Startup Alleghenies: Program aids area businesses

 In Blair County, News
[Originally posted in the Altoona Mirror, May 12, 2018 by Walt Frank]

Justin Merrell calls Startup Alleghenies a “fantastic front door for entrepreneurs.”

Merrell was one of three Altoona business owners who addressed attendees at the recent Thought Leader Summit on Entrepreneurship at Seven Springs.

The event, whose keynote speaker was Map Quest co-founder Chris Heivly, focused on entrepreneurship in the Southern Alleghenies region.

Merrell, Michael DePiro and Sarah Vogel talked to attendees about starting a business and how the Startup Alleghenies program has helped them.

Startup Alleghenies was launched by Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership, as well as with the support of the state Department of Community & Economic Development.

Startup Alleghenies provides entrepreneurs in Blair, Cambria and Somerset counties with help to get going to counter direct and indirect coal industry losses in recent years.

Catalyst Space in Downtown Altoona.

The program aims to create an “ecosystem” — with coaches for guidance; locations for workspace and inspiration; resources for planning, marketing mentoring, legal assistance, product development, talent and financing; and educational and network events.

In 2015, Merrell founded Catalyst Space in the former Gable’s building in downtown Altoona.

Catalyst Space is a “maker space” that combines manufacturing equipment, community and education for the purpose of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone, according to

“We provide the tools, equipment and resources, along with a shared knowledge among the different members. For entrepreneurs, it can be daunting to get started. To be among like-minded people helps you to start your own business,” said Merrell, who spent three years in the electro-mechanical engineering technology program at Penn State Altoona before deciding to start Catalyst Space.

“We have about 10 individual businesses. They have their home base here. They range from early stage to out in stores selling their products generating revenue,” Merrell said.

Startup Alleghenies was a big help.

Altoona Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Lindsay Salyards, manager of The Clay Cup along 11th Avenue, serves customer Julia Cleary of Essex, England, on Tuesday morning. The Clay Cup, a specialty coffee shop and paint-your-own-pottery studio, was able to open with help from ABCD Corp., one of Startup Alleghenies’ partner organizations.

“They assisted us in providing us capital and resources to acquire larger and more robust pieces of equipment. With these resources, we could take someone from the napkin concept to production. Startup Alleghenies assisted us in being a voice to connect entrepreneurs to us and let them know we are here,” Merrell said.

DePiro founded DePiro Entertainment & Designs in 2015 and moved into the Gable’s building in 2017.

DePiro, who worked as a professional magician at the age of 10 and graduated from Altoona Area High School and Full Sail University, said his business is comprised of two parts.

“One is a designer, a web development and digital marketing company. We help companies expand on their digital presence. The entertainment side is production. We are producing a video game called ‘Zera and the City of Endless Nights.’ We are aiming for a release date in 2020,” DePiro said.

DePiro received assistance for game development through First Frontier, an awareness program to attract entrepreneurs and promote the region launched by ABCD Corp., one of Startup Alleghenies’ partner organizations. Part of that initiative is the First Frontier Network (ABCD’s investment group), a Blair County-based network of investors and start-up mentors.

“Through First Frontier, we were able to meet with investors. In November 2017, we received funding for the prototype development of the game from First Frontier. This will enable us to get working pieces of the game, it helped us get the first steps in order,” DePiro said.

Vogel opened The Clay Cup along 11th Avenue in March 2017.

Sarah Vogel of The Clay Cup in Altoona.

“I already owned Playtime Pottery in Hollidaysburg. I wanted to be a piece of the revitalization of downtown Altoona, bring a sense of community to the city and make art accessible to everybody,” said Vogel, a Bellwood-Antis High School graduate who was majoring in studio art at Liberty University (with a 4.0 grade point average) when she decided to drop out to become an entrepreneur.

The Clay Cup is a specialty coffee shop and a paint-your-own-pottery studio.

“They feed off of each other. The coffee shop is primary, but people come to paint and drink coffee and people come in to drink coffee and then see we have the pottery area,” Vogel said.

ABCD Corp. helped Vogel with the purchase of the building.

“I financed the renovations and initial opening costs. I will go back to them when I renovate the second and third floors,” Vogel said.

Startup Alleghenies is off to a great start.

“In less than one year, it has registered 158 entrepreneurs and of that number, 90 of them have taken the next step to enroll with a Startup Alleghenies personal entrepreneur coach,” said Debbi Prosser, director of business development at Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission.

“As of May 7, 62 entrepreneurs in Blair County have received assistance either from ABCD or from a partner agency within the Startup Alleghenies ecosystem,” Richard J. Lasek, ABCD Corp. manager of loan servicing and entrepreneurial development said.

Since the beginning of the Startup Alleghenies program, ABCD has closed $265,000 in direct financing to four startups, supporting at least $1,037,000 in total investment and leveraging $639,000 in bank financing and a minimum of $133,000 in additional private investment. These loans will impact at least 13 jobs. More than $400,000 in additional financing has been approved by ABCD for local startups, and these loans are expected to close within the next few months, Lasek said.

Attending the summit was beneficial to the local entrepreneurs.

Michael DePiro of DePiro Entertainment.

“I gained a lot of new connections. I met people from all different walks of business. I met creative industry people doing things similar to me. It was an informative summit in terms of networking. I met new people on the same journey that I am,” DePiro said.

“It was very inspiring to hear from a founder of Map Quest. He’s been able to help communities similar to Altoona to grow a very thriving entrepreneurship culture. That event was fantastic in highlighting all of the entrepreneurial-focused activities going on in the region. It brought all of the players together,” Merrell said.

The local business owners have plans for growth.

“I see the company growing with the release of ‘Zera.’ Within the next five years, I want to bring in more programmers and graphic designers. I would like to keep the talent here in Altoona. If ‘Zera’ is successful, there will be a video games production studio here in Altoona,” DePiro said.

“I have room to grow here in this building. I don’t want to grow too quickly. I need to build roots and a foundation on the first level and then pursue financing for the upper floors,” Vogel said.

The local business owners have a lot of advice for budding entrepreneurs.

“Make sure you have a good attorney, a good accountant and a good banker. That is the triad. There are local organizations such as ABCD Corp. that will point you in the right direction and connect you with the people you need to be connected with,” Vogel said.

“Focus on what you are trying to build and bring to your community. It may seem like a difficult bumpy road, but if you stick through it, you will get your dream of having that business,” DePiro said.