Program offers entrepreneurs an opportunity to test their business ideas

Outdoor Economy wins 2023 Idea TestLab hosted by Mont Alto and York Launchboxes, powered by Penn State
Bearded white male dressed in a suit showing off materials on the desk in front of him.

Silas Chamberlin shows off materials for Outdoor Economy, a business idea that has become a reality and a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization thanks in part to the Idea TestLab.  Chamberlin won the top prize in the 2023 competition and took advantage of the resources provided through the five-week business accelerator.

Credit: Barbara Dennis

YORK, Pa. — “Grow Your Economy. Improve Your Quality of Life.” This is a statement that Silas Chamberlin, winner of the 2023 Idea TestLab, has at the forefront of his startup company, Outdoor Economy. Chamberlin won $3,000 in seed money to develop his idea during the virtual IdeaTestLab hosted by the Mont Alto and York LaunchBoxes, both powered by Penn State.

The Idea TestLab is a five-week virtual business accelerator during which selected startups receive coaching and training to identify viable business models through intensive customer discovery. Chamberlin, along with other participants comprised a select group of Pennsylvania-based community members who have early-stage business ideas. Teams from the Penn State Mont Alto and Penn State York service areas participated in the 2023 competition.

During the program, startups interviewed customers, built their early-stage business models, and crafted their elevator pitches. The program culminated in a pitch competition during which teams competed for $5,000 in seed funding to continue the development of their business models.

Outdoor Economy, the Idea TestLab first-place winner, is a consulting service designed to help communities connect economic strategies to their environmental assets such as parks, trails and open spaces. Chamberlin meets with members of community organizations to help them see there is an economic value to having those assets in their community. The Outdoor Economy process includes asset quantification, ecosystem mapping, consensus building and activation of a strategy.

For example, in communities where there are rail trails or parks, Chamberlin can collaborate with the community to be sure that there are businesses and other amenities in the area that bring economic growth to the region. He helps people understand the economic value of their open spaces and their impact on local business.

Since winning the pitch competition earlier this spring, Chamberlin has established his idea into a legally formed 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, Outdoor Economy Inc.

“The Idea TestLab forced me to refine the ideas I had in my mind and give the time my idea deserved,” said Chamberlin. “It also helped me think through things and articulate my thoughts. The outcomes were impressive to me personally."

Chamberlin noted that meeting every week with his assigned coach, Aaron Proietti, a former chief innovation officer in the financial services industry, allowed him to develop his idea and think about it in ways he had not considered.

“This was a great connection I never would have had without the Idea TestLab,” he said.

Eleven coaches volunteered their time to work with participants, listen to ideas, and offer advice. Participants are assigned to a specific coach but then also rotate among the others to gain additional insight.

“A big thank you to our coaches,” said Allan Lehman, one of the coordinators of the Idea TestLab and director of the Graham Center for Innovation and Collaboration at Penn State York. “We wouldn’t be able to run these programs without the volunteer coaches who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to help support our participants.”

For Chamberlin, whose day job is as the chief strategy officer for the York County Economic Alliance (YCEA), the Idea TestLab gave him the opportunity to develop his idea and grow professionally.

He is also working with YCEA for the mutual benefit of both entities. Chamberlin’s idea has become a reality and, as a person who loves the outdoors, Outdoor Economy is a vehicle for him to share ideas and help communities create or leverage the environmental assets they already have improve the quality of life in their areas.

Other competition winners include:

Second place ($1,500 seed funding) — Daniel DuBravec, Aira Creative LLC. In response to the increasing number of injuries and fatalities caused by vehicles striking pedestrians on roadways, Aira Creative’s elevated beacon for stranded motorists provides a modern-age approach with long-range visual warnings and illumination to alert oncoming traffic to slow down and take caution.

Third place ($500 seed funding) — Amy Kemper, Antics at the Yard. The Yard reimagines the shopping experience by providing an environment that has something for the whole family, including activities for children.

Applications for the 2024 Idea TestLab will open in October 2023 with the program set to run between January and March 2024. For more information, email Allan Lehman, director of the Graham Center and the York LaunchBox, or call 717-771-8404; or email Helen McGarry, director of the Mont Alto LaunchBox, or call 717-749-4118.

The Mont Alto and York LaunchBoxes, both powered by Penn State, provide early-stage startups with support and resources they need to build a sustainable and scalable business and a viable plan for growth. No-cost programs and services can include coworking space, accelerator programs, free legal and intellectual property advice, and expert mentorships from Penn State's extensive network. LaunchBox is open to everyone — community members and those not affiliated with Penn State. The Mont Alto and York LaunchBoxes are signature programs of the Invent Penn State initiative and two of 21 innovation spaces located in Penn State campus communities across Pennsylvania. Learn more about each LaunchBox at their websites:  Penn State Mont Alto LaunchBox and Penn State York LaunchBox websites.

This project was financed in part by a grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Community and Economic Development.