Justin and Pratt

SPORTS STARTUP FOUNDERS: JUSTIN JACOBS AND PRATHEEK PALANETHRA
Justin Jacobs

Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, freebowler LLC (Bethlehem, PA)

M.Eng., Technical Entrepreneurship, Lehigh University, 2016

B.S., Industrial Technology, Millersville University, 2011

TE enabled me to fine tune existing skills and develop new ones. Whether I stay working in my own business or move on to work for a larger company or even find another startup to help grow, I now have confidence in my own abilities.
PRATHEEK PALANETHRA

Founder and Chief Operating Officer, freebowler LLC (Bethlehem, PA)

M.Eng., Technical Entrepreneurship, Lehigh University, 2016

B.S., Mechanical Engineering, Rashtreeya Vidyalaya College of Engineering, 2014

I came out of TE with an entrepreneurial mindset, a determination to follow my passion, a plan for how to do that, and, perhaps most importantly, a better sense of who I am. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Both Justin Jacobs and Pratheek Palanethra (Pratt) brought entrepreneurial skills and experience to their startup, freebowler LLC, but each had specialized expertise to contribute as well.  Justin knew the product development side; Pratt knew the industry. When these two graduates of Lehigh’s M. Eng. in Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) program joined forces to launch their company, it was a game changer.

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

Justin:  After completing my bachelor’s degree, I spent four years working at C. F. Martin and Company as a guitar craftsman. I started exploring entrepreneurship mainly because I love the creative process and have eclectic interests.  The fact that I have cystic fibrosis (CF), a life-threatening illness that affects the lungs and digestive system, influenced my thinking as well. I realized that a career in entrepreneurship might enable me to pursue my design interests within the context of a flexible schedule, something important to me because of my illness. TE seemed like the perfect next step.

 

Pratt:  Growing up in India as part of a very sports-oriented family, I developed a strong emotional connection to the game of cricket. It was difficult when I eventually came to a crossroads and had to decide whether to pursue a degree or a professional cricket career. I chose academics, of course, but found that I couldn’t get over the sport; it was on my mind 24/7. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I started thinking about ways to combine my background in sports, my interest in product development engineering, and my fascination with ideas. Lehigh’s TE program seemed like a great fit for what I wanted to do, so I came to the United States from India to take advantage of this opportunity.

And did the experience live up to your expectations?

Justin: Definitely. Going into TE was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It was a challenge, but you get out of it what you put into it, and I dove in head first. The TE experience fit well with everything I’d done up until that point, and I came out transformed. 

 

Pratt:  Yes! This was a one-year, fast-paced intensive program with product development and entrepreneurship front and center. The result is that I’m able to use everything I learned and practice the skills developed through TE while building a business about which I’m passionate.

What skills did you develop in TE?

Justin:  There were many. For example, I became more adept at promoting a vision, assessing strengths and weaknesses, and building a team. Perhaps more importantly, however, I learned to question. Over the course of my TE year, I was able to free myself from preconceived notions and rules than often impede innovation. I knew going into TE that I wanted to start a business, and the skills I learned gave me the confidence to go for it.

 

Pratt:  TE gave me the skills to turn a product idea into a business. TE taught me the process. Along the way, I also learned how to develop business models; manage financials; use social media for marketing; deliver a 30, 60, or 90 second pitch; cultivate relationships; solve problems using creativity techniques, set pricing; and pursue licensing.

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

Justin:  I think the simple answer here is this:  it just did! The courses are designed to push your mind in more directions than you think a brain can go…to give your mind elasticity.  The result is something on the order of time management meets creative thinking. I wish I’d been exposed to this technique years ago! My mindset evolved, for sure, but perhaps more importantly, my mind opened. 

 

Pratt:  TE helped me to become more confident, assertive, and outgoing. It also taught me to follow my heart and go where my passion lies. Early on, I had to answer this question: is there one thing that you could do all day every day without tiring of it? In my case, the answer was easy:  yes, and it’s cricket…not just playing cricket, but being involved with the sport on a variety of levels. TE helped me to figure that out and find the pathway to make cricket a career.

Did you interact with or benefit from the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation in any way?

Justin:  We had a great networking experience during a trip to India this past January. We happened to be there exploring options for our company and were able to attend the “Lehigh in Delhi” event. Lisa Getzler, Executive Director of the Baker Institute, and Richard Verma, former U.S. Ambassador to India and a 1990 Lehigh grad, were in attendance, along with other Lehigh alumni.  

 

Pratt:  I participated in the Baker Institute’s Launch Bay C program in the summer of 2016. This really gave freebowler a jumpstart. The final demo day provided an opportunity for us to polish our pitch and set up a live display table. In addition, we received a $3,000 Launch Bay C grant that helped cover our IP [intellectual property] attorney fees and pay for the provisional patent filing.

You two live and work together, correct?

Pratt:  Correct.  We both live and work at Hatch House (HH) in Bethlehem.  [Hatch House is a live-work space for entrepreneurs founded by fellow TE alumus Steve Boerner ’15G.]  HH has been an integral part of our journey, as has Steve Boerner. We want to continue the process of growing and scaling our business in the supportive HH environment. 

You each bring unique experiences and passions to your collaboration. Tell us about one.

Justin:  I bring a unique experience with product design and marketing. As I said earlier, I was diagnosed with CF early in life. There’s a story in the CF world that has to do with a little boy who had CF. He had trouble pronouncing the name of the disease, and it always came out sounding like “65 roses.” I decided that I wanted to give back to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in appreciation for the college scholarships I received. So I built a guitar with 65 rose inlays, got 65 celebrities to sign it, and auctioned it off. The 65 Roses Guitar raised more than $70,000 toward a cure for CF.   

 

Pratt:  I bring the passion for cricket and knowledge of the industry. In India, cricket is everywhere, and I started playing when I was four. I went on to play professional cricket and, later, was involved when the world series of cricket was held in the United States. This was especially exciting because my cousin plays for the Indian national team. Over the years, I’ve also picked up team management experience and developed many valuable connections in the global cricket world. I know this sport inside and out!

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

Justin: I had launched my own product design and innovation consulting company, Jacobs Design LLC, a few months before completing the TE program. Immediately after graduation, I devoted my time to securing more clients. Under the Jacobs Design umbrella, I worked on projects like videos, Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, and product development. Shortly thereafter, however, I started working with Pratt on freebowler and quickly became totally focused on our collaboration. I saw that this was where I was meant to be. 

 

Pratt:  During the TE year, I conceptualized a business that would produce a personalized bowling machine. I knew this was what I wanted to do, so I  jumped right into it after finishing my degree.

Tell us about freebowler.

Justin:  We make a cricket ball thrower – a batting training aid – for teams and individuals to use in daily practice sessions. Affordable, accessible, portable and convenient, it addresses limitations associated with other ball throwers on the market. It does not require electricity and is capable of throwing balls at a speed of up to 75 mph. freebowler’s bowling machine allows cricketers in clubs, schools, universities, and corporate teams to train like pros.

 

Pratt:  Our company, freebowler, was born out of necessity. After arriving in Bethlehem, I found that I was forever driving out of state and spending an amazing amount of money just for one hour of practice. It was frustrating, inconvenient, and expensive. As I put more and more miles on my car, I realized that there was a definite need for a portable, affordable ball thrower that requires no electricity. Our machine meets that definition and goes even further in that it’s capable of throwing different kinds of balls. For example, our machine can throw tennis balls as well as cricket balls, but the reverse is not true:  tennis ball machines aren’t capable of throwing cricket balls. Our piece of equipment takes practice and training options to a whole new level. 

How are you funding your startup?

Justin:  We’re funding it through bootstrapping, our own savings, some interest-free loans, the previously mentioned $3,000 Launch Bay C grant, and a $15,000 technology transfer grant from the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) that we were awarded in late 2016. The KIZ grant has helped us to get closer to launch and done wonders for our motivation.

What are your current responsibilities with freebowler?

Justin:  As Chief Innovation Officer, my primary focus is on developing new products and searching for new opportunities in the cricket space, but I also do a lot of work on design and marketing. I especially like making videos to help us grow a brand image.

 

Pratt:  Basically, I take care of the business side of things:  business plan and business model development, project management, logistics, financials, market analysis, and fundraising. Also, I work on developing relationships within the cricketing community, both here and in India.

What’s the status of the startup and the product these days?

Pratt:  We’ve tested the product concept with club teams, schools, colleges, and individual players and received excellent feedback. We’re now working with a small manufacturing company in India to further develop the product and prepare for launch. The next step will be to have a Kickstarter or similar campaign and take pre-orders for delivery to a community of beta testers. Our bowling machine is patent pending, and we plan to file an application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty for international protection.

How have you applied your new skills and mindset since earning your degree?

Justin:  TE taught us to face design challenges and other issues by asking questions, re-evaluating the situation, using creativity techniques, and applying a system of checks and balances. This works. Some of the most dramatic “aha” moments in the design of our bowling machine have happened as a result. We’ve also benefitted from using biomimicry and from understanding the practical application of design thinking. TE gave us the tools to do this.

 

Pratt:  I’ve probably applied all the skills gained through TE in multiple ways since starting freebowler. For example, the business knowledge that I gained through the program enabled me to write the company business plan and model, as well as the KIZ grant proposal. And the networking skills I learned have helped me to develop relationships with some of the most influential people in the cricketing space. I approach things differently now because of the way my mindset evolved during TE.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being an entrepreneur?

Justin:  I’d have to say that, for me, the most rewarding part is having the flexibility to work from almost anywhere at almost any time. I can schedule my hours so that I have the time to do my CF treatments and keep myself healthy, which is vastly important for anyone with this disease.

 

Pratt:  It’s the freedom and personal satisfaction. I can work for 10 or 12 or 16 hours a day, and it doesn’t feel like work because I’m working for myself to achieve something about which I’m passionate.  Also, it’s the relationships, because I’m such a people person. And finally, it’s the respect that’s come from establishing my own professional identity. It feels good.

What do you do for fun?

Justin:  We play cricket, of course. We both play with the Lehigh Valley Cricket Club, and Pratt serves on the advisory board of the Philadelphia Cricket League. We also travel as necessary to advance and promote our product. We learned a great deal during our extended trip to India.

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

Justin:  I’m totally focused on creating a business that will make a difference, is responsible and accountable, and also “green” to the extent that’s possible. I also want to help cricket become more mainstream in America. It’s kind of ironic that our founding fathers played cricket, and that cricket gave birth to baseball, and yet it’s fallen off the radar to some extent. I’m determined to change that.

 

Pratt:  Ultimately, my vision is to grow and popularize the game of cricket in the United States and worldwide. I know that’s an ambitious goal, but freebowler has the potential to get us there. I believe there is a lot of room for innovation in the cricket world, as well as opportunities to make it a more accessible game for all. I want to give people the training tools necessary to find success in this sport so that it sees a resurgence in the United States.

Can you share one important takeaway from your TE year?

Justin:  It’s important to admit that you may not have all the answers. You have to find others who can fill in the gaps and bring them on board to get you where you need to be.  Nothing – and nobody – trumps a person with connections to others, and I gained a lot of my connections through the TE program. 

 

Pratt:  Follow your passion. TE gave me the confidence to do that. I learned so much about my own potential and capabilities, about how to take advantage of my interests and strengths, and about how to shape a career around something I love.

 

March 2017