Meet Our Incubator Alumni – Rhabit, CameroonFDP & Knotzland

Meet Ascender Incubation Program Alumni

At Ascender, we often use the term, “industry agnostic,” to describe the type of companies that come through our annual incubator program. But that’s just fancy way of saying Ascender welcomes all types of companies, of all shapes and sizes — including nonprofits, social enterprises and small businesses. In short, if you have a passion, we want to support you. One way we do this is through the Ascender Incubator. 

Since 2012, we’ve had dozens of companies come through our doors, and a number of success stories to celebrate. Whether it’s one of our nonprofits receiving a FIFA Football For Hope grant three years in a row, or Ascender alums developing new medical devices and having the opportunity to ring the NASDAQ bell, our community is proud of the dynamic and important work done by all of our entrepreneurs.

The road to success (however you choose to define it) is long and difficult, but Ascender is here to walk beside you through the journey and offer a stable of resources to help you achieve your goals.

Don’t just take it from us — we asked some current incubator companies and recent alums to weigh in on their experience.

Apply Now for 2018

Ascender Incubator Rhabit

Kevin Kelly
Co-Founder & CEO
Rhabit Analytics, Inc.

Offering the Ascender space a rare Southern twang, North Carolina-native Kevin Kelly came to Ascender in 2017, participating in our annual incubator bootcamp. A B2B human resources-focused software company, the Rhabit team brings a unique experience to the incubator community, as the company actually did not originally get accepted into the incubator program directly after the bootcamp.

Instead, Rhabit and Ascender worked together over the course of a few months to get the company up to speed and ready to handle the incubator challenge. Rhabit officially joined the incubator program in April 2017, and hasn’t looked back since.

We’ve gone from nothing but an idea to having a full product, an initial investor, and beginning the process of hiring our first employee in just eight months.

We’ve gone from nothing but an idea to having a full product, an initial investor, and beginning the process of hiring our first employee in just eight months,” says Kevin.

Rhabit’s success has been a combination of hard work, community, and dedication.

“The Ascender incubator has been priceless for us. It gave us the space, advisement, and community that we needed to grow as entrepreneurs. It also for us sort of solidified our transition from wanting to start something to actually making it real. Being part of a cohort of hungry, capable, hard working teams gave us something that’s hard to quantify but absolutely valuable to us as an early stage team.”

Ascender Incubator KnotzlandNisha Blackwell
Founder & CEO
Knotzland

It’s late 2014, and Ascender (then known as Thrill Mill) receives an incubator program application from an entrepreneur with a goal: to make bow ties. But not just any bow tie — wearable, sustainable art stitched together through creatively reused materials. Whether made out of an old dress shirt or a family heirloom, Nisha Blackwell would make a bow tie unique.

Since joining (Ascender), our then one person company has grown to a team of three in-house employees and five work-from-home seamstresses.

Perhaps the best example of “Main Street” business, Nisha has grown Knotzland into a burgeoning fashion mainstay with growing national attention. A Pittsburgh Designer of the Year winner, Nisha and her bow ties adorn national media stories and she was recently a featured entrepreneur of tech giant Google’s new philanthropic initiative, Grow With Google.

Through hard work and dedication, Nisha has built something special.

“Since joining (Ascender), our then one person company has grown to a team of three in-house employees and five work-from-home seamstresses. We’ve received additional grants that have helped us grow into a studio space to support our production,” says Nisha, a Pittsburgh native and Homewood resident.

For those aspiring and veteran entrepreneurs, Nisha has a word of advice.

“Collaboration. Bring to the table the things in which you are strongest at executing, while finding strategic partners to collaborate with on the elements that are their strengths and #crushit. Also, do not be afraid to collaborate with your competitors!”

Ascender Incubator CameroonFDPJustin Forzano
Founder & CEO
Cameroon Football Development Program

From Wheeling, West Virginia to Cameroon in West Africa — Justin Forzano’s entrepreneurial journey has led him to a career in international development and changing lives through the beautiful game.

As part of an Engineers Without Borders trip to a small village in Cameroon over a decade ago, Justin realized a daily community routine: a soccer game. Despite a lack of critical infrastructure, water supply, and other necessities, the daily venture to the soccer pitch was not to be missed.

It was through the steadfast dedication to playing soccer that Justin found a moment of inspiration — to use soccer to education and build community. Enter the Cameroon Football Development Program, a nonprofit sport-for-development program combining a love for soccer and a comprehensive curriculum around leadership, health education, and community-building.

The recipient of three successive FIFA Football For Hope grants, Justin not only teaches leadership, but has learned more about himself at Ascender.

I’ve gained a lot of experience and became way more focused as a leader. We’ve refined our strategy and operating model and are now determining the best way to scale.

“I’ve gained a lot of experience and became way more focused as a leader. We’ve refined our strategy and operating model and are now determining the best way to scale.”

When it comes to long road of entrepreneurship, Justin takes the challenges in stride.

“Things will go wrong. Embrace failure in stride and never stop moving forward.”

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Applications for the Ascender incubator program are now open. Deadline is January 5, 2018. To apply, visit:

Apply Now for 2018