Every year for the past 30 years, Ben Franklin Technology Partners has teamed up with the minds behind some of Pennsylvania’s biggest ideas, fueling their projects with the funding they need to take the next big step. The money—up to four yearly infusions of cash totaling $500,000—is used for things like software development, prototype development, beta testing and payroll. In the most practical terms, the funding is buying time, expertise and the ability to focus on the project.

This year, six projects were approved to receive both funding and Ben Franklin’s signature support services with expertise in areas like marketing, human resources, accounting and advertising.

Spread over the state, these new ideas in tech range from a comprehensive college and career resource for the state’s high school students to a patented LED light that helps people see the entire color spectrum at low light levels. While these projects were all different from each other, they share a common thread—an unmistakable, contagious passion for innovation. Ben Franklin would be proud.

Croptix Helps Citrus Farmers Tackle Disease

Croptix, based in State College, is tackling the $220 billion global losses in crops due to disease with a machine learning and internet of things (IoT)‑enabled disease screening platform for farmers. The platform provides farmers with the ability to screen for disease and detect it early using data collected from Croptix’s patented optical sensor technology. Croptix has recently launched with citrus growers in California, who are dealing with the devastating HuangLongBing (HLB) disease, often referred to as citrus greening disease.

HLB has decimated the U.S. citrus industry in Florida, reducing production to 40 percent of the 2005 level. Currently, the only effective intervention is timely detection of disease and removal of infected trees. The Croptix service is the first to market to California growers and provides a practical, high‑throughput early warning screening system to mitigate the damage of HLB to their groves.

“Croptix uses a combination of patented optical technology licensed from Penn State and developed in house to look inside a crop’s leaves and detect small structural changes that are associated with the progression of crop disease. These small changes often happen before your eye can see it, therefore allowing our technology to act as an early identification and warning system for the farmer,” CEO and co‑founder Perry Edwards says.

Ben Franklin previously invested in Croptix and became even more motivated to invest again based on the progress the company made in obtaining its first group of customers. This investment helped them establish a stronger presence in their initial target market with California growers and further support their customer development. Croptix also recently received a National Science Foundation Phase II SBIR Award, which is supporting the final stages of research and development on their product.

Croptix will now look to tackle challenging problems in other crops experiencing nutrient deficiencies, water stress or disease. Once they have proven their platform in citrus, they will be able to rapidly diversify the product offering to other crops like grapes, olives, cocoa and cassava.

Thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ investment, Croptix can build their team and improve the experience and efficiency of providing results to their customers. “Ben Franklin has been with us from the beginning and has truly helped position our company for success,” Edwards says.

Noodigs Innovates The Home Buying Experience

Hailing from Lancaster, the Noodigs platform connects home buyers and sellers directly and allows them to work through every step of the home sale process without the involvement of a residential real estate agent and their high fees.

“The home sale industry is antiquated in so many ways. With technology touching every part of peoples’ lives, why hasn’t it had a bigger impact on the way we buy and sell homes?” founder Ryan Harris asks. “In part, the answer to that is the legal protections that the establishment has baked into the industry. In order to touch any part of the [real estate] sale transaction, you have to be a licensed brokerage, which really stifles innovation. There’s simply no motivation to innovate. We’ve looked at the entire transaction and said, ‘But why?’”

Buying or selling a home is a checklist; in the traditional model it’s just a really well‑protected checklist. Noodigs has built a tool that removes that veil of mystery, giving their customers insight into the when, why and how of each step in the transaction.

They are shaking up the status quo, but the upsides make it worth it. It’s aimed at a generation who is tech‑savvy, independent and looking for ways to save money. “In some cases, we’re saving $15,000 in just the house buying transaction. That’s a down payment on a house or the start of a 529 plan for your kids. It’s significant,” Harris says.

Thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ investment, Noodigs can attract beta testers and early adopters to more finely tune our product to appeal to the masses. “Ben Franklin is so much more than just money,” Ryan says. “They’re access to tools and resources, and the startup expertise that so many of us are lacking in these early stages. They are unique in the sense that you can be certain that your goals align with theirs.”

Rokkboxx Revolutionizes Bars and Restaurants

Erie‑based RokkBoxx says the key to increasing restaurant and bar sales is increasing customer’s dwell time. And what keeps customers around, in their seats and making subsequent purchases? Keep them entertained.

“Back when I was a kid, MTV was on all day long,” says CEO and co‑founder William M. Grant. “I mean, all day. Today, the highest‑watched videos on YouTube are all music videos. It’s something we all watch. When you ask someone if they’ve heard a new release, the first thing they’ll do is go to their phone and watch the video while they listen to it.”

He and co‑founder Shawn McCullough, CTO, developed RokkBoxx, a video music management and delivery service built with a unique advertising engine that allows bars and restaurants to leverage existing TVs and infrastructure to promote local and in‑house specials and events.

When someone’s favorite music videos are playing, they will stay at a bar or restaurant longer and they’ll end up buying more. With the addition of a scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen, the RokkBoxx system can also deliver the venue’s own info to the customer at the same time. It is next level, customized entertainment and advertising.

This is RokkBoxx’s second round of funding through Ben Franklin Technology Partners. They gravitated toward this universal idea of entertaining with a layer of AI to make the user interface simple. “Technology is embedded with the name Ben Franklin,” Grant says, “and they are looking for this type of innovation to partner with and promote.”

After mastering the bar and restaurant market, they aim to roll out to vertical markets like bowling alleys and have their sights on eventually releasing the system to individual households.

Thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ investment, RokkBoxx can grow effectively and efficiently. “It’s so hard to quantify the impact of Ben Franklin on our company,” Grant says, “But the partnership allows us to bring in resources that we normally wouldn’t be able to have access to. In a small company, you can only bring in the talent that you can pay for, and the biggest expense is almost always payroll. Ben Franklin allows us to take the next step in our growth.”

Lyralux Brings the Full Color Spectrum to Low Light Conditions

Lyralux in State College wants to change the way the world sees, one LED at a time. As light levels decrease, the human visual system becomes less sensitive to color. Yet, there are many applications where low light levels are common and the quality of color rendering is important—something not addressed with current lighting solutions. Lyralux’s patent‑pending technology, called Dim to VividTM, features an LED lighting technology that reveals the full color spectrum no matter the light level. The technology is based on a highly‑engineered variable spectrum that works by differentially adjusting an array of LEDs that emit different colors of light.

The concept has applications in places like museums and galleries, but the company’s co‑founder, Penn State professor of architectural engineering Kevin Houser says the impact of their Dim to Vivid technology could eventually be felt everywhere. “Lyralux’s vision is to improve people’s lives through light. In addition to being the stimulus for vision, light also influences circadian rhythms, alertness throughout the day and sleep quality at night. While our first market is low‑light applications, our product development roadmap includes adaptations of our underlying technology for many other contexts.”

Houser and Lyralux partnered with Ben Franklin’s TechCelerator in 2018 and were accepted into the spring cohort. Houser said the help was invaluable when it came to human resources, hiring, accounting and information on Pennsylvania labor laws. “It’s been a natural fit for me, and I am glad Ben Franklin thought so too,” he says. “I attained deeper knowledge and received structured coaching. They helped guide ideas developed in my lab toward commercialization.”

At the end of the spring 2018 TechCelerator cohort, entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to a panel of judges for a chance to win $10,000 in prizes. The judges were so impressed with Lyralux’s concept that they awarded them the entire prize. Lyralux was also selected as a finalist to pitch at the Tech Tournament at the Invent Penn State Venture and IP Conference in April 2018.

Even though Lyralux has been selected as a recipient of Ben Franklin’s funding this year, they have chosen to decline the cash at this time as they decide next steps in their development, relying instead on Ben Franklin’s other contributions to their venture. “This is such an amazingly supportive group of people in growth of small businesses in Pennsylvania,” Houser says.

Thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ involvement, Lyralux can continue to turn their lab‑based discoveries into a commercially‑viable venture that will change the way the world sees light and color.

Dashboard OSM Simplifies E‑Commerce

FullStac LLC in Harrisburg saw a need for e‑commerce management solutions for small and mid‑sized companies. “Online sales total more than $1.7 billion this year, and there are only six management solutions for all the demand, with no good solutions for small to mid‑sized companies,” EVP Mike Kulczyckyj says. “Either solutions are too cheap and don’t give the support companies need, or they are built for massive companies and too expensive for everyone else.”

They’ve developed Dashboard OSM, a cloud‑based online sales dashboard that manages multiple online accounts in a variety of marketplace platforms from one application. Features include listing to multiple marketplaces, automatic order entry, QuickBooks integration, label creation, inventory control and point of sale. The company’s product automates daily tasks, consolidates data and reduces the likelihood of error.

“If you are a reseller, you are selling online, period,” Kulczyckyj says. “And Dashboard OSM has all the features you need to manage those online sales, whether you are selling on your own site, on Amazon or sites like EBay. We’ve created this for businesses who need a powerful solution but are too small to have an IT department create something from scratch.”

Thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ investment, DashboardOSM can grow. “Any tech or software business is extremely expensive. Software takes a lot of research and development... a lot of time,” Kulczyckyj says. “Our largest cost is payroll, and now we can bring on more employees and grow organically rather than spending valuable time looking for investors. Our partnership with Ben Franklin is a match made in heaven.”

Counselors Advantage Program For Success Modernizes College And Career Prep

When assistant principal Cass Wright saw his job eliminated in a budget cut, he didn’t get mad, he got busy. He took an idea of how to better support our state’s high schoolers, coupled with his own story of how guidance and education can rescue at‑risk students, and turned it into a solution.

After five years of research and development, his team has rolled out Counselors Advantage Program for Success, a comprehensive internet‑based College and Career Readiness platform for the K‑12 market, replacing the paper/excel spreadsheet process currently used by many guidance counselors. The company’s product includes the required curriculum, syllabus and guidance tools in support of all students as they proceed toward post‑secondary goals. Their courses include new teacher induction, preK‑5th grade parent programming, 6‑12th grade parent and students programming and readiness for college, military, employment and entrepreneurship.

In just about one hour per week, students work through short videos, interactive checklists and worksheets that keep them on track for future success. It’s a blended model. CAPS team members go into schools to help with instruction and teachers, counselors and parents work together to mentor students toward success.

The state of Pennsylvania requires college and career readiness to be taught at the high school level, but some budget‑strapped districts struggle to offer more than the bare minimum. Add to that to the sheer number of students per guidance counselors within the school and it becomes harder and harder to adequately mentor and guide students through college readiness, especially at‑risk students and those whose parents never attended secondary education.

CAPS soars past the state requirements for college and career readiness, easily nesting into a school’s existing setup to aid teachers and parents where they need help the most. CAPS‑involved schools typically graduate students with a total of $3 million in student aids. In beta testing, they followed 820 students through high school from a wide spectrum of racial, financial and societal backgrounds, including children from families who had never attended secondary education. Of the 820, there were 932 offers of college admission and a staggering $27 million offered in financial aid.

Whether students aim for a four‑year school, the military, trade school or entrepreneurship, CAPS walks them through every step needed for success. And, reflecting back on Cass Wright’s own experience with cash‑strapped school districts, soon it will free. His team is working with local and nationwide corporate sponsors to fund individual school districts, enabling them to offer mentorship and guidance to the state’s most vulnerable youth when they need it the most.

Thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ investment, CAPS can continue to work toward making college and career readiness available to every student in Pennsylvania. “We can reach these kids before they get farther behind or want to drop out,” Wright says. “I was one of those kids and I want to help this generation have what they need to succeed.”