More than 500 technology entrepreneurs, business people, venture capitalists, economic developers and political leaders attended the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s annual i xchange last month.

The May 8 event, held at Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center, combined the presentation of BFTP/NEP’s 18th annual Innovation Awards, executive networking sessions, and a keynote address by media visionary Leonard Brody. The Ben Franklin i xchange is recognized as the premier business and technology networking event in the region.

i xchange keynote speaker Leonard BrodyThe event began with a video describing the early-stage company support and job creation accomplishments of Ben Franklin TechVentures®, an incubator/post-incubator facility owned and managed by BFTP/NEP and expanded last year due to burgeoning market need. Just hours before i xchange, the facility was named the winner of the prestigious Randall M. Whaley National Incubator of the Year Award at the National Business Incubation Association’s International Conference in Atlanta.

After opening remarks from BFTP/NEP President and CEO R. Chadwick Paul, Jr., Innovation Awards were presented to EcoTech Marine, LLC, Net Driven, RantNetwork, Inc., AMETEK Speciality Metal Products – Reading Alloys, Appeeling Fruit, Inc., and Compass Point Consulting, LLC, Managing Partner Tom Garrity. A full description of each award recipient follows.

Brody’s keynote presentation, entitled This Monumental Shift – Exploring the Future of Behavior, Technology, and Innovation, addressed how major technological and behavioral changes over the last 15 years have brought us to what is arguably the most reformative time in human history. Brody examined the evolution and division between our virtual and physical selves and how most businesses completely miss the virtual side. This is critical because we spend so much time interacting through our virtual selves, and people are frequently speaking the wrong language to the wrong people. The result: major and costly failures in marketing, human resources and sales.

“Many of our i xchange guests told us that this year’s event was the best ever,” Paul said. “Bringing business, technology, venture, and community decision-makers together is critical to our mission, and we’re pleased to host this gala gathering of thought leaders each year at i xchange.”

The 2012 BFTP/NEP Innovation Awards winners are:

Entrepreneurial Achievement

Individuals who best exemplify the quintessential entrepreneurial spirit: a combination of ingenuity, hard work, and innovation that has resulted in the creation of a successful and growing business venture.

Patrick Clasen, Justin Lawyer, and Timothy Marks, Founders and Principals
EcoTech Marine, LLC, Bethlehem

Reef aquarium ownership is a sizeable and growing hobby. To properly care for expensive fish and corals within an aquarium ecosystem, adequate water circulation is required. Conventional pumps located within the tank are large and generate considerable heat, which can harm or kill sensitive aquarium inhabitants. EcoTech’s patented VorTech propeller pump provides a gentle, controlled flow, which enhances the aquarium ecosystem. EcoTech also adapted the pump for use in the spa/pedicure market. EcoTech’s new Radion LED lighting unit features 34 energy-efficient LEDs with a five-color spectrum for improving aquarium growth, wider coverage, better energy efficiency, and a customizable spectral output.

EcoTech’s principals founded the company while still undergraduate students, and built it into a multi-million dollar enterprise with the help of several regional economic development partners. In addition to Ben Franklin, the company received support from the City of Bethlehem; Lehigh University through its Integrated Product Development Program, Small Business Development Center, and Enterprise Systems Center; Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation through its Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone; the Manufacturers’ Resource Center; and Northampton County. EcoTech has grown substantially over the past three years and is on track for more than 12 million in revenue for 2012, almost doubling its 2011 sales. Beginning with three founders, the company now employs 30, plans to add 10 more full-time team members this year, and is seeking new space that quadruples its current area.

Incubator Graduate

The company that has best demonstrated successful Ben Franklin business incubation. The business has been operated skillfully and confidently, meeting all challenges from the development of the product concept, execution of the business and technical plan, successful start-up and operation, to graduation from the incubator.

Net Driven, Scranton
Elizabeth Clauss, Chief Operating Officer

Seventy eight percent of consumers in the U.S. and Canada have access to the Internet. Yet three years ago, when Net Driven began marketing its service, most tire dealers and auto repair shops had nothing more than a static website, if they had any online presence at all. Despite the growing necessity for Internet marketing in this sector, developing an effective website and internet marketing solution was too costly for most companies and outside of their skill set and expertise.

A graduate of the Scranton Enterprise Center, Net Driven has become the leading provider of websites and Internet marketing solutions to the automotive industry. In 2007, founders recognized that a growing number of consumers were shopping online for automotive repair, body work, parts, used cars, and tires, but the dealers did not have an effective way to market their products and services on the Internet. Net Driven responds to this niche market need by providing an effective yet economical website and Internet marketing solution to independent automotive dealers. In just three years, this profitable company has increased revenue 800% and added 25 new employees.

Product Innovation

The company that best demonstrates the commercialization of a unique, innovative product that creatively and effectively meets a market need.

RantNetwork, Inc., Bloomsburg
Kenneth Volet, Chief Executive Officer and Elisa Grandizio, Chief Administrative Officer

RantNetwork’s Communilator™ is the most advanced mobile phone language translation application in the world. It is capable of recognizing and translating foreign text, including books, newspapers, and menus in 44 languages and dialects captured with the host’s mobile phone camera. The application also delivers translations to the host’s mobile phone in 3,000 language pairs, provides high-quality (HQ) voice for translations in 21 foreign languages, offers voice recognition for translation of text input, and seamlessly integrates with the mobile phone’s SMS and email systems.

Ben Franklin has invested three times in RantNetwork and introduced the company to follow-on funding opportunities. Despite considerable initial setbacks, RantNetwork’s tenacity has paid off with a contract with Etihad-Etisalat (Mobily), the second largest telecom carrier in Saudi Arabia, to launch an Arabic version of the Communilator. The company recently launched its iPhone/iPad, Android, and Blackberry app versions of the product. Communilator combines state-of-the-art technology into a single comprehensive system that is not offered by any current competitor.

Innovative Application of Technology

The company that best demonstrates a “break the mold” approach to integrating new or existing technology into a manufacturing environment.

AMETEK Specialty Metal Products – Reading Alloys, Robesonia
Dr. Colin McCracken, Director of Product and Market Development

AMETEK Special Metal Products – Reading Alloys produces master and specialty alloys and high-purity powders used in the aerospace and medical industries. Recently, the company has focused on applications in metal powders for the medical industry. Its products can be spray coated onto implants, which are ultimately used in the human body to provide an ideal surface for bone ingrowth. This application will substantially enhance the recovery of patients receiving medical implants.

AMETEK Special Metal Products – Reading Alloys recently opened a new manufacturing facility to support the growth in the metal powder market. Ben Franklin, with Lehigh University, supported the firm with plant layout studies, materials reviews, and productivity improvements, as well as an introduction to a key resource to manage the new operation. With 140 current employees, up 12% from last year, this company is a significant Greater Reading employer that is well-positioned for growth.

Manufacturing Achievement

The company that best exemplifies achievement in the manufacturing arena, showing a proven track record of success and an unbending commitment to achieving and maintaining excellence in manufacturing.

Appeeling Fruit, Inc., Reading
Steve Cygan, President and Owner

Tripling revenue and increasing staff from 10 to 100 people over the last two years would be a notable accomplishment at any time, and is even more impressive during an economic recession. Appeeling Fruit is a producer of fresh-sliced apple products for both food service and retail clients. Ben Franklin invested in the company four times to improve production efficiency, support facility planning, and manage manufacturing capacity for sustained growth. Lehigh University’s Enterprise Systems Center and the Greater Berks Development Fund partnered with Ben Franklin to support Appeeling’s improvements.

Appeeling employs a number of people from the City of Reading, which is particularly impactful because the City has experienced greater than average unemployment difficulties. The new facility adheres to Good Manufacturing Practices and FDA requirements, and is a showcase plant for food processing. Appeeling Fruit is a tremendously successful manufacturer and a valuable business asset to Greater Reading.

Partnership

An individual whose strong vision, dedication, and commitment have helped the Ben Franklin Technology Partners accomplish its goals. This support demonstrates a sincere desire to see the region thrive.

Tom Garrity, Managing Partner
Compass Point Consulting, LLC, Bethlehem

As Managing Partner of Compass Point Consulting, Tom Garrity provides strategy, execution, and ownership transition services to middle-market family and closely held businesses. Compass Point’s mission is simple: build high-performance companies that can run without the owner. Serving meritoriously on the Ben Franklin Solutions Network, Garrity has been a supporter of Ben Franklin clients for many years. He has provided pro bono business plan reviews since 2004, and recently completed his eleventh review. He participated in three company “Tiger Sessions,” also pro bono, during which clients are reviewed comprehensively and constructively criticized to their long-term benefit. He worked with seven Ben Franklin clients to develop their business plans. He taught two classes on strategy and sales for Ben Franklin clients, and followed up with individual client sales coaching.

Ben Franklin engages Garrity frequently and often without remuneration to provide feedback to in-house staff, assistance to clients, and support to entrepreneurs and businesspeople throughout the region. In addition, Garrity has served on Originate Ventures’ Open Court, critiquing early-stage firms and as a judge for Lehigh University students’ Integrated Business and Engineering program presentations. Garrity’s continuous worthwhile contributions model selfless service and demonstrate his heartfelt desire to give back to the regional economy.

Leonard Brody photo courtesy of Hub Willson Photography.