Something big is happening. It’s not obvious, and it’s nothing tactile—but it’s most definitely a shift in the way we normally do things around here. It’s spurred on by a group of people who, above all else, want to create something that is their very own. With a whole lot of passion and tireless energy, they’re dreaming up new uses for technology, coming up with problem-solving products, and sketching out websites on napkins at coffee shops. Our research turned up more than 100 start-ups (whittled down here to the 20 coolest) that are happening right now. And while those companies may be small, what they’re part of is something huge: They’re changing the way business and culture look in Philadelphia. They’re ushering in an era in which our city is suddenly smarter, hipper, younger, more communal, more energetic and more creative than ever before. And this is just the beginning.
Lifestyle | Paoli
The pitch: Creating a safe digital place for families to share information.
Joanne Lang’s lightbulb-over-the-head moment came in the wake of an unfortunate situation—as her asthmatic son was rushed to the hospital, she was asked for his medical information and couldn’t remember a thing. “I knew all the information was filed away, but I couldn’t click on anything to give the paramedic what he needed,” says Lang, 43. “It was traumatizing.” (Her son is okay.) As a developer for SAP, she had the background knowledge in secure cloud technology to be able to turn her filing cabinet into a digital platform. The result: AboutOne, a secure family-planner app that aggregates items and info like health records, education forms, important contacts, numbers and dates for parents and caretakers. Since its introduction three years ago, it’s garnered press from the New York Times, USA Today and the Today Show.
Make or Break: AboutOne has raised $4 million in venture capital, and a new user platform is in the works. An official launch in January will be Lang’s first glimpse of revenue projections—users who want more than 1GB of cloud space will have to pay for a premium subscription. Long-term, Lang hopes to repurpose the platform into a tool that’s useful for corporate executives.
Business | Center City
The Pitch: Harnessing the power of pictures.
It seems like a runaway success—revenue has increased seven times compared to last year—but Curalate, the company started by Apu Gupta and Nick Shiftan, was initially something else entirely. Recognizing that it wasn’t working, Gupta, 38, and Shiftan, 32, instead came up with Curalate: a visual marketing analytics company that tracks the impact of images using sophisticated picture-scanning technology—an invaluable tool to better understand photo-driven sites like Instagram and Pinterest. Big-league clients include Gap, Neiman Marcus, Urban Outfitters, Under Armour and Swarovski.
What’s Next: Curalate has received a total of $4 million in VC money and continues to add more services, like Fanreel, a tool that allows clients to reuse user-uploaded, hashtagged images on their own e-commerce sites.
Tech | Paoli
The Pitch: Online search without the creepy spying.
The search-engine world might be dominated by one untouchable, but 34-year-old Gabriel Weinberg is banking on a novel concept: privacy. In 2008 he launched DuckDuckGo, a search engine that eschews the personal data collected by sites like Google and Bing—data that can not only tarnish accurate ad results but is seen as increasingly invasive. He’s on to something: Last summer’s Snowden NSA scandal helped grow DDG to more than 100 million searches a month.
Make or Break: DDG brings in revenue through a single ad banner and an affiliate program with Amazon and eBay through which DDG gets a percentage of transactions that start from the site.
Business | Northern Liberties
The Pitch: The smartest SEO.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the foundation on which Wil Reynolds, 37, built SEER. He hired his first employee in 2005 and his 70th in the fall. Crayola, Wine Enthusiast, a Fortune 50 bank and BHLDN have all hired SEER to get them more online visibility by analyzing the way they interact with search engines like Google and Bing, then implementing adjustments to their standards and websites. Finding and retaining talent is key, and to help, Reynolds has created a Silicon Valley-esque culture: His headquarters (nicknamed the “Search Church”) are in a rehabbed house of worship, and he takes the gang on field trips to Six Flags and hosts yoga classes for his crew.
What’s Next: Most of SEER’s success has been recent—the company has grown 35 to 55 percent over the past few years. Reynolds is committed to Philadelphia: Last year he relocated about 40 percent of hires to our region.
Retail | Center City
The Pitch: Coupon-clipping goes digital.
Penny-pinchers, rejoice! SnipSnap’s technology lets users snap photos of coupons, upload them, share them with friends and scan them at checkout—entirely through an app. When the idea hit, 36-year-old Ted Mann left his job and joined local accelerator program DreamIt Ventures (a company that awards seed money and mentorship to great ideas) to work on it. Thanks to front-page placement in the iTunes App Store, SnipSnap secured 200,000 downloads in its first two weeks.
What’s Next: Mann recently scored impressive retail partnerships with Toys “R” Us and Bed Bath & Beyond, which will publish coupons directly to the app. SnipSnap will take $1 every time one of those coupons is redeemed.
Business | Center City
The Pitch: E-commerce analytics, ASAP.
Go-getters Robert Moore and co-founder Jake Stein, both 29, began their e-commerce analytics company out of Moore’s attic in September 2008. Now 37 employees strong, RJMetrics is expecting multi-hundred-percentage-point growth in the next year. Though the service they provide isn’t groundbreaking, the way they do it is: They offer to get feedback within three days for an easy entry-level $500 fee, giving them an edge against competitors who often quote three-to-six-month waits and a lot more zeros. Companies who sign on get a complete picture of data—a combination of transactional information and online marketing tools. HootSuite, Fab.com and Frank & Oak have all used RJMetrics’ services.
What’s Next: They’ve gotten more than $6 million in funding from investors in New York and Silicon Valley. The plan is to continue to target small to mid-sized e-commerce sites.
Business | Conshohocken
The Pitch: Car-shopping without the salespeople.
GoMoto is attempting to change the outdated way we shop for cars. Along with his two co-founders, Todd Marcelle, 34, is setting up mini showrooms in public places, with cars from a variety of makers, carefully selected through demographic research. Potential buyers can now browse for—and maybe even test-drive—new cars at the mall, without hovering salespeople. But the real power behind GoMoto displays are the fancy kiosks, which, via facial recognition and other data-collecting technology, gather critical consumer information and analytics that static print and digital advertising can’t. As in, stuff that car makers might pay big bucks to know.
What’s Next: Set to launch this month at the Franklin Mills and King of Prussia malls, GoMoto has signed on some big names, like Ford, to test-drive the system.
Business | Radnor
The Pitch: Stellar customer service, all via text.
Matt Gillin, 46, thought up Relay when his cell service was due to shut off because he forgot to pay his bill. He wondered why people couldn’t interact with companies the way we do with friends—via text message. Relay, which he founded in 2010, has developed a secure one-to-one communication system that helps businesses and consumers better exchange information. The types of thank-you-for-answering-our-prayers services they provide: Banks text when a paycheck clears; you text a customer-service rep when you need to talk, or authorize a bank payment with a simple “Yes” text. No more remembering website passcodes, waiting on hold or email reminders.
Make or Break: Relay has raised $10 million-plus in capital and started bringing in real revenue in 2011. They now have 22 employees and list Independence Blue Cross and Travel Leaders as clients.
Education | University City
The Pitch: Scoring scholarships made easy.
While in high school in Alabama, Chris Gray knew only one thing stood between him and a college education: money. So he applied for more than 70 scholarships, successfully nabbing $1.3 million in offers and earning the nickname “Million Dollar Scholar” from his local paper. Now a junior at Drexel, Gray, 21, has turned his experience into a business. Earlier this year, along with two co-founders, he created Scholly, an app where high-school, undergrad and graduate students plug in filters like race, gender and area of study to generate a list of potential scholarships.
What’s Next: More than 40,000 copies of the app have been sold since its introduction, but Gray’s goal is to develop the product into a business-to-business model for schools and banks.
Business | Center City
The Pitch: Getting startups to get up and go.
For the founders of VenturePact—a start-up that helps start-ups—capital doesn’t only come in the form of cash. Like a traditional VC firm, VenturePact selects companies to invest in based on entrepreneurial drive, customer research and analysis. But in lieu of money, it gives support, in the form of product development, project managers, experts, resources and knowledge. In return, it gets equity shares from the companies it chooses to work with. Itself a bootstrapped endeavor, VenturePact was founded by 22-year-old Penn engineering grads Randy Rayess and Pratham Mittal in 2012. Since launching, they’ve received more than 200 applications, hired 25 in-house developers and nurtured 13 start-ups. One of the biggest success stories so far: locally based health-care IT company AirCare, a mobile and Web app that helps hospitals reduce patient readmission rates.
Make or Break: Recruiting and retaining talent is critical to VenturePact’s success. They’ve amassed a team of former Facebook and Google employees and India-based techies plucked from the country’s most prestigious schools. Their methodology? Recognizing non-viable start-ups and allowing them to fail fast, which saves everyone time and money.
Business | Center City
The Pitch: Your cell phone will never, ever die again.
Call it a first-world problem, but is there anything worse than the moment you realize your cell phone is one text away from dying? Doug Baldasare, 29, founder of ChargeItSpot, is giving businesses the chance to save the day with phone-charging “lockers.” The lockers are outfitted with a variety of charging tips and have a secure locking system, so you can eat or shop while your phone gets some juice. There are about 50 stations around the country; locally, they’re in places like Reading Terminal Market. Nationally, ChargeItSpot has formed partnerships with Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters and Foot Locker. Retailers pay a monthly fee, with the idea of getting more foot traffic in return.
What’s Next: Started on bootstrapped funds, Charge-ItSpot recently secured some private funding and has 10 employees around the country. The next generation of locker has been redesigned to have a digital lock and a smaller footprint; an app—pointing users to the nearest Spot—is on the way.
Energy | Center City
The Pitch: Save money and go green.
Audrey Zibelman, 56, and Alain Steven, 69, both energy-industry vets, created Viridity in 2008 with the goal of helping companies save money by effectively using renewable energy. At the core of their business is smart tracking software that constantly monitors, in real time, energy that a building is using, taking into account factors like weather forecasts. Clients can then smartly adjust energy output and even sell some back to the grid—services that Drexel University and more than 100 other companies have used. Viridity is also able to capture energy from braking trains, then recycle it into the grid—something that caught the eye of SEPTA, which is now a client.
What’s Next: Though they just secured $38 million in funding and now have close to 50 employees, Zibelman and Steven have moved on (but still maintain ownership).
Lifestyle | Center City
The Pitch: How-to made easier.
Jason Rappaport wants to connect those who know how to do things with those who want to learn. In his dorm room at Lehigh University one night, he mocked up a “how-to” website. That sketch scored the 23-year-old half a million dollars in VC money and a launch date of early 2014. Think of Squareknot as a mash-up of Wikipedia and a choose-your-own adventure book: Users create how-to guides by uploading photos, videos or text—how to scramble eggs, for example—and others, in tree-diagram form, can branch off with related but alternative lessons, like different ways to crack an egg. It’s a feast for visual learners.
Make or Break To save users from combing through a million so-so, unclear, unreliable YouTube videos and Google search results to acquire new info, Squareknot will make accessing information quick, personal, standard and easy. On Rappaport’s pre-launch to-do list: figure out how to generate revenue.
Medical | Center City
The Pitch: Connecting people who have rare diseases.
Wharton grads Jonathan McEuen, 32, and Rajiv Mahale, 30, would occasionally get together with fellow aspiring entrepreneurs to brainstorm ideas. Out of one of those sessions came the idea for SpeSo Health, a website that curates experts, medical research, clinical trials, funding opportunities and other general information about more than 6,000 rare diseases, so health-care systems can create communities and share vital information. A rare disease, they say, is actually anything but: Collectively, more than 25 million people suffer from them in this country alone.
What’s Next: Initial funding for last year’s launch came from DreamIt Venture’s health-care incubator; a pilot program with local hospitals will be unveiled soon.
Tech | Old City
The Pitch: Helping businesses create snazzy digital systems.
As a co-founder of Philly Startup Leaders—an organization that supports entrepreneurs—Chris Cera, 35, was always drawn to businesses that created products. But he found success in 2011 with Arcweb, a company that provides business services. Cera has amassed a team of 13 talented full-time employees who create a variety of custom digital platforms—mobile apps, software to create user interfaces, Web applications—for clients like Comcast, PeopleLinx and Capital One. Projects include a check-processing system, and software for MakerBot’s 3-D printer, a product that landed on the cover of Wired magazine.
Make or Break While the company is still based in co-working space IndyHall, Arcweb’s revenue has grown from $36,000 in 2011 to an expected $1.6 million by the end of this year.
Medical | University City
The Pitch: Getting people with autism to get online.
Five years ago, people thought Michele McKeone was crazy for trying to teach her autistic students at South Philadelphia High School how to use email. Now, she counts the Philadelphia School District as a client. Last July, with a team of educational advisers and developers, McKeone, 31 (who is also still teaching), launched Autism Expressed, a subscription-based software system that teaches digital literacy to individuals with autism—literacy that McKeone considers a basic life skill in our Web-based world. The program, which can be used by both parents and institutions, presents a series of video lessons—like, for example, Facebook etiquette and what sensitive info you should never post online.
Make or Break: The program has snagged recognition that includes being named the 2013 Geekadelphia Start-Up of the Year and a $20,000 prize from Educational Services of America.
Business | Old City
The Pitch: Editable apps.
A mobile app-editing platform seemed like such an obvious idea to Bob Moul, 49, and Scott Wasserman, 44, that they were convinced somebody else would put out a similar product before their 2010 launch. Artisan Mobile’s technology allows businesses to update existing apps without having to overhaul them (or resubmit to the Apple store)—meaning companies can experiment with design and product placement to increase revenue. Rue La La and Golf Center have used Artisan services.
Make or Break: Artisan is now supported by $7 million in VC money and has filed patents for its technology. Moul’s place in the local start-up scene is notable: The current president of Philly Startup Leaders, he has worked with Mayor Nutter to launch StartUp PHL and guest-lectures at Wharton, Drexel and Temple.
Medical | Conshohocken
The Pitch: Big Pharma clinical trials head to the cloud.
Zikria Syed, 46, cut his teeth at Microsoft before he and co-founder Matt Walz, 38, dreamed up NextDocs in 2006. Their company provides cloud-based file sharing services to (mostly) pharmaceutical and biotech outfits. Now companies can seamlessly, efficiently and securely compile, track and comply with FDA regulations for clinical trials and the like. Clients include AstraZeneca, Bausch & Lomb, Abbott Laboratories and St. Jude Medical.
Make or Break: They recently secured a $13.5 million round of funding, and for the fourth year in a row were Microsoft’s “Life Sciences Partner of the Year.”
CareCam Health System
Medical | West Conshohocken
The Pitch: High-tech Obamacare compliance.
There’s a race to develop the high-tech system that health-care institutions will clamor for. Enter CareCam, a company set to launch in 2014 that has developed an impressive interactive program, vHealth, meant to reduce hospital readmission rates. The gist: Videos and post-treatment care plans are uploaded to a patient’s smartphone, and feedback is captured remotely—so doctors can chart your biometric readings and know if you took your meds after you’re discharged.
Make or Break: CareCam has a Midas-touch entrepreneur in CEO Hal Rosenbluth, 61, who sold his family’s travel agency to American Express in 2003 for a reported $350 million dollars, then co-founded a system of walk-in health clinics, Take Care, that Walgreens bought in 2007.
Real Food Works
The Pitch: Healthy meals delivered from local restaurants.
After watching Forks Over Knives, a documentary about the importance of whole and plant-based foods, Lucinda Duncalfe, 50, completely reordered the way she and her family ate. She promptly lost 15 pounds and had less joint pain and newfound energy. Eager to share this way of eating, she launched Real Food Works, a subscription-based meal-delivery business. Here’s the twist: Restaurants prepare the meals to her guidelines, so consumers get a variety of cuisines and flavors coming out of real kitchens, and chefs can generate revenue during the times they have a full staff but not a full restaurant—collaborative commerce in action.
Make or Break: Duncalfe has the chops—she’s a serial entrepreneur whose last company, which dealt with anti-spam software, sold for $28 million. Her track record, in combination with a winning idea, recently won her $200,000 in funding from an equity investment made by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and Josh Kopelman’s First Round Capital, as part of StartUp PHL, an initiative by the Nutter administration to support local start-ups.