Enterprising Bucknellians think big — grow new skin, raise sustainable seafood, harvest the sun …
By Rhonda K. Miller
Ask Richard Caruso M’66 what the word “entrepreneur” means to him, and his answer may be surprising. Caruso, the 2006 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winner for the United States, says being labeled an entrepreneur had initially caused him some concern.
“I’d always resisted the term because I thought entrepreneurs were blind, fool-hardy risk takers. But I realized that true entrepreneurs liberate themselves to pursue the enterprise of their lives. Everyone relates being entrepreneurial to business, but it’s really an attitude that you have, an innovative attitude,” says Caruso. “I think back to my time as a student, and I realize my athletic coaches were entrepreneurs, my professors were entrepreneurs. Economists use the term for business, but the reality is many people do many things that are entrepreneurial.”
That’s not to say companies aren’t entrepreneurial or that their founders aren’t entrepreneurs. Caruso himself is a successful businessman. In 1989, he founded Integra LifeSciences Corporation, which helped create a new branch of medicine. Although his background was in business and economics, Caruso wanted to help save lives — a passion prompted by reading articles about surgeons attempting to harvest body parts from cadavers for transplant.
“I thought why can’t the human body recreate its own parts,” he says. “There was some work going on at Harvard and MIT at the time, but it failed.” His curiosity eventually led to Integra with the help of mentor Ewing Kauffman, owner of the famed pharmaceutical giant Marion Laboratories and later benefactor of the Kauffman Foundation. Caruso collaborated with two researchers and the result was an FDA-approved product that allows burn victims to regenerate new skin. The firm has since expanded to develop biomaterials for regenerating human tissue and medical instruments, implants and monitors for use in neurosurgery.
Caruso has also been involved in numerous ventures via the Provco Group, a venture and real estate investment company that organizes and provides funding for complex business activities, and he founded Tenly Enterprises, which acquired and operated Rustler Steak Houses before their sale to Sizzlers. The list goes on.
Still, Caruso is quick to add that entrepreneurship is more than making money in some fashion. “It’s about following your dreams and having the passion to pursue them.”
The passion to pursue dreams has certainly been part of Bucknell’s culture over the years. Just look at a sampling of the University’s more successful entrepreneurs: Ken Langone ’57, co-founder of The Home Depot; Doug Lebda ’92, founder of LendingTree.com, the first Internet lending company; and Marc Lore ’93, founder of Internet-based diaper delivery firm diapers.com, to name a few. Entrepreneurial students and alumni are part of the Bucknell way.
“Bucknell’s history began with a group of daring individuals willing to believe that here, in what was then a remote part of the state, a first-class higher education institution could thrive,” says President John Bravman. “All you have to do is talk to our faculty, meet our students, meet our alumni, and you know that that spirit of inventiveness, that willingness to believe anything is possible, that desire to help young people open themselves to the future, is still going strong here.”
When John Ernsberger ’06 and classmate Jordy Leiser ’06 quit their jobs in the finance industry in the summer of 2008, they presumed their respective nest eggs would last until a viable startup company took off. “We went through the nest egg quickly,” laughs Ernsberger, co-founder and VP of sales at STELLAService, an Internet company, in New York City. “We underestimated the time it takes to raise seed capital,” he says, adding they left their full-time jobs just as the economy went south. “When we first started putting business ideas together it was slow going.”
The former roommates returned to Lewisburg in April 2009, rented an apartment on Third Street and worked sunrise to sundown, says Leiser, co-founder and chief executive officer. By December, they approached Lebda, who became an early investor and helped recruit other investors, including J.D. Moriarty ’94.
“It became an effort of Bucknellians supporting other entrepreneurial Bucknellians,” says Leiser. They also recruited Nicole Falcaro ’09, a math and Spanish major, as their first official hire – a senior analyst.
STELLAService collects and analyzes thousands of customer service data points from Internet retailers to determine the quality of the customer experience for potential online shoppers. The company employs mystery-shopping tactics to buy and return products scattered around the country. The company’s mystery shoppers also call e-retailers and interact with customer support teams via email, live chat and social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter) to help measure service quality. If an e-commerce site passes the company’s rigorous testing, it receives the prestigious STELLAService seal, indicating top retailer status, for display.
“We wanted to create a world for consumers that was more transparent when it came to service,” Leiser says. “Shoppers are confronted with a lot of options — merchants are selling the same products at similar or identical prices. Customer service is often the determining factor.”
The company also offers competitive analysis data to Internet retailers. “The concept of benchmarking is really important to retailers since they are competing on a number of levels,” adds Ernsberger. Among their first customers was Lore’s diapers.com, which has since been joined by 1-800-Flowers.com, Zappos.com, NewBalance.com and eBags.com, to name a few.
“We are growing at an incredible rate,” Ernsberger says. “We have the start-up mentality in that we are sprinting the length of a marathon.”
Leiser describes the experience as a leap of faith that was definitely worth the effort. “An economic downturn is actually the best time to start a business,” he says. “By the time you figure out the business and associated problems, the business cycle is back and you can confidently launch into growth mode.”
Ernsberger and Leiser brought the entrepreneurial spirit behind their work building STELLAService to initiatives on campus, too. Last summer and fall, they helped Bucknell create the business plan for the Bucknell Innovation Center and worked on plans for related initiatives, including the Hatchery and its Entrepreneur-in-Residence.
The Bucknell Innovation Center, a business incubator and accelerator, will draw on University resources to support new businesses connected to the Greater Susquehanna Keystone Innovation Zone, a program that leverages University resources to support business development in certain areas. The Hatchery will be an affinity house for students interested in entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, innovation, marketing and design and will include an Entrepreneur-in-Residence who will mentor the students.
A Scents of Place
A good nose for business and a deep love for Bucknell have served Katie Masich ’01 well. As co-founder of Masik Collegiate Fragrances, a family-owned business based out of New York City, and Harrisburg, Pa., she has created a new way for sentimental grads to remember their college days.
Masich majored in chemical engineering and, after graduating from Bucknell, worked in the energy industry for ExxonMobil. “I had always had the entrepreneur bug,” she says. “The beauty of being an entrepreneur is that you get to do what you have a passion for — and there is no right or wrong way to launch your business or run your company,” she says. “You create it as you go, which is exciting, but it can also be quite scary.”
To satisfy her entrepreneurial curiosity, Masich decided to combine two things she was passionate about: fragrances and Bucknell. “I wanted to create a fragrance line inspired by one of life’s truly memorable and emotionally charged experiences,” she explains. “For me, that experience was Bucknell.”
The sense of smell is linked to the limbic system, the part of the brain tied to memory and emotion. Masich’s idea was to tap into that by creating different signature scents for each school. “I hoped that one day the school’s official fragrance would be one people truly associated with their college experience and all the wonderful memories that go along with it, kind of like when we smell a scent from our past,” she says. “It triggers a moment, a memory, instantly.”
Masich did extensive research into the collegiate merchandise market and the fragrance industry prior to launching the business in 2008. When she had a good idea of how the industries worked, and how they could work together, she cold-called Manhattan perfumers until one of them agreed to see her. “They liked the concept of collegiate fragrances,” she says. “They thought it was different and unique.”
The first school to get a signature fragrance was Penn State, followed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Masik Collegiate Fragrances has since launched scents for Louisiana State University, University of Alabama, University of Tennessee, University of Florida, Auburn University, the University of Georgia, Florida State, Oklahoma and its first international fragrance, Waseda University, in Tokyo, Japan. The line will expand to more schools over the next several years.
To get a feel for each university’s culture, Masich travels to campuses around the country to experience the landscape and architecture first-hand. “I look at a couple points of inspiration,” she explains. “What is the architecture of the campus? Is it soft southern charm or more of a city school? I see the flowers and trees on campus. I look at the school colors and how those could translate to aromatics. For example, Alabama has that crimson color, so I tell my perfumer to think berry, pomegranate, apple. Tennessee has orange, so let’s do ginger, mandarin, citrus. I take portions of the university’s fight song and alma mater, and give all this in a presentation to my perfumers.” The perfumers formulate several scents each for men and women, which are sent to campus to be evaluated by focus groups.
That process will be much simpler when it’s Bucknell’s turn at the perfume counter. “We definitely plan to create a scent for Bucknell in the future, hopefully in the next couple of years,” Masich says.
If Scott Fritze ’02 and Andy Hanzlik ’02 had a dime for every Forrest Gump joke they’ve heard over the years, they’d be ready to retire. Instead, the two co-founders and co-owners of Marvesta Shrimp Farms in Hurlock, Md., continue on in their quest to produce a sustainable supply of fresh shrimp for domestic and international markets.
“Much of the concept for this business was pitched to us while we were at Bucknell, but neither of us thought we would be trying to change the way people produce and eat shrimp. It was something that just happened,” Fritze says.
Hanzlik agrees, saying the two were headed to Wall Street for careers in finance. But when their friend, Guy Furman, a bioengineer and Cornell University graduate, showed them his thesis on sustainable shrimp farming, the Bucknellians were interested.
“When you look through the economics of it, the margins are high. It made a lot of sense,” Hanzlik says. “The green movement was just starting, and the economy was still stable in the Washington, D.C. area.”
Marvesta’s replicable technology enables the company to create a natural and environmentally responsible process for cultivating shrimp. The company’s recirculating system allows for the sustainable production of fresh shrimp year round at densities up to 100 times greater than traditional outdoor shrimp farms. Post-larval shrimp, shipped in from the best hatcheries in Florida, are grown in indoor tanks in an environment similar to the wild without hormones or antibiotics treating the water.
“The majority of shrimp is grown overseas,” say Fritze. Asian shrimp are grown on coastal farms, which environmentalists claim damage coastlines and threaten other wildlife, he says.
“We developed an indoor process that eliminates all the barriers that come with shrimp farming. Our system can be used anywhere, and it doesn’t damage coastlines,” he says. “There are so many external factors that limit harvesting, such as over fishing, hurricanes and oil spills, but we don’t have that in our facilities.”
Marvesta harvests shrimp of many sizes, with jumbo shrimp reaching six to eight inches, Fritze says. The company sells to high-end restaurants, wholesale distributors, homes and live markets, such as Chinatown.
Hanzlik credits much of their success to the resources offered by Bucknell. “We had help with our business plan and marketing strategies. We talked to different professors, and we were able to pursue an idea that literally started on the back of a napkin,” he says.
Fritze says their network of friends and acquaintances from their student days played an integral part in their development as entrepreneurs. “Our network was very supportive when we were first starting in 2003,” he says. “We were very fortunate as young entrepreneurs to have a concept that helped us pioneer an industry that didn’t exist. We are drastically changing the environmental footprint.”
Let the Sun Shine
Lessening environmental impact and promoting sustainability is also part of the strategy at MainLine Solar, says Craig Dwyer ’10, chief executive officer of the West Chester, Pa.-based solar panel integrator. Dwyer, along with Eric Diamond ’09, started MainLine after entering the 2008 business venture competition at Bucknell on a whim.
Diamond had approached Dwyer, his fraternity brother, when Dwyer was preparing for the MCAT exam. Diamond said the competition was offering a $5,000 prize, and Dwyer thought “the prize sounded good.” The two started creating several sustainable business plans before pursuing the solar panel installation idea.
“Eric had been following the solar panel market for classes, and we learned the government interest was there. Sustainable, environmental projects were where the administration was headed,” Dwyer says.
Although they placed fourth in the competition, both Diamond and Dwyer felt their idea could take off. “Around our graduation, the state was releasing a lot of money into the Pennsylvania market in terms of rebates and incentives for consumers interested in solar energy. It seemed like the best possible investment to make,” Dwyer says. Diamond, a national guardsman, was able to obtain a $25,000 low-interest loan to help the business off the ground.
“I dropped out of the MCATs, and we worked out of an apartment for the first summer, staring at each other and our laptops,” Dwyer says.
Today, MainLine Solar has 17 full-time employees, including Rich Potocek ’09, who was recruited as the third partner and chief operating officer shortly after the company’s formation. Another Bucknellian, Drew Willey ’09, also worked for MainLine but has since left to pursue other opportunities.
“We’ve certainly had our ups and downs, but we are always pushing to that next milestone,” Dwyer says. The company recently completed one of the largest solar installation projects in the state on the Parkesburg warehouse of A. Duie Pyle, a leading Northeast Pennsylvania transportation and logistics provider.
“The entire warehouse is run on solar power with 4,466 solar modules on the roof,” Dwyer says. The panels generate 1,139,213 kilowatts, or just over one megawatt, of solar energy.
Potocek says the company has been lucky to receive government support, despite the economic downturn. In 2011, MainLine Solar plans to install panels in six states across the country. “We are expanding into other markets, and we are looking to open a satellite location within the next year,” he says.
Dwyer agrees, saying the company’s momentum is great. “We are very excited about the progress we are making,” he says.
Sewing the Seeds of Success
While many Bucknellians have started businesses following their introduction to entrepreneurship via the University’s Management 101 class, Brian Carr ’00 can point to the experience as the catalyst for his company Solid Threads of Hoboken, N.J.
“The seeds for Solid Threads were most definitely planted at Bucknell and in particular within the Management 101 course with retired Professor John Miller during my freshman year,” says Carr, whose title is El Presidente. “During the class, the goal was to develop, market and sell a product to our fellow classmates. We had a t-shirt idea based around House Party Weekend, but our brilliant t-shirt idea was quickly dismissed due to indirect ‘alcohol-related content’,” he says.
Carr wasn’t deterred and decided to create a t-shirt himself. “My friend fronted me the cash, and I designed, produced and sold 144 shirts. From that experience, I operated as a middle man on campus, becoming a venerable one-stop shop for students and organizations looking for t-shirts designed, produced and delivered to their door,” he adds.
After graduation, Carr started an online store (www.solidthreads.com) and began building his collection in his spare time while working in the corporate world. He then started selling his t-shirts at local festivals and street fairs, eventually landing a wholesale account with retail giant Urban Outfitters from a contact he met on the streets. He now has a popular brick-and-mortar boutique in Hoboken, N.J. that he opened four years ago and will soon have five employees.
“We are expanding our product offering into new garment types and increasing our wholesale presence nationally and internationally, particularly in Japan, where we recently began supplying a chain of 500 stores,” Carr says. “We are looking to significantly increase our online presence and are entertaining the idea of another retail location, with the thought of eventually creating a franchise formula within the t-shirt arena.”
Like many graduates, Carr says Bucknell formed the basis for his future. “I was greatly inspired by the situations, characters and personalities that I came across at Bucknell. Part of this influence can be seen in the designs offered in my collection. I mostly received indirect help from my fellow Bucknellians, but it was help that was crucial to the eventual realization of the company I have today.”
Rhonda K. Miller is a frequent contributor to Bucknell Magazine.