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Business Bytes

Friendly neighborhood technologists

Unlike on Main Street, in a virtual business customers and competitors, whether around the corner or around the world, are equally close.   But when there’s no neighboring start-up to pop into, it’s difficult to know what virtual business is actually around the corner.

While the Internet does make in-person meetings less of a necessity it provides a way to search out and meet-up with kindred spirits.  The social networking site, Meetup.com –itself a start-up venture- helps real-life meetings happen. For a monthly fee, any person or group of people interested in finding fellows posts information about activities so that others may join; a “Meetup,” is synomous with a group or a meeting the group holds.

Rather than spend days disconnected from the world right outside the window, a group of technologists in the Lehigh Valley managed to meet-up at a PHP Users Meetup and liked it so much they decided to do it again.  And so the Lehigh Valley, known for its industrial past, gained a technology entrepreneur group in the Lehigh Valley Tech (LVT) Meetup.

Tim Lytle, one of the groups co-founders, describes Lehigh Valley Tech as based on a simple premise.  Since anyone can startup a business anywhere, “you knew they had to be there but didn’t know how to find them.”   Now, with regular meetings posted o the group’s Meetup.com webpage, as Lytle says, “you can actually find like-minded people now.”  Since its Meetup.com founding data in February 2011, Lehigh Valley Tech has 325 members.

Like most technology Meetups, the Lehigh Valley Tech Meetup has a monthly flagship event where companies demo and thought leaders speak on technology topics.  The NY Tech Meetup, for example, has grown so popular that tickets are released in three batches, a waitlist is inevitable, and the group sponsors two other Meetups at the same time so that others can watch the demos through live-streaming video.

The Lehigh Valley Tech monthly event hardly needs a waiting list, let alone live-streaming.  But since, as Lytle points out, anyone can do business anywhere, it matters little the goings-on in New York with so many local people to meet and greet.  In what Lytle calls the “technology entrepreneur angle,” the monthly meeting shows, “the interesting things we’re doing with technology…something that was not possible without whatever technology we’re using to make business possible.

Besides the 23 so far monthly events that average just over 50 attendees, LVT also hosts “Brains on Fire” breakfast meetings (the second Friday of the month), sessions at the co-working space, Bridgeworks Enterprise Center (the first Friday of the month) and a happy hour (the first Tuesday of the month).

Last March, the group sponsored their first Startup Weekend, with many students from Lehigh University participating.  The student response was so positive that the group will coordinate future events with the university’s semester schedule, which complements Lehigh’s new masters program in entrepreneurship.

So far, Lehigh Valley Tech is the most prominent tech Meetup in the area and may well stay that way: the group leaders work to respond to their member requests.

“We have certain things we want to get done but we also listen to the group,” says Lytle.

In 2013, the group will sponsor a monthly technology-focused talk, as per member requests.  The first of these, set for the second Tuesday of the month, explores the technology of “intelligent music retrieval,” which runs sites like Pandora and Spotify.  LVT will also host talks to specifically address business and entrepreneurship topics.

Between all of the Internet and the local brain trust, Lytle has yet to hear of people intending to leave the Valley for the big city tech scene (like Philadelphia or New York), “anything you want to do, you can do here.”

And the “here” is very unique.  In the Lehigh Valley, grand buildings have outlasted the industries that built them.  The parking lot of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center overlooks a bridge built when Bethlehem Steel built New York skyscrapers. The technologists work on their own business in an old Mack truck factory with reinforced floors and high ceilings.

But history leaves more than reminders: it leaves a mentality.  The labs at Northampton Community College and Lehigh University show that technology is more than digital; it can be physical.  Both institutions offer access to spaces for metalworking and woodworking and other machinery tools integrated with computer program like 3-D scanning and printing.  And using that industrial history gives LVT a distinct future.

Those who demo at NY Tech or PhillyTech typically unveil a virtual good, like an app or a website. LVT, without any conscious intent from the directors, demos products.  The three winners at the inaugural Start-up Weekend created products, including a machine to make single-servings of beer: the keg meets Keruig.

Perhaps ironically, LVT, as Lytle repeatedly says, “isn’t anything”: there are no sponsors, no tax deductions and no revenue.  The founders pay out of pocket, collect no dues and organize all events.

The cost in time and money can be put into hard numbers but Lytle considers such a calculation unnecessary, “Everyone can benefit so someone should make it happen…We still build things here.”  Sometimes it’s a new Keruig but mostly, it’s a community.

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