  Dr. Martin signed up and participated in the 9-week Penn State Altoona Business Bootcamp in fall of 2018, which was held at the Altoona LaunchBox supported by the Hite Family.  Martin and Batzel were then awarded funding through the Fund for Innovation to continue with design, production, and testing of their new prototype.

Dr. Martin says Penn State Altoona is well-equipped with resources for prototyping, plus it’s a unique opportunity for our students to gain real-world experience while in college. Drs. Martin and Batzel designed the prototype part, the machine shop staff is manufacturing the valve, and the students are building the tests.  During fall semester, Dr. Martin helped the students run tests to measure the custom gas flow rate of one gas through one valve. During the spring 2020 semester, students will build a tri-gas mixture through three valves. Another student project will be to build a custom laser to measure the tri-gas mixture.

There is currently a patent pending. They are working with the Penn State Office of Technology Management, whose mission is to protect Penn State intellectual property, identify its commercial potential, and stimulate economic development through the transfer of Penn State technologies to the marketplace. It also promotes Penn State technology by protecting, marketing, and licensing University inventions to companies for further development and commercialization. According to the Office of Technology Management, “A prototype has already been successfully made and tests have showed a constant delivery flow rate. The profile of the valve’s flow response to its electrical command has been verified. Currently seeking industry partner for commercialization.”

When someone buys the patent, the funds will be divided among Penn State, the two faculty members who designed it, and their Penn State Altoona academic unit, Business, Engineering, and Information Sciences and Technology, or BEIST.

Innovation is happening here at Penn State Altoona!

-by Sue Stevens

Building A Franchise Business

April 2020

Steve Gardner, ’01 Smeal, was in high school when he started working at The Meadows Frozen Custard in 1994.  He continued working while he attended Penn State Altoona for two years and then during summers while he finished his Smeal College of Business degree at University Park.  When he was 21 and working in the corporate world, Steve became aware of a unique opportunity.  His friend was building a new location for his Best Way Pizza business in Ebensburg and wanted a Meadows Frozen Custard store in the same strip mall.  Steve talked with Joe Meadows, who told him to go ahead and open the Ebensburg Meadows location himself.  Steve quit his corporate job and worked tirelessly to open the Ebensburg location in 2002. He had the mindset that failure wasn’t an option and his business was going to be the best in the area.  He talked with his customers, became friends with them, and gave product away to build his customer base.  Business grew.

In the 1980s, the Meadows Brothers had incorporated the Meadows Franchise Systems to franchise the concept. In January 2003, Steve asked the Meadows Brothers about this franchise opportunity and bought the corporation at that time. With that came the purchase of the Meadows brand and custard formula and Steve began selling Meadows Frozen Custard franchises. The first one opened in 2004 and today there are 26 locations in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia with one in Australia. (Steve works with a local dairy in Australia to make the Meadows custard mix rather than shipping the product for safety and product quality reasons.)

He structured his franchise agreement differently than most franchises.  Instead of taking a percentage of gross sales and charging advertising fees, the Meadows Franchise Systems only charges a percentage of the custard mix they sell to the franchisee, so that the bulk of the money stays at that store.  That arrangement keeps the franchise system small and lean on staff and overhead but Steve says he enjoys staying in touch with his franchisees and customers.  It means a lot of work for Steve from franchisee training, set up and troubleshooting, but he is better able to manage quality control.  His reward is pride in the uniqueness of the product and the enjoyment each customer and franchisee experiences.

His goal is to open two or three new franchise locations each year, but only if he finds the right person to buy a franchise.  Steve doesn’t openly advertise franchise opportunities, and says it is generally organic customers who are interested in opening a Meadows Frozen Custard franchise. His biggest challenge is making sure the person is willing to put in a lot of hard work and time and has patience to build the business, understanding they won’t see a big pay day on day one.  He can also point the franchisee in the right direction, but they make their own decisions.

Being an entrepreneur comes with risks and challenges, so Steve offers this advice: go into an entrepreneurial venture well capitalized and ready to work.  Make it your priority and be there 100% of the time.  Be comfortable with risk and the prospect of failure but work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. He credits his Penn State business education with helping him to build relationships to grow the franchise system, specifically the successful negotiation with his manufacturers and distributors.  With his more than 25 years working for or owning the Meadows Franchise Systems, Steve offers his experiences and perspectives to two Penn State Altoona boards.  He is past president of the Penn State Altoona Alumni Society and is currently a member of the Sheetz Center Advisory Board. He has also been an Entrepreneur In Residence who met one-on-one with Penn State Altoona students about their business ideas and career aspirations. He says the students ask how you get started.  He shares with them that timing and luck have a lot to do with getting the right project, as well as hard work to make it succeed.

In addition to operating the Meadows Franchise Systems, Inc., Steve is also Vice President of Leasing and Development for Lawruk Real Estate.  He works to find new real estate opportunities and has partnered with the Lawruks on five strip centers and office buildings.

Steve says every day is different.  Some days are great such as when interest is high in a franchise opportunity or receiving good customer feedback.  Others can be long days of troubleshooting.  There is no Monday through Friday, 9-5 schedule.  It’s a matter of being on call 24 hours a day, but it’s the pride and rewards at the end of the day that make it worth being an entrepreneur.

-by Sue Stevens

Calling All Start-Ups

November 2019

As you plan or expand your business, don’t forget to check out the Altoona LaunchBox supported by the Hite Family for all your co-working and meeting space needs. The vibrant space located in downtown Altoona offers four meeting rooms of various sizes to accommodate a private one-on-one meeting to a larger business meeting for up to 30 people. Sit back and relax with a cup of coffee in the open-concept co-working space while you network and collaborate with other like-minded entrepreneurs.

All of the above services are free of charge, so call today at 814-949-5500 to reserve meeting accommodations, or stop in Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. to take advantage of this open co-working space. We look forward to seeing you soon!

A Chemistry Dreamer and Innovator

March 2020

Dr. William Van Der Sluys, Assistant Teaching Professor in Chemistry at Penn State Altoona, first went to college to be a high school chemistry teacher. While he was earning his BS at the State University of New York at Oneonta, he was fascinated with the research side and went on to earn his MS and PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at Indiana University, Bloomington. Dr. Van Der Sluys spent the next few decades teaching and conducting research at several national laboratories and universities from New Mexico to Montana to Gettysburg. During that time, he kept notebooks of his dreams of future research ideas.

His ex-wife is also a PhD Chemist and 14 years ago they moved to State College where she accepted a position at Penn State. Bill taught chemistry at State College Area High School, independently tutored online for students studying for the MCATs and wrote books. Four years ago, he got into the labs for some intense research at Gettysburg College, Penn State Mont Alto, and University Park.  He now teaches at Penn State Altoona and is able to work on some of his dream research ideas in the University Park research labs.

Bill is working with Dr. Xueyi Zhang, John J. and Jean M. Brennan Clean Energy Early Career Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, and together they are working on the extraction of natural products that have biomedical properties.  They are creating a “molecular spaghetti strainer” where the shape of the holes will match the molecules they want to remove from the solution and to be released later.  Bill says some of the solids or materials they are targeting for extraction have biomedical properties. Drs. Van Der Sluys and Zhang are perfecting the extraction process, with the mindset that a company may want to take this to the next stage of preparing the solid for biomedical uses.

Funding for their research is coming in the form of grants and a partnership with Restek Corporation, which has research facilities in State College and California, and subsidiary locations in China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK. Restek is a developer and manufacturer of chromatography columns and accessories, that provides analysts with the innovative tools they need to monitor the quality of air, water, soil, foods, pharmaceuticals, chemical, and petroleum products.

Dr. Van Der Sluys has included some of his Penn State Altoona undergraduate students in the research work in the University Park labs.  One experiment they worked on with Drs. Van Der Sluys and Zhang is an off shoot to the “molecular spaghetti strainer” model.  Dr. Van Der Sluys wrote an article about it, titled, “Hydrothermal Synthesis and Structure of a Dinuclear Molybdenum(III) Hydroxy Squarate with a Mo-Mo Bond”.  He received an email from ACSPublications in mid-February that his article was accepted to be published in ACS Omega, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.  This lends credibility to their extraction model since it was peer-reviewed by three experts and will help when applying for future research funding to complete the final phases of their research.  Additionally, the two Penn State Altoona undergraduates are now able to say they were involved in this published research!

Congratulations to Dr. William Van Der Sluys for having this phase of his research published. This innovative approach of extracting natural products having biomedical properties, an idea from one of his old notebooks that he says nobody was thinking about, is moving from a dream to reality for Dr. Van Der Sluys.

-by Sue Stevens

Catching Up with Altoona LaunchBox Director, Donna Bon

Jan 2, 2019

An in depth Q&A session with Altoona LaunchBox Director, Donna Bon about what the Altoona LaunchBox has done so far and what she hopes it can do moving forward. Check out the article here!

Entrepreneurial Resource System now available to all through  Invent Penn State

Oct 25, 2018

Invent Penn State has created a family of tools to make IP discovery and entrepreneurship more streamlined and accessible than ever. The Resource Navigator, Startup Navigator and IP Navigator help startups, entrepreneurs and industry partners quickly find what they need through a searchable showcase of Penn State entrepreneurial and innovation resources. Explore the site now – click here…

Get In Contact

Donna J. Bon, Executive Director of the Sheetz Center

202D Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence

1309 11th Avenue
Altoona, PA 16601