Hustle Den gets going in East Liberty

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A group that has seen its annual barbecue evolve into a neighborhood music festival is hoping to see similar growth among companies in its new startup incubator.

Thrill Mill Inc., an entrepreneurial nonprofit, hosted the grand opening of the Hustle Den startup incubator in East Liberty on Wednesday.

For their incubator, meant to assist businesses across all sectors, organizers came to the table with a flexible game plan that would create the space in less than a year if all went well. But they didn't expect things to fall into place so easily, even after the group received a $750,000 anonymous donation in September.

"We knew from the beginning that we had set aggressive deadlines," said Bobby Zappala, a Thrill Mill co-founder and CEO of Hustle Den. "In the back of my mind, I wasn't sure we would be able to meet all of them."

Their lofty goals paid off this month in the form of a newly renovated 5,000-square-foot office with an open floor plan and a three-year lease. There are breakout rooms for meetings, a conference room and an office for Mr. Zappala, but for the most part businesses will work side by side. It should be easy to hash out strategies and vent shared frustrations.

Beyond collaborations, the layout will allow the organization to host events for the community at large, said Mr. Zappala. He said the primary goal is to create an open dialogue among companies by day, but added it would be great to see the space host classes for entrepreneurs, art exhibits or other cultural events during the evenings.

"One of the things I like about the space is its flexibility. It's so big and so versatile it allows for a lot of things to happen here," he said.

Thrill Mill, which was founded by tech entrepreneur Luke Skurman, Liberty Insurance president Kevin Heher, BNY Mellon senior negotiator Serge Smailbegovic, real estate entrepreneur Alex Palma and Mr. Zappala, has a growing portfolio. Hustle Den joins a list of projects that includes the Business Bout business plan competition and the Baller BBQ music festival.

Mr. Skurman, founder and CEO of college selection website College Prowler, said the entire team wanted to create an organization to support local entrepreneurs and bring young professionals together, but their dreams far exceeded their budgets in the beginning.

When the group held its first "Baller BBQ," a summer networking event for young professionals, in 2007, guests piled into Mr. Skurman's Shadyside apartment. By 2011, the barbecue had expanded to a block party featuring live bands that brought hundreds of guests to the area and funded the group's first Business Bout competition, which awarded $5,000 for a winning business plan.

This year, both the competition and barbecue will see upgrades. Baller BBQ will be re-branded in East Liberty as the "Thrill Mill Music Festival" and will feature both local and national acts. Business Bout winners will now receive a $25,000 prize and a one-year membership to Hustle Den, thanks to sponsorship by the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

For the 13 businesses that comprise Hustle Den's first group of portfolio companies, access to outside organizations and the community at large could be a key to future success. The portfolio companies were chosen from among 156 applicants to this year's Business Bout competition, and they provide services and products ranging from small business marketing to a nonprofit organization.

"One of the things we really stressed with the competition was that we wanted to work with the hungriest entrepreneurs. We're industry agnostic," said Mr. Skurman.

Business Bout winners Ethan Frier and Jonathan Ota, who were granted the $25,000 prize for their bicycle lighting business Project Aura, said the money has already helped them build prototypes and hire much-needed engineers.

Project Aura, a product that lights the entire wheels of bicycles to indicate different actions and to illuminate riders on the streets at night, caught the attentions of judges for its originality and marketability, said Mr. Zappala, who is cousins with the county district attorney.

"It's visually appealing and it's the sort of product that's really needed because we're using outdated methods of lighting bicycles," he said.

But for Mr. Frier and Mr. Ota, 22-year-old Carnegie Mellon University students who were receiving university support to build the product as part of their senior projects, one of the greatest benefits of the prize is access to Hustle Den and the mentors that come with it.

"I think what's great about Hustle Den is that you're able to connect with mentors like Bobby and Luke and they're able to connect you with others," he said. "It's important, especially for early-stage startups, to be able to talk to a lot of people who have done this before and that's a great tool [Hustle Den] offers."

For more information on Project Aura, visit

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Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.


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