10 Philly Startups to Watch in 2017, According to the Biggest Tech Leaders
As we said farewell to 2016, BizPhilly put a call out to the tech community: Which local startups are you most excited about for 2017? That call was answered with overwhelming excitement for what’s ahead in Philly’s innovation space. Here are 10 startups to watch in 2017, according to the Philly tech community.
When Philly’s wildly successful data analytics startup RJMetrics was acquired by Magento Commerce in August 2016, Stitch spun out of the deal. The company evolved out of RJMetrics’ “Pipeline” product, which provided data infrastructure and consolidation services to clients. The product was beta-tested under RJMetrics for more than nine months and these services are now offered to clients like Booktopedia, Instapage and Philly’s Guru. We’ll be watching Stitch for several reasons: Jake Stein, who cofounded RJ Metrics, is leading Stitch as CEO. He’s definitely learned a thing or two about data SaaS after jumpstarting RJMetrics (once one of Philly’s fastest growing startups) back in 2008 and raising more than $20 million from investors in San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia. Stitch is backed by the same investors as RJMetrics—August Capital, Trinity Ventures and SoftTech VC. And less than six months after their August launch, the company passed 100 paying customers. That’s more than five times faster than RJMetrics grew.
It’s no secret that politics has a transparency problem, and this startup’s founders TJ Hurst and Dan Siegel, two local longtime political campaign operatives, want to fix it with tech. Hurst is one of the founders behind Philadelphia 3.0, the political organization shaking up local politics by pushing incumbents out and new voices in (using, um, dark money). Jefferson’s List wants to accomplish the same thing, but will focus on the people who run political campaigns. Slated to launch in May, the startup’s platform will be a Yelp-like database that users, primarily those interested in running for public office, can search to find people with the skills to run their political campaign. On a national level, for example, the likes of Kellyanne Conway and Robby Mook would be rated and ranked on the list. “The political campaign is a $14 billion industry based on ‘I know a guy,’” Hurst told me. With Jefferson’s list, people looking to get into politics can have a clearer sense of who’s in the marketplace to help them run a successful campaign, saving them time and money. And it may help to eliminate the campaign operatives who have been running the show forever. Hurst and Siegel have been bootstrapping it, but have Bullpen Capital’s Paul Martino and University of Pennsylvania professor David Eisenhower as advisors. “Philly is known nationally for being a tough political town,” Hurst said. “It’s time to take our tech into politics, too.”
Co-founders David Lindsay and Chris Berlind are addressing a major pain point in cancer research and treatment, specifically in radiation therapy. When Lindsay was doing clinical work as an M.D./Ph.D student at the University of Pennsylvania, he recognized that radiation oncologists had no integrated digital database that collected and organized electronic medical records. Such a system could help doctors and researchers make better decisions about future treatment for cancer patients. Lindsay decided to take time off from his studies to build exactly that—a data analytics platform that can help doctors design sound radiation treatment plans for patients. In the last year, the startup closed a seed round of $1.2 million from investors like San Francisco’s iSeed Ventures and Philly’s BioAdvance. And that’s after getting support from First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, PennHealthX and Wharton’s Innovation Fund in 2014 and 2015. They also went through the University City Science Center’s Digital Health Accelerator and Dreamit Health. In 2017, Oncora Medical has plans to roll out their Precision Radiation Oncology platform to three major medical centers to help 10,000 patients receive personalized treatments. And while they’re helping practitioners organize data, they’re pumping out tons of data of their own. They’ve published scientific research of their own, and plan to build on their body of publications this year. If you’re on the market, they want to hire more developers, business analysts and scientists to expand the team.
Three South Jersey childhood friends—Parth Chauhan, Raghav Garg and Zeel Patel—got together in early 2016 to launch Homegrown Farms. The startup run by the three uses indoor hydroponics to yield fresh produce like cilantro, lemongrass and kale. The team’s mission is to grow fresh vegetables and herbs sans pesticides or herbicides right out of storage containers in their South Jersey organic-certified facility. Because their method is hydroponics, they grow the produce independent of rainfall, soil and sunshine. They use about 90 percent less water and 80 percent less fertilizer than traditional farms, and don’t have to worry about bugs or diseases. They also say they reduce the miles food has to travel by 98 percent. By mid-2016, the team was supplying university partners like the University of Pennsylvania and restaurant partners like Center City’s WokWorks with produce on a trial basis. They’re currently operating a stall at Cherry Hill’s Whole Foods. The team has managed to donate hundreds of pounds of Homegrown Farms produce to local food banks. And this year they’ve teamed up with a Camden nonprofit, The Neighborhood Center, to grow produce on-site and train their junior farmers. Homegrown Farms won Philly Mag’s The Pitch competition presented by UnitedHealthcare in August 2016, where they beat out more than 100 other startups for a grand prize worth $30,000.
Skyless Game Studios
Gaming for social consciousness is a real phenomenon in Philly thanks to Skyless Games Studios, a gaming startup launched about four years ago by Drexel alumni Arad Malhotra, Chris Bennett and Oleks Levtchenko. Each game the team develops has a social mission: to either train users for a specific purpose or help users gain awareness of a social problem or cause. “Follow the Money,” released in 2015, for example, gives users a dose of anti-corruption training by equipping them with skills like evidence gathering and transaction training to fight financial crimes and recover assets in a given virtual case. This team’s developments have been praised everywhere from the Huffington Post to VentureBeat. In 2017, the team tells me they’ll be releasing at least three titles. The first will be a cultural exchange game for American and Middle Eastern young adults set for release in December. In the game, players must solve puzzles to fight off villainous robots that are stealing cultural artifacts around the world. They’ve also got a politically themed arcade game in the works to teach players about political figures and concepts. And the last project is an unannounced title that they’re working on with another Philly-based startup. And as if that’s not enough activity, the team will be running the third annual “PHL Game Camp” at the end of the month with the Mayor’s Office of Education to mentor high school kids interested in video game design.
The One Health Company
The One Health Company says its mission is to help heal sick pets and sick people. But they’re not talking the common cold or flu. The company’s inventive model of contract research is trying to tackle big diseases like cancer and diabetes. According to the startup, which now claims a total of 18 full and part-time employees, pets get cancer a lot more than people. Dogs, in particular, get cancer 10 times more than people, with 4.2 million diagnoses each year. Yet treatment is expensive and limited—there are only three FDA-approved drugs to treat cancer in dogs and zero for cats. Traditionally, pet owners have had two options—costly palliative care and euthanasia, regrettably. But since launching in January 2016, the One Health Company has introduced a new option to treat pets—enrolling them in clinical trials. As The Economist noted in a piece about the startup, the pharmaceutical industry wastes millions testing drugs on lab animals that don’t end up working in people. Pets make more realistic models for testing drugs, potentially advancing cures for both humans and animals. The startup has already built what they’re calling the world’s largest veterinary trial network of 1.8 million pets that can get, what the company hopes, are cutting-edge therapies if signed up for a trial at one of the company’s 95 partner sites. Ben Lewis, a former Olympian and current veterinary student at Penn, is one of the startup’s founders, along with his wife, Christina Lopes. Lewis says the team is excited about some recent breakthroughs, including discoveries in canine genomics that they’ll announce this year. With a $1.2 million raised to date with lead investor BioAdvance and Ben Franklin Technology Partners, they’re looking to expand the company to other pets—horse and cats—that may prove to be useful in treating diseases like arthritis and breast cancer.
Founded by women, for women, Lia Diagnostics has created what it’s calling the world’s first flushable pregnancy test. The idea and initial research was CEO and co-founder Bethany Edwards’ Penn Master’s project in integrated product design. Her goal, she tells me, was to galvanize an industry that’s seen very little innovation in the last 30 years. Pregnancy test kits are made of plastic and are one-time use, a detriment to the environment. Plus, it’s time to bring privacy into the equation. Flushable tests mean no one can snoop on someone’s results in the trash. LIA Diagnostics has come a long way from when the company first hit the scene. In 2015, the team participated in DreamIt Ventures’ accelerator, and later on that year, they landed several grants, including $15,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER women’s business challenge. LIA Diagnostics doesn’t want to reveal too much about its 2017 plans, but said it’s looking to bring the product to market. “By year’s end, people will know what we’ve been quietly developing,” Edwards said.
Founded by former teachers Jeremy Rogoff and Vicky Kinzig, this edtech startup settled in Philly in March 2016 after participating in several accelerator programs across the country, including Virginia’s Lighthouse Lab and California’s Imagine K-12. The startup wants to improve how K-12 teachers learn to be better teachers. Teacher education is certainly a controversial space, with little agreement on what kind of teacher training produces the best outcomes for students. KickUp offers a technology platform to schools and districts that helps them measure the impact of their professional learning, then identify ways to make it better. The team says that school districts on average spend $18,000 per teacher each year on professional development, but they have no means to measure whether the training works. In 2016, KickUp grew fast. It now serves more than 1,000 schools nationally and internationally, and the team itself has ballooned to include software engineers and more former educators. For 2017, they’re focused on supporting school districts that have to navigate new federal funding restrictions. They also plan to develop the platform’s data dashboard by adding new custom features to grow their client base.
If a startup’s success rests solely on the caliber of its people, then Blackfynn, the cloud-based platform that’s streamlining neurology data, is bound to rise to the top. Four University of Pennsylvania professors—Amanda Christini, Joost Wagenaar, Zack Ives and Brian Litt—with deep backgrounds in neurology, tech and engineering between them, came together in 2015 to build Blackfynn to help neurologists integrate and analyze the complex data they produce. Because of its vastness, brain data is very difficult to read, the team says. But their data platform puts the information in a readable format that can be shared across medical institutions and government agencies—and for good reason. They’re already working with leading institutions like CHOP, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, medical research group Mayo Clinic and the Epilepsy Study Consortium. Blackfynn’s ultimate goal is to accelerate the development of therapeutic drugs and devices for diseases like Parkinson’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. They’ve raised more than $3.5 million and grown their team to a solid 11. In 2017, they want even more team members (they’re hiring!) and clients in biotech, the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries, as well as more partners at academic medical centers and government agencies. “We are committed to staying in Philly, growing in Philly, and leading the expansion of a dynamic healthcare IT ecosystem in Philly,” president Christini told Philadelphia magazine.
At the start of 2016, Cloudamize experienced some big changes: Bob Moul succeeded the startup’s founder, Khushboo Shah, as CEO, and shortly after, the company raised $1 million in a round led by MissionOG, expanding the pool of local investors involved with the company. They’re also backed by Dreamit and Gabriel Investments. The startup helps its customers—companies like ESPN, Office Max and DVF—manage their cloud infrastructure in a way that’s cost-effective. Companies looking to migrate to the cloud can look to Cloudamize to determine which plan can give them the most bang for their buck. Moul said because cloud technology reached a tipping point in 2016, the goal has been to focus on mainstream cloud adopters. Moving into 2017, Moul told Philadelphia magazine, “We will continue to cement our position as the No. 1 cloud computing analytics platform.” They plan to announce at least one major partnership with a well-known cloud company, and they’ll also announce a number of blue chip Fortune 500 companies as customers.
Follow @fabiolacineas on Twitter.