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VIZpin designs and makes software and devices that turn smartphones into door and garage keys.
VIZpin, which previously operated as ECKey, is moving this week from Manheim Township to a new headquarters at 355 E. Liberty St.
The company, which has been around Lancaster since 2012, has attracted some significant backers, including an early, $150,000 investment from state-supported Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
But despite its history in Lancaster, VIZpin president and CEO Paul Bodell says possible new investors are usually told the company is located “about 60 miles outside of Philadelphia.”
The 53-year-old Bodell isn’t ashamed of being located in Lancaster. But he’s learned from experience that it’s sometimes better to leave that fact out of conversations.
“Everyone with a technology company sort of scratches their head and says, ‘Wait, you guys are in Lancaster? Do you have Amish programmers out there?’” Bodell said.
While the Lancaster area is home to a variety of cutting-edge startups, some local entrepreneurs still struggle to overcome the area’s stodgy, conservative reputation.
Attracting investors and recruiting young, talented employees are some of the key struggles for startups even as some new ventures point to an emerging startup culture in the area.
“Getting young aggressive talent out of good technical schools — unless they have family roots here, it’s a tough sell,” Bodell said.
A spotlight on startups
Next month, AOL co-founder Steve Case will visit Central Pennsylvania to hear pitches from nine Central Pennsylvania startups competing for a $100,000 investment.
The Oct. 10 visit is part of Case’s “Rise of the Rest Tour,” an initiative meant to find and fund startups in areas outside Silicon Valley.
Four Lancaster firms — BeneFix, Fizikia Group, ScheduleEngine and TurnoutNow — were selected as finalists for the pitch from some 80 applications submitted by firms in the Lancaster-York-Harrisburg area.
Those startups apply information technology in areas of benefits administration, brain health, contractor scheduling and event management, respectively.
While those software makers will be in the spotlight during Case’s visit, the roster of recent Lancaster startups also includes innovative manufacturing and industrial companies.
One such company is Sustainable Composites, which keeps large bags of scrap leather stacked in a warehouse in Greenfield Corporate Center.
The leather bits, leftovers from making footballs, are the raw material for a leather the company creates through a chemical process that turns unwanted scraps into reusable leather sheets.
“We are working with some large companies that have used leather for decades that are telling us they have never seen something like this,” said Tom Tymon, a 65-year-old chemist who founded Sustainable Composites with Frank Fox.
Tymon formerly worked at Interface Solutions, a gasket maker spun off in 1999 from Armstrong World Industries. The 76-year-old Fox is the former CEO of Interface Solutions and is also an owner of Aussie & the Fox, a restaurant in downtown Lancaster.
Another Lancaster startup led by an experienced executive launching a second career is RePipe4710. It was begun in April 2014 by Tim Nippes, a 73-year-old former construction executive.
The company’s method for replacing old water lines involves folding plastic piping into a C-shape, feeding it through an existing underground pipe, then reforming the pipe using steam and high pressure.
RePipe4710 was recently hired by the City of Lancaster to help repair water mains in Millersville’s Quaker Hills neighborhood.
A great place to start
Nippes, who used to live in Annapolis, Maryland, said Lancaster has been an ideal place to try something new and innovative.
“I think part of our success comes from the community, so in that respect, I have nothing but praise for Lancaster,” he said.
In addition to finding a municipal customer willing to use his method, Nippes said he is working with Burnham, a Lancaster maker of boilers, furnaces and radiators, for the steam boilers needed to re-round its pipe.
And, while he says raising money doesn’t come naturally to him, Nippes found a pocket of willing investors for his product in the Lancaster medical community.
Chris Kager, a Lancaster neurosurgeon who is among the investors in RePipe4710, said the idea reminds him of cardiac stenting, which is often used in place of open heart surgery.
While Kager was willing to invest in an idea he believes in, he thinks getting locals to actually write checks for unproven ideas is a tough sell.
“As a whole, I would say the overall environment in Lancaster is conservative, and that extends to startups and investment in them,” Kager said.
Fox, the co-founder of Sustainable Composites, agrees. “When we present it, people like the idea, but don’t want to write a check,” he said.
Tymon thinks such reluctance on the part of local investors could be a bigger problem for younger entrepreneurs.
“If we were young people with a good idea that was going to take a long time to realize, I think it would be very difficult,” he said.
Mike Bridgman and Sean Hennessey, both in their early 30s, got a Small Business Administration loan to jumpstart MajorMega, a Lancaster company that is creating a virtual reality gaming experience.
Bridgman and Hennessey are also working on an early round of fundraising to support Hyperland, their flagship program which augments virtual reality goggles with an array of fans that mimic wind and a tilted playing surface meant to add another layer of realism.
“(Lancaster is) small enough to feel like we can have some kind of impact. There’s an energy and a vibe that’s contagious,” Hennessey said. “We’re just real excited about being a part of that and making some kind of splash here,” he said.
Kim Ireland, who works with medical technology startups at Aspire Ventures, said locals have been supportive of some efforts but notes that attracting wider attention for what’s happening in Lancaster is more difficult.
“We have very strong relationships in Lancaster. But one of the challenges is, how do we get noticed by the venture capitalists in Boston and New York and Silicon Valley?” she said.