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The Robot Zone: Spotlight on Startups at Clarkson University Shipley Center for Innovation
Amanda Clapper discovered her passion for robotics when she was in high school and is so devoted to STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that she interrupted her studies at Clarkson University to establish her own business, The Robot Zone, to promote STEM activities.
After operating two years in Clarkson's Peyton Hall Business Incubator, the 24-year-old decided to make technology even more a part of daily life by moving her business to downtown Potsdam. The Robot Zone is now located at 71 Market St.
Clarkson University, Clarkson’s Shipley Center for Innovation, and the Center's executive director, Matt Draper, were with her every step of the way.
“My COO Benjamin Baumgardner and I worked with the Shipley Center from the beginning. They helped us file necessary paperwork, gave us office space for free, and answered every question,” says Clapper. “I never felt lost; they were always there for us.”
The idea for the business came about when Clapper and some of her fellow students were mentors for a robotics team. The kids were excited and having blast, she noted, but that enthusiasm wasn't being backed up by technology education in the classroom. She worked with Associate Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering James Carroll to help start STEM programs at area high schools and middle schools. The demand was too high to support all the programs, so she decided to start a company.
What goes on at The Robot Zone? All things technology-related. As you walk in the door, a 3D printer is always running. Clapper likes to make logos as giveaways so visitors can see what technology can do. There's a green screen wall for video editing and recording, a storage room with Legos to build and play, space to build robots, and plenty of printers. Imagination and design have free rein as people can pick which colors and materials they want to use. There's also space where older kids can be safety certified and make large robots that require machining.
“After working from Peyton Hall, I realized a downtown office would be more open to community for weekend and afternoon STEM activities. So I went to Matt Draper and the Shipley Center again. He really liked the idea and helped us find a new space,” Clapper said.
Draper is more than happy to help find space for more local businesses. Nationally, only about 10 percent of business startups succeed, but Draper said last year that he and his team are aiming for double and triple that figure. So far they are riding a tsunami of success.
"As we complete the second year of the Innovation Hot Spot, we are excited to see the direct impacts these startup companies are having and will continue to have across the North Country,” he comments. “Across the 100-plus projects we've worked on over the past two years, the resulting companies have created 62 new jobs and retained 14 jobs as well as increased revenues or received funding totaling $5.3 million. These are all regional innovators, which shows the tremendous talent and human capital we have in our region."
The Robot Zone student customers range in age from 5 to 18. So far the boys outnumber the girls, but Clapper works with local Girl Scout troops and is finding that once the girls are inspired, they return to do more activities. This business also gives an opportunity for Clarkson University students with a passion for volunteering to stay in the community. She's proud to help make that connection.
While The Robot Zone serves a demand for tech education and activity, it also is helping shape the minds of tomorrow's workforce. STEM activities hone necessary skills for the growing technology market and she's offering the opportunity to acquire them in a region where a college education is not always a possibility.
“I hope the skills they gain will help them in the job market,” she says of the teens who have embraced her shop. Already, some past customers are sending her and Baumgardner notes to say they got into college and other updates on their lives.
Clapper's advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is “Don't be afraid to try. Ask and reach out to see who can help you. If it's an idea that will work, someone will help you,” she says. “Really know what it is you want out of it. Focus on your end goal. Your business should be more about your passion than what money you will make out of it.”
Originally from Spencerport, near Rochester, N.Y., Clapper is balancing her business, education, and a marriage. Her husband has finished his master's degree and moved to Potsdam, so she's happy. She says both of her parents were very driven and are “super supportive” of The Robot Zone. She also credits Clarkson for fostering her entrepreneurial spirit.
“Had I not chosen to go to Clarkson University, this company would never exist. I can't imagine being anywhere else,” she adds.
Hours for The Robot Zone are: Monday through Thursday 2-5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11a.m. to 5 p.m. Students and parents can sign up online at www.therobotzone.com. Contact The Robot Zone at 516-900-7836 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The company also is on Facebook.
Been thinking over an idea for a business? Learn more about the Shipley Center for Innovation at Clarkson University at www.clarkson.edu/shipley.
Photo caption: Clarkson University's Shipley Center for Innovation helped Amanda Clapper to start her business, The Robot Zone. Pictured, CEO Clapper with COO Benjamin Baumgardner
[A photograph for media use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/robot-zone-2016.jpg .]