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Part passion, part parentage

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A Penn State undergraduate’s first-year experience leads to entrepreneurial opportunity.

17 October 2018

Jon Westlake at the New York Stock Exchange.
Jon Westlake at the New York Stock Exchange.

We’ve all been there: thinking we should do one thing but wanting deep down to do another.

Jon Westlake had just finished his first year of college and was looking for a job.

“I was kind of going down the path of ‘I should just work for this corporation because they offer the most internships or co-ops,’” he says. “It’s the safest route.”

But something made Westlake change his mind. “I wanted to try something new,” he says. “And I wanted to try something that I was actually passionate about and I wasn’t just doing for a résumé. I was doing it for myself.”

So, instead of going the “safe route,” Westlake joined a student startup—Reflexion Interactive Technologies—headed by another Penn State undergraduate, Matt Roda. While entrepreneurship may seem strange and risky to some or even most college students, it didn’t to Westlake; it’s in his blood.

“I come from a family of entrepreneurs: my dad, my mom, my grandpa,” Westlake explains. “So having that kind of sense of business and being creative and on your feet, that definitely helped me. I think a lot of it is just a curiosity I have. If I don’t know something, I want to learn it. If I don’t understand something, I’m going to ask why, I’m going to ask how, and I will until I learn it. A lot of that just comes from how I was raised.”

The three student-entrepreneurs who founded Reflexion—Roda, Matt Campagna (currently at Case Western Reserve), and Patrick Walsh (Cornell)—were still in high school when Roda suffered a severe concussion playing ice hockey and, after a long and frustrating recovery, decided to try to develop a better concussion-testing protocol. Together, they took a computer programming class and began developing the algorithms and other technologies that would become the core intellectual property underlying their company and its groundbreaking product, the Edge—an LED-touchscreen device and app for cognitive screening, training, and rehabilitation.

Roughly three years later, Reflexion is a bona fide startup with six employees—and Westlake is one of two Penn State undergraduates in charge of the company’s business development and marketing.

“It’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades position,” he says. “I’m running financial models, creating marketing material, and also representing Reflexion as a salesperson.”

Westlake works full-time for Reflexion, and he’s also enrolled full-time at University Park, about to begin his third year as a Schreyer Scholar in the Eberly College of Science’s B.S./M.B.A. program. What started as a search for a summer internship ended up being much, much more—certainly more than most undergraduate students would commit to long-term and with a full course load. But Westlake, clearly, is not a typical undergraduate.

“A lot of people think that it’s too hard to be a student and an entrepreneur,” he says. “I personally learn better outside of a classroom. By getting my hands dirty and really applying my knowledge in other fields, I’ve learned a lot more than I ever could have otherwise in my first two years of college.”

Westlake credits the career advisers in the Schreyer Honors College—particularly Director of Career Development Lisa Kerchinski—with helping him find his place at Reflexion by connecting him with Roda, who is also a Schreyer Scholar. And in balancing academics and entrepreneurship, he says, “the Eberly College of Science has been great, managing my workload between both and treating this as a learning opportunity for me.”

That’s not to say it’s been easy for him.

During the fall semester, Westlake was taking 18 credits—including honors courses—while working 40-plus hours a week, “and nearly burning out by the end of each week,” he says. “That wasn’t fun.”

But by the spring semester—with nearly half of his credits coming from work or research, and with most of his classwork online—he was finally settling in. On May 1, Reflexion Interactive Technologies made its official launch, and Westlake says they’re “going full-force” marketing the Edge.

“The market is pretty huge,” he says. “The Cleveland Cavaliers have had interest. A lot of high school football coaches and even some at Penn State have been reaching out to us and saying ‘We want to use this!’”

Looking back now, Westlake says his experience of the past year has inspired him to encourage others to pursue their passion.

“As a student, don’t be afraid just because you have classes,” he says. “If you have an idea, go for it. If your passion is starting a company, or getting into research that you think is phenomenal, I would say ‘Do it!’”

Westlake certainly walks the line he talks and all the while exudes an enthusiasm that’s positively infectious.

“I get really excited about entrepreneurship,” he says. “So, until I don’t get excited about it, I’m going to keep doing it. If I were to forecast ten years ahead, I would regret not getting involved with this, because there’s just so much untapped potential for doing good in the world with science, business, and technology.”

By Seth Palmer