Entrepreneur ecosystem builder Steve Boerner

  • D​eveloper of the product HeliumIQ at Hatch Lab LLC, a spin-off company from Hatch House Ventures, LLC (Bethlehem, PA)
  • M.Eng., Mechanical Engineering, Lehigh University, 2015
  • B.A.Sc., Business Leadership, University of Delaware, 2009
TE gave me the skills I need to be a successful consultant to startups…and right now I’m working with about 30 of them, so having an information base of this nature is essential.
-Steve Boerner

Earlier in his career journey, Steve Boerner felt lost. Now an alumnus of Lehigh's Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) master's program, he's guiding, inspiring, and energizing whole communities of entrepreneurs.

You earned your bachelor's degree in 2009. What did you do after graduation?

I landed a job with Sun Life Financial, a Fortune 500 company, right out of college and spent more than three years selling employee benefits to mid-sized companies. I liked the relationship-based nature of the sales business and did well at it, but the passion just wasn't there. I knew I had another gear and could accomplish more with my life.

Eventually, I decided it was time to follow my heart. So I sold all my belongings except for a motorcycle, camping equipment, and other smaller essentials and set off on what would turn out to be an eight-month adventure. I toured around the U.S. and visited nine other countries, spending a lot of time in Asia, in particular. I explored Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia, and I even worked on a rice farm in Japan for a month. All of this gave me a lot of time to think.

Why did you decide to enroll in Lehigh's TE master's program?

I was in Barcelona when it hit me that it was time to go home. I was ready. And the timing couldn't have been better. My dad had just sent me a link describing Lehigh's TE program, and it struck me that this was not a typical master's program, but rather something much more experiential, something that would allow me to pursue a deep-seated interest in entrepreneurship.

While I was a student at the University of Delaware, I started my own business, "Stuff to Go." It was an asset liquidation company, and I ran it for about a year. I sold things I'd purchased at bankruptcy auctions. I'd enjoyed this foray into this entrepreneurship, and it seemed a natural fit for me. Hearing about the Lehigh program brought back all the old feelings of excitement and wonder and drive. So I applied.

And did the program live up to your expectations?

It did. I was all in. I devoted that year of my life to getting the most I could out of the program, and there was a lot to be had.

What skills did you develop in TE?

I learned a lot about digital product design, website development, software programs, videography, video editing, photography, and business models. I'm a tinkerer at heart, so this was right up my alley. I also developed venture capital acumen and a greater knowledge of licensing, trademarking, and other legal intricacies.

How did your mindset evolve as a result of your year in TE?

I've always been a confident person, but TE triggered a major shift in thinking: I went from "this is possible" to "this is inevitable."

Also, I began to see that if you respect the steps so integral to entrepreneurship--create, test, revise, repeat--there can be tremendous rewards. I became addicted to the satisfaction derived from conceiving something, and I learned that I kind of enjoy being uncomfortable. I like to say that "comfort is ambition's thorn." Often times, much more comes from venturing out of one's comfort zone than from maintaining the status quo.

Was there one particular experience you had during TE that was especially meaningful for you?

I'd have to say that it was when the idea for my company, Hatch House Ventures, LLC, a network of startup incubators, came into focus. Early on, it occurred to me that most of us in TE had a lot riding on being able to get our footing, identify resources, and sustain ourselves as we pursued our dreams. If we didn't find a way to make this happen quickly, many of us would be pushed into what I saw as settling for traditional jobs. The more support we could round up to get us where we need to be, the better the odds of success. And with this, the idea for Hatch House Ventures was born.

Did you interact with or benefit from the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation or the broader entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Lehigh Valley?

The Baker Institute was extremely helpful when I launched Hatch House Ventures. I also benefitted from ties to the Northampton Community College Fab Lab, a state-of-the-art workspace with design and prototyping tools. In addition, Hatch House Ventures received a $15,000 grant from the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone in 2015 that made a big difference in terms of getting us off the ground.

What did you do immediately after receiving your M.Eng. in TE?

I went right to work on Hatch House Ventures. My co-founder, David Gritz, is a fellow entrepreneur with experience in real estate, marketing, and IT. The first House Hatch opened in Bethlehem in July 2015, just after I completed the TE program. A live-work facility on the Southside, it accommodates five residents – TE students or recent grads – who have the option of staying for one year. The idea is to create a launching pad for entrepreneurs, a way to fill the chasm between graduation and an infusion of resources, and to accelerate forward motion. It's the first live-work startup incubator in the Lehigh Valley.

And it took off?

Our Bethlehem operation was successful from the start. Eager to build on this, I secured a registered trademark for Hatch House and now have licensing arrangements in place at Rowan University and the University of Delaware. Bethlehem remains the only site with a residency component, however. Hatch House Ventures is thriving and growing because of the timeliness of our concept, the impact of our approach, and the effectiveness of our partnerships with higher education.

What else do you have going?

We have various new initiatives in the works which I pursue when I'm not meeting more structured obligations. In terms of the latter, for example, I serve as Hatch House Director at Rowan University, and I run a 12-week accelerator program for aspiring entrepreneurs. I spend about 50 percent of my time at Rowan. I'm also an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware and have taught classes at Bucks County Community College. In addition, I do a fair amount of public speaking on topics tied to entrepreneurship. And then, of course, there's HeliumIQ.

Tell us about HeliumIQ.

David Gritz and I created HeliumIQ at the end of 2015. It grew out of the experience of running multiple entrepreneurship communities at one time. All of these communities involve various players – mentors, fundraisers, software companies, and others – and we knew there would be significant value in expanding our ability to facilitate communications, introductions, and events across this group of influencers. So we launched Helium IQ, a software platform designed to meet this need. It's billed as an online ecosystem for entrepreneurs.

I know you've won a few awards.

Hatch House Ventures was named one of the "Best Entrepreneurship Companies in America" in 2016 by virtue of inclusion on Entrepreneur magazine's Entrepreneur 360 List. And, also in 2016, we took first place in the DuPont Freedom Foundation's "Reinventing Delaware" competition.

Do you have any specific career goals that you would want to share?

One important goal involves "exiting" from HeliumIQ so that we can put the proceeds toward a venture capital fund for Hatch House Ventures in order to help more aspiring entrepreneurs.

And we're working on a book. Based loosely on the "Hello, I'm Lost" Ted Talk that I did for TEDxDover, it's a narrative about a graduating entrepreneur. It emphasizes the importance of support networks and articulates the advantages that flow from surrounding yourself with the right people.

Have you seen a return on your investment in the TE degree?

My investment has already been returned to me tenfold. And it was quick…much quicker than I expected, actually, so that I'm already able to give back. The startup work we do is benefitting dozens and dozens of companies.