Lanich, Conklin Win Big Idea Contest


Dave Conklin, (left center) and Joe Lanich (right center) were named winners of the Big Idea Contest Thursday in DuBois. Conklin, second-place winner, received $20,000 to help expand his distilled sunflower beverage business, while Lanich, first-place winner, received $30,000 to develop software for his letterpress business. Conklin and Lanich were two of eight finalists who presented their ideas to a panel of local judges. Also pictured, from left to right, are Tosha, Serrena and Sienna Conklin and Andrea Lanich. (Photo by Kimberly Finnigan)

DUBOIS – It’s happened to a lot of people. They have a fantastic idea for a new business or a way to improve an idea or product that already exists. But how does one go about making that idea into a reality?

On Thursday, two local entrepreneurs took the first step toward developing their brainchildren into a tangible, beneficial business.

Joe Lanich of Laughing Owl Press and Dave Conklin of Wilds Sonshine Factory were named first- and second-place winners of the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ Big Idea Contest.

Lanich and Conklin, both of Kane, were two of eight finalists to present their proposals to a panel of judges for the chance to win up to $50,000.

Lanich was awarded $30,000, which he said will be used to develop computer software to improve the high-end letterpress industry.

During his presentation to the judges, Lanich said many people believe the high-end letterpress industry is a “dead” industry. He said while many people are turning to online companies, such as Vistaprint, these companies do not offer the high-quality craftsmanship customers can find in actual letterpress companies.

“These companies actually cater to the bottom of the bottom,” Lanich said. “They’re looking to produce as much as they can, for as little (cost) as they can. They don’t offer the quality of materials that we can offer.”

Lanich said he is looking to develop software that can offer customers a 3D rendering of the product they’re looking to print.

He said the software will merge the old-fashioned quality of letterpress with the convenience of the digital age. He said his company can produce wedding invitations, business cards and all manner of high-quality print products.

Conklin was awarded $20,000 to be used toward expenses related to developing his distillery.

During his presentation, Conklin said his company has developed a new distilled beverage, derived from a unique sunflower that is only found in Pennsylvania. Conklin said he grows the sunflowers on abandoned agricultural land.

“Everyone in this room has agriculture as part of their history,” Conklin said. “Our grandparents, our great-grandparents, somewhere in your history, someone was involved in agriculture. Now a lot of that land is sitting empty and unused.”

Conklin said the soil in Pennsylvania is perfect for growing these unique sunflowers and that no one else in the world produces a beverage using only sunflowers. He said there are sunflower beverages available, but they are made with flavoring, instead of the actual plant.

Conklin said he plans to build an interpretive center at his distillery. The center will house a tasting room and an area where visitors can learn about the sunflowers themselves, as well as the process of growing, harvesting and distilling the plants to make his unique beverage. The center will attract global tourism to the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Steve Brawley, chief executive officer of Ben Franklin Technology, said this is the first time the Big Idea contest has had eight finalists.

“This has been an outstanding group,” Brawley said. “It’s great to see such powerful, cool ideas going on in this region. The level of energy we have seen from the DuBois/north-central (Pennsylvania region) area is unlike anything we’ve seen in this contest before.

“They’ve had the most impressive presentations, and I don’t envy the judges who have to make the decision here tonight.”

In addition to the cash awards, both winners will also receive:

  • access to seminars offered by Ben Franklin’s eMarketing Learning Center and the Clarion Small Business Development Center;
  • a free consult on applying for federal R&D grant money from the Innovation Partnership; and
  • executive business and technology growth services assistance offered by the Northwest Industrial Resource Center.

In addition to Lanich and Conklin, the six other finalists included:

  • Jeff Billett with Billett Electric (Punxsutawney), who is developing an equipotential grounding         system for mobile operation to protect personnel and equipment from static and stray electricity.
  • Keith Billotte with Doing Time LLC (Clearfield), who has developed an innovation in the process of distilling bourbon.
  • Peter Schramm with Lattus Inc. (Brookville), who has developed a platform that facilitates personal conversations about specific professional and personal topics to share insights, perspectives and experiences.
  • Daniel Meier with Lightdrop Harvest LLC (St. Marys), who utilizes neural networks (artificial intelligence) in vision systems to inspect parts produced by the powdered metal industry.
  • Royce Novosel-Johnson with NoJo Forest Creations (Kane), who is establishing alternative and creative uses for wood and wood-related products within the PA Wilds and Allegheny National Forest.
  • Harb Nayar with TAT Technologies (St. Marys), who is developing a process that reduces thermal process cost and energy consumed.

Although the Big Idea contest is over, there is still opportunities for entrepreneurs to get help and experience navigating the wilds of developing businesses and ideas.

Through its partnership with Penn State DuBois and the North Central PA LaunchBox, Ben Franklin’s TechCelerator @DuBois, is inviting local entrepreneurs, grad-students, professors and university researchers to participate in the next 10-Week Business Startup Boot Camp.

The weekly sessions will run on Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 15, 2020 until March 19, 2020, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., followed by coaching sessions at the North Central PA LaunchBox (Old Deposit Bank Building) at 2 E. Long Ave., Suite 300, DuBois, PA 15801.

Business mentoring from Ben Franklin’s Transformation Business Services Network and Clarion University’s Small Business Development Center will also be available free of charge.

A graduation “pitch” event will enable the winning team to receive up to $10,000 in seed funding to help get the business from startup to up and running.

This is a no-cost opportunity. During the 10 weeks, participating individuals will receive up to $1,000 in reimbursement toward customer discovery and prototyping. In addition, Invent Penn State’s I-Corps Site status enables eligible, university-related startup teams to receive up to $3,000 for customer discovery.

Participants will come away from this experience with a viable business model, a list of networking contacts and the confidence that comes from knowing if it’s the right time for you to start a tech-business.  

Space is limited. Contact John Siggins at 814-865-2879 or Or visit

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