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Scaling Up: A West Philly landscaping and home improvement business gets a boost

Recently, we took a look at the Enterprise Center’s ScaleUp America Initiative, a federally funded curriculum targeting mid-range Philadelphia businesses that have had success in their markets but need additional support to get to the next level.

West Philadelphia native Jameson Harris, 35, is a member of ScaleUp’s Elevate! Cohort 2016; he got started with the year-long program earlier this month. In 2002, Harris founded Brothers of Nature, a West Philly-based landscaping, home improvement, and property maintenance company.

The business started with three part-time employees, grew to about eight by 2014, and 16 this year. In 2005, Harris won a minority business plan competition with the Enterprise Center -- grants totaling $35,000 went towards supplies to expand the venture.

When he got started, Harris was one of the only landscaping companies based in his West Philly neighborhood. One of his largest early clients was the nonprofit ACHIEVEability, an affordable housing program with over 150 homes. As Harris expanded, the landscaping work expanded to include property maintenance for ACHIEVEability tenants and others.

Brothers of Nature now offers mowing, pruning, and leaf and snow removal, in addition to home improvement services such as painting, flooring, kitchen and bathroom installations, plumbing and electrical services. The company’s clients include the City of Philadelphia: They maintain vacant lots (keeping them mowed and clear of debris) in a span between 33rd and 15th Streets, Washington and Snyder Avenues.

Harris realized early in his career that entrepreneurship was the way to go.

"I knew a regular job couldn’t support what I need to get done," he says of finding something he could rely on in tough times. He’d been working for a landscaping company and decided to launch his own venture in the same field.

2016’s ScaleUp cohort will attend a total of seven seven-hour class sessions throughout the year, as well as one-on-one mentoring for targeted challenge areas and plenty of networking opportunities. One major goal for Harris this year is transforming his business from a sole proprietorship to an LLC.

"ScaleUp has taught me to involve my guys more in the business of what’s going on and how to grow, how to take on more customers," he says. That shift is not just about lightening his load, but about letting him focus on crucial administrative aspects of the business including his longterm business plan. Upcoming goals include growing his employee roster and transitioning part-time workers to full-time.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Jameson Harris, Brothers of Nature

 

Your chance to join Philly's biggest anti-littering coalition

Anti-litter efforts are nothing new, but Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (KPB) Executive Director Michelle Feldman is hoping to take them to the next level in 2016 by convening the city’s most comprehensive forum on littering to date.
 
KPB is involved in the community outreach and educational aspects of neighborhood greening, sustainability and beautification, working with motivated local groups through micro-grants, workshops and classes.
 
Last October, Feldman helped organize the initial session of a new consortium: KPB is partnering with the Commerce Department, the Streets Department, the Philadelphia Association of CDCs and the Philly chapter of the Local Initiative Support Coalition (LISC). 
 
"Heads of neighborhood-based organizations have meetings together all the time," explains Feldman, but they’ve never focused specifically on issues of litter. The long-term coalition aims to share resources, challenges and best practices while also looking to the future for a concrete joint project spearheaded by KPB.
 
"I want to form an advisory committee of folks who are on the ground in different neighborhoods around the city," she says. "I want to hear, what are the challenges in [for example] West Philly versus North Philly…and what are the ways that Keep Philadelphia Beautiful at a city-wide level can help to address those challenges."
 
The first meetings -- they aren’t branded yet, but Feldman is calling them "litter convenings" -- are already getting a big response. The October session at the Municipal Services Building (MSB) drew about thirty people. An invitation to the next meeting on Wednesday, January 20 (10 a.m. - 12 p.m. in MSB’s 16th floor Innovation Lab) quickly garnered a raft of RSVPs.
 
The January 20 agenda includes small group work on best practices in youth and business owner engagement, preventing illegal dumping, and examining existing data/metrics on the issue. All attendees will have the chance to see and comment on the top concepts from each breakout group.
 
"It’s going to dovetail nicely with a new administration and their focus on littering," enthuses Feldman.
 
Community stakeholders interesting in attending should RSVP to michelle@keepphiladelphiabeautiful.org.
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Michelle Feldman, Keep Philadelphia Beautiful 

 

Yards, La Colombe and Shake Shack team up for a limited edition Coffee Stout

A new collaboration between Shake Shack, Yards Brewing Company and La Colombe Coffee Roasters is giving Philly a rich and tasty new brew for the cold-weather season, available on draft at select locations while supplies last.
 
On January 8, Shake Shack Culinary Director Mark Rosati, La Colombe co-founder Todd Carmichael, and Yards founder and brewmaster Tom Kehoe officially launched their limited-edition Coffee Stout at Center City’s Sansom Street Shake Shack location.
 
Kehoe chatted with Flying Kite while taking full advantage of an impromptu Shake Shack combo -- making a vanilla custard float with his stout. The collaboration has been in the works for about two months. The strong, dark, and smooth ale gets bright notes of lavender, orange and caramel from ethically sourced beans that come to Philly via the Haitian village of Fatima (as part of La Colombe’s three-year investment in the Haiti Coffee Academy). 
 
The base stout is very similar to Yards' Chocolate Love Stout, brewed with the same chocolate malt. It gets its mellow coffee flavor directly from the beans in a secondary fermenter.

"Coffee really works so well with the beer," said Kehoe. "It’s definitely a beer for winter because of the robustness of it."
 
Sales will benefit the City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program (MAP), Center City Shake Shack’s official charitable partner. $2 from each pint purchased will go to MAP.
  
So where can you get your hands on some of this buzzy brew? Pints are on sale for $5.75 at Yards’ Northern Liberties tasting room, La Colombe’s Fishtown café (1335 Frankford Avenue) and all three Philadelphia-area Shake Shack locations (Center City, University City, and King of Prussia).
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Tom Kehoe, Yards Brewing Company

Science Central: Five questions for Choosito!

For young students, the Internet can be a big, messy, cluttered, unreliable or even dangerous place. Choosito!, a University City Science Center startup, has devised a technological solution to help K-12 teachers find age appropriate resources for their students. The company's tagline sums up its mission: "Because the web is not a library and search engines are not librarians."
 
We asked co-founder and CEO Eleni Miltsakaki five central questions about his growing enterprise.
 
What is your big idea?

Although progress has been made in returning quality search results, the focus is on improving the relevance of results to the query, not the user, and on improving the online shopping experience. 
 
Choosito! is a web search filtering application designed to personalize search specifically for learners. To achieve this, we shift our focus from the keyword to the user.

Let's take the example of the query "polar bears." The user making the query could be a second or fifth grader searching for cool facts about polar bears to bring to class the next day; a group of middle school students working on a science project; a language teacher looking for a short story or news about polar bears at different reading levels; a foreign language learner; or even a polar bear expert.
 
The key to personalizing results for learning is understanding who the user is, what she wants to learn and what she knows already. Choosito is building technology that combines text analysis algorithms with statistical representations of each user’s current and evolving experience with the topic of the query to make adaptive recommendations of relevant resources.
 
What is your origin story?

I am a linguist and natural language processing scientist. In 2006, I started teaching educational technology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and was quickly confronted by frustrated teachers who were reluctant to let their students use the web because it was a distraction, took a long time to find something useful and was not reliable.
 
Co-founder Christos Georgiadis and I started operations in 2012. We are now surrounded by a talented team of educators, technologists and entrepreneurs dedicated to personalized learning.
 
What is your timeline for growth?

We launched our beta Choosito! Search and Learn in October 2014. Users can establish search criteria to filter websites by reading level and theme. Since our launch, we’ve gotten over 30,000 users.
 
On our first anniversary, we released our premium product Choosito! Class to help K-12 teachers integrate the teaching of information literacy into their curriculum. Choosito! Class also helps teachers assess the progress of their students’ critical thinking and information literacy skills by accessing quantitative data about their students’ methods of inquiry and evaluation of information.
 
In March, Choosito received a $1 million Innovation Award from the National Science Foundation. We’re currently at work to extend our machine learning text analysis technology by offering website recommendations based on what each student already knows and understands about the topic of inquiry.
 
Why does the marketplace need your company?

There is currently no other tool that can leverage the power and size of digital content to offer a sustainable solution not only for K-12, but lifelong personalized learning. Choosito!’s competition offers either automatically retrieved non-leveled resources or limited collections of resources organized by reading or grade level that become obsolete in less than a year.
 
What is your elevator pitch?

Choosito is a linguistic application that personalizes learning by making adaptive recommendations of resources that are not only relevant to the topic of interest but also relevant to the user and what they already know.

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

On the Ground: Callowhill's W/N W/N shakes up the restaurant model

If I were running this business, what would I do differently? It’s a question most restaurant, café or bar staffers have probably asked themselves at some point in their careers. Last year, a group of Philly entrepreneurs came together to answer it for themselves.

In summer 2014, six Philadelphians began to take a serious look at developing a cooperatively owned and operated bar and restaurant. One has since left the venture, but five service industry veterans remain to run Spring Garden Street's W/N W/N Coffee Bar: Will Darwall, Michael Dunican, Max Kochinke, Alden Towler and Tony Montagnaro.

The crew soft-launched the location at 931 Spring Garden in December of last year, and held a grand opening in late January 2015. Since then, the five coworker/owners have been experimenting with their model in a democratic government-by-consensus process (they have three additional employees who are not partners in the business).

Chatting with Flying Kite about their first year in business, Darwall says the ownership model is based more on "sweat equity" than the capital brought to the venture (that capital was treated as third-party loans, and does not entitle the owner-investor to a greater share of the profits). Each of the five owners works multiple shifts each week cooking, serving, bartending, busing tables or performing maintenance.

"What worker/ownership gives us is equal legal ownership over the company, which means a right to participate in decision-making and a right to accrue profits from the business," he explains. "The way that we pay out those profits is proportional to how much work we all do, counting the hours up.

"We thought that coming together and working as a cooperative, we’d be able to create a structure where we could support each other…and use our collective creative energy and potential to come up with good solutions to the problems we faced, rather than feeling frustrated about things that we thought could go better."

W/N W/N's menu features local, sustainably sourced foods, with a focus on canning, preserving and pickling. (Ed: Flying Kite recently held a meeting there and the food was phenomenal.)

The innovative business model extends to the customers: patrons can buy membership shares. They run $25, and each time the member buys something, 25 percent of their bill is deducted from that pre-paid fee – meaning that W/N W/N members infuse the business with $25 up front, and then receive that money back as they pay only 75 percent of the purchase price on any given item.

Darwall estimates that about 10 percent of the café’s customers have bought into the membership model, and that’s fine for now -- as the founders tinker with their business plan and assess what worked and what didn’t in their first year, they’ll continue to explore what kind of cooperative model might thrive going forward.

W/N W/N will be scaling back its food menu beginning in January, though food service will still be on offer. It currently opens at 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, closing at midnight every day except Friday and Saturday, when it’s open until 2 a.m. The doors open at 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday for brunch.

Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).


On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Will Darwall, W/N W/N Coffee Bar

Federal dollars from ScaleUp America come to West Philly

In December, the Enterprise Center (TEC) in West Philly announced a special program to augment their 25-year mission: giving local women- and minority-owned businesses the tools they need to grow. TEC is one of only seven organizations nationwide -- and the only one in Philly -- chosen to receive over $1 million in federal funds through the U.S. Small Business Administration's ScaleUp America Initiative.

According to TEC, ScaleUp provides "growth-oriented" small businesses with a targeted twelve-week curriculum and six months of one-on-one mentoring from experts aimed at developing a three-year strategy. TEC narrowed the field of applicants down to 25 businesses featuring minority owners or executive managers.

Iola Harper, TEC's executive vice president of business programs, says that the companies served by TEC and ScaleUp America are often "sandwiched" between early startups "in the idea phase" and large firms that can attract venture capital. To qualify for participation in the ScaleUp program, businesses had to have local impact and have proven themselves in the market via $150,000 to $700,000 in annual revenue.

"We call them scalers," says Harper, and they are often neglected in the venture capital world.

One marker of companies like this is a relative lack of managerial experience, in addition to inadequate access to capital and technical assistance.

"I find that these businesses tend to work in their business and not on their business," explains Harper. "So this program forces the participants to step out of their businesses," encouraging management to look at the big picture: business goals, scalability and understanding the numbers.

The ScaleUp initiative is a mentoring curriculum, but another component of working with TEC is the access to capital. The organization can make in-house loans of up to $200,000 to qualified participants, and if a business’s capital needs exceed that, there are banking partners on hand.

Harper is excited about "the fact that these are all local or minority-owned firms, and they’re typically the pool that has the hardest time accessing these services that we’re offering."

That difficulty is two-fold: Not only does TEC focus on women and minority entrepreneurs who get a smaller percentage of America’s venture capital in general, but it also targets companies outside of the tech and pharmaceutical realms. Current ScaleUp participants include food, manufacturing, personal service and construction businesses.

TEC is focused on ventures that "bring a lot of social capital to our community," enthuses Harper. "They bring a lot of intellectual capital to our community, and most of all they bring jobs to our community."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Iola Harper, The Enterprise Center

 

Meet Keith Leaphart, 21st century polymath and entrepreneur extraordinaire

The dictionary defines polymath as "a person of great learning in several fields of study." The term has been widely applied to Benjamin Franklin. Looking at his resume, it’s not too much of a stretch to apply it to Dr. Keith Leaphart.  

At only 40, Leaphart is a physician, one-time congressional candidate, philanthropist and serial entrepreneur (commercial cleaning, events planning and, like Franklin, printing.) Speaking in December at the University City Science Center’s Quorum, Leaphart described himself as a "physician by training, an entrepreneur by birth."

The Philadelphia native started selling candy -- in a self-described "dodgy scheme" -- in middle school. By the time he got to medical school (he simultaneously earned an MBA), he was running a commercial cleaning service whose major client was Gerry Lenfest's Suburban Cable, a little company that sold to Comcast in 2000 for $6.7 billion. 

It was the start of a long affiliation with Lenfest.

"If I hadn’t dumped [his] trash every day, I definitely would not be here," says Leaphart.

Today, he is chairman of The Lenfest Foundation and serves on the board of Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, which is owned by Lenfest.

He also continues to work weekends on-staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

But his life as an entrepreneur was the focus at Quorum. Leaphart -- who says a key to his success is an ability to catnap anytime, anywhere -- acquired a long-established printing company in 2009 in the depths of the recession.

"It wasn’t about buying a print shop," he recalls. "It was about getting into the digital economy."

Leaphart rebranded the company as Replica Creative, moved it to larger quarters and, in 2013, opened a second location in the Science Center’s 3711 Market Street building. It boasts modern interior design, event space and a coffee bar.

"It’s like a high-end Kinkos and Starbucks on steroids," he says. 

Providing coffee and comfort food helps maintain a steady flow of traffic and provides a place for clients to meet and commission design and production work. 

This month, Leaphart is launching his latest venture wallsome.net, an e-commerce platform for customizable and repositionable wallpaper. He will follow up in April with a new flagship space at 8th and Callowhill streets in a former nightclub. The 7,700-square-foot hub will feature a café, production facility and co-working space for residential interior designers. 

All told, Replica has more than 18 employees and Leaphart expects to add another six in the first half of this year. 

His best advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: Travel for inspiration, hire people with expertise beyond your own and don’t micro-manage. And his assessment of the entrepreneurial climate in Philadelphia?

"There’s thinking big and there’s thinking bigger. We all need to think bigger."

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Callowhill gets its own beer distributor, and they deliver

Despite being just shy of their 23rd birthdays, Rafael Ilishayev and Yakir Gola -- who both graduated from Drexel in 2014 -- are seasoned entrepreneurs. 

The duo started their first business together -- an online jewelry store -- when they were 18. And their GoPuff, an app and website that connects late-night revelers to a world of goods delivered straight from local warehouses, already operates in Boston, New York City, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Philly (from a location at 12th and Buttonwood Streets). After successfully raising millions, they’re operating GoPuff as well as a chain of liquor stores in New York. And earlier this month they opened GoBeer at 446 N. 12th Street in Callowhill.

Ilishayev and Gola attended a Callowhill Neighborhood Association meeting on December 14 at Azavea’s Wolf Building headquarters, informing locals about their latest business. Attendees were enthusiastic about the opening.

According to Ilishayev, the location was a good choice because of all the millennials moving into the neighborhood. They’re not going to be selling 40s or kegs, Gola added: "We’re looking for a higher-end client." No single bottles or food will be for sale, though the business partners are considering offering ice cream and soft drinks. Ilishayev likened the look of the business -- which boasts large clean wooden tables, plantings and an awning out front -- to an Apple store.

GoBeer delivers beer in packs of twelve and up; the selection includes global brands, craft beer and ciders. There’s a $2 delivery fee on all orders, plus the cost of the drinks. Delivery on any order over $49 is free.

The distributor is open from 10 a.m. - 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon - 5 p.m. Sunday.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Rafael Ilishayev and Yakir Gola, GoBeer

How will extending SEPTA rail to King of Prussia benefit Norristown?

Earlier this month, we took a look at a new report on the projected impact of SEPTA's proposed expansion of the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia, the first direct rail service to this sprawling retail and business center. The "Connecting KOP" analysis -- a collaboration between SEPTA, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the non-profit Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and Econsult Solutions, Inc. -- was about a year in the making.

The Economy League's Nick Frontino marvels over KOP's history: It was a quiet residential and farming community as recently as the 1970s. But an industrial park turned business complex and the famous Mall, a destination for shoppers throughout the region, turned the area into "the largest economic center in Greater Philadelphia," explains Frontino. "[But] it’s really limited in its infrastructure capacity, particularly its transportation capacity."

A look at the impact of direct rail to KOP isn't complete without acknowledging the potential effect on Norristown across the Schuylkill River.

"Norristown could stand to benefit from this investment as well," says Frontino. Despite being a city with "a great downtown core" and "great housing stock," many residents find quality local jobs just out of reach. Though KOP’s commercial powerhouse is just a few miles away from Norristown as the crow flies, "a lot of its residents have a hard time accessing economic opportunities today."

Those without a car who rely on current transit services often have to set aside up to 45 minutes each way for the commute. But an extended rail line could cut that trip down to as little as 15 minutes. This would really open up the door to economic opportunity in Norristown, as well as spurring increased demand in the residential market.

Practical next steps for the extension proposal, still in its draft environment impact statement phase, include SEPTA’s work with the Federal Transit Administration and local stakeholders. Each new draft of the statement will identify a tighter and tighter number of possible routes for the new rail. That number will drop from 40 prospective routes to 15, and then to five, and then a top locally preferred route, which will be the focus of a final environmental impact statement. Next come the engineering and design, contracts and construction -- the new rail likely wouldn’t be operational until at least 2023.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Nick Frontino, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia

Message from Quaker Partners Founder: Startups, do your homework!

It goes without saying that the University City Science Center is home to many innovative and promising healthcare startups. But as Brenda Gavin, a founding partner of Quaker Partners Management, a Philadelphia-based healthcare investment firm, reminds entrepreneurs, it takes more than a good idea to win funding in a competitive investment climate.

Gavin answered questions last month at Quorum’s "Coffee & Capital" event and offered this concrete advice. 

"Both established companies and startup companies should do their homework and know their customer," she said. "That is, they should know as much as possible about the fund they are pitching: When was the fund established? What types of companies are in their current portfolio? What is the previous experience of the partners? How much capital do they have under management? What is their preferred company stage for investment? Don’t waste time pitching a fund when your research indicates they are unlikely to invest.

"All entrepreneurs should remember that most venture funds are limited partnerships with a 10-year life," she added. "This means that a fund must assemble its portfolio, grow value in the companies and get to a profitable exit in 10 years. Most funds invest in companies during the first five years of their life, and harvest in the second five years. So, if a company is a very early-stage discovery company, it is unlikely a fund that is over five years old will invest -- it is unlikely the fund will get to the profitable exit in five years. Entrepreneurs should definitely explore investment from corporate venture funds. They are typically not limited partnerships, so do not have the 10-year limitation."

Since its own founding in 2002, Quaker has invested in dozens of innovative, high-impact healthcare companies at all stages of development and in subsectors including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, healthcare services, and medical technologies such as devices, tools and human diagnostics. Quaker manages over $700 million in committed capital, and is currently investing its second fund.

Quaker typically invests between $5 million and $25 million in each company, with a focus on the East Coast. Its portfolio includes Science Center alum BioRexis, which was acquired by Pfizer in 2007 only five years after its establishment.

From her vantage point at Quaker’s Cira Centre headquarters, Gavin believes that Philadelphia’s venture capital climate still has room to grow. 

"There is an abundance of scientific expertise and pharmaceutical development talent in this region," she enthuses. "Unfortunately, there is a shortage of entrepreneurial leadership talent and local venture capital for later stage investment. On the plus side, there is substantial early stage investment from Ben Franklin, BioAdvance and the Science Center. These groups are unique to this area -- in addition to their capital, they bring contacts and mentoring. So while our climate is not as robust as that in Boston, the raw materials are here, and I am optimistic that we will see more companies growing here."

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

New analysis of projected rail line to King of Prussia is big news for the whole region

Imagine shaving over thirty minutes off of the commute between Center City and King of Prussia (KOP), the region’s greatest economic center outside the city limits.

That dream will take a while to become a reality, but a new "Connecting KOP" study released in early December -- through a partnership between the non-profit Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and Econsult Solutions, Inc. -- has some noteworthy numbers. The analysis has been in the works for about a year, with the help of SEPTA and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. 

Economy League Managing Director of Strategy and Operations Nick Frontino calls King of Prussia an "edge city," meaning that people who work or shop there outnumber the people who live there. About 20,000 people call the area home, while about 50,000 work there and 25 million visit the KOP Mall annually. It’s a natural hub of economic activity at the convergence of four major highways: the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Schuylkill Expressway, Route 202 and Route 422.

"I think you’re beginning to see the evolution of a lot of these types of automobile-centric, very suburban business and commercial centers into more mixed-use, denser, more accessible communities," says Frontino.

SEPTA’s proposed extension of its existing Norristown High Speed Line to KOP is probably at least eight years away due to rigorous federal processes for new transit initiatives, but the fresh analysis nevertheless offers some exciting news for the region.

Simplifying and expediting the commute to KOP from areas like Center City, Upper Darby and Norristown – both in terms of easier transit access and less congested roadways – will have significant outcomes for the whole region. According to the Economy League, direct rail transit could result in 17,000 to 29,0000 new jobs in KOP over the next 20 years, alongside up to eight million square feet of new development. The trip from Upper Darby could be reduced by at least ten minutes, while the commuting distance from Norristown could be cut by over 20 minutes. Add in that extra half hour taken off the commute from Center City, and that could mean up to 2.1 million hours per year saved by local drivers due to the reduced roadway congestion alone.

The study also projects that improved KOP access by rail could generate up to $1.3 billion in economic activity in the greater five-county region of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, Frontino hopes this analysis of the project -- which is still in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement phase -- will alter the conversation about transit in the region which often "focuses on the price tag, and not as much on what the associated benefits might be…On a national level, money allocated towards transit is talked about as spending, while money allocated towards highways is talked about as investment."

He wants a new perspective on how improved non-automotive transit can benefit a state and city’s bottom line. And what about the projected effect of the rail line on Norristown just across the river? Stay tuned for a look in our next issue.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Nick Frontino, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia

An innovative all-natural deodorant goes from Philly kitchen to TV's 'Shark Tank'

Philly entrepreneurs Jess Edelstein and Sarah Ribner have been brainstorming together ever since their elementary school lemonade stand in Allens Lane Playground. Now they’re 26 years old, and on December 11, they pitched their latest product -- the world’s first all-natural activated charcoal creme deodorant -- on an episode of ABC's Shark Tank.

The duo founded PiperWai with the mission of offering customers a safe, effective, fragrant, gender-neutral, aluminum and chemical-free deodorant. It took a while for them to realize that the activated charcoal in the product -- which users apply with a fingertip -- was the key. A lot of research into body odor and deodorant competitors led to experiments in a Philly home kitchen. 

"I was looking up activated charcoal for my stomach, actually," recalls Edelstein, "chief maker" and CEO. She got interested in the substance’s absorbent properties. "I kind of had that lightbulb moment to put it in the deodorant."

This was a few years ago, before activated charcoal became a trendy ingredient in cosmetics.

CFO Ribner tested the new concoction during a volunteering trip in Guyana. The stuff worked.

In its current incarnation, PiperWai is a creme blend of organic oils such as coconut, vitamin E, shea butter and cocoa butter, the signature charcoal (which won’t discolor clothes), and a proprietary blend of 11 "therapeutic-grade" essential oils that keep men and women equally fresh.

After finalizing their recipe, the founders began producing deodorant in batches of 300 at Greensgrow Community Kitchen, using pastry piping bags to get it into the jars.

The company's name has two parts -- the first is for Edelstein’s beloved family dog Piper; the "Wai" is borrowed from the name of the Waiwai tribe, who Ribner spent time with during her travels in Guyana.

The pair never saw being woman entrepreneurs as a roadblock to success, but actually launching their business taught them that while there are many programs and funds geared specifically to female entrepreneurs, there are still major gender imbalances when it comes to venture capital.

"I never knew that female entrepreneurs have a hard time in business until we launched a company," says Edelstein. "At some pitch competitions, there were very few women."

Ribner points to the fact that venture capital funds in the U.S. overwhelmingly favor male-founded companies.

A year ago, Flying Kite spoke with DreamIt Ventures’ Archna Sahay, who explained that businesses with female CEOs receive less than 10 percent of venture capital funding nationwide, despite women founding businesses at one and a half times the national average -- and delivering 12 percent more revenue with one third less capital than comparable male founders.

"That’s what led us to do crowdfunding instead," explains Ribner; over $27,000 from an Indiegogo campaign boosted their capacity. "We didn’t have to give away equity and it got us to the next level…So it was one of those situations where one door closes and another door opens."

Now, the two are setting their sights on expanding their deodorant line, developing a stick version of the creme, an extra-strength version and travel sizes. Currently selling their product with 40 independent retailers, they’re working on a deal with Whole Foods in the mid-Atlantic area, starting with Philly.

"You can show people that your gender doesn’t matter," says Edelstein. With the right product and great customer service, "you can still kill it in business."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Jess Edelstein and Sarah Ribner, PiperWai

 

Science Center's Graphene Frontiers finds applications for a new wonder material

First isolated in a lab in 2004, graphene is an atom-thick layer of carbon with remarkable properties. It is stronger than steel, an efficient conductor of heat and electricity, and nearly transparent. But only a year ago, the New Yorker asked, "Graphene may be the most remarkable substance ever discovered. But what’s it for?"
 
Graphene Frontiers, a University City Science Center company, has been hard at work answering that question. They have developed proprietary and patented techniques for manufacturing, handling and making devices with graphene, notably biosensors that can diagnose a wide array of diseases, with other potential applications in homeland security, defense, health and fitness, food safety, environmental monitoring and more.
 
The company was founded in 2010 at the UPStart program at the University of Pennsylvania and moved to the Science Center in 2012, where it employs 11 and occupies three laboratories.
 
The company's core innovation, according to CEO Mike Patterson, is the ability to "grow" graphene and efficiently transfer the material onto a silicon wafer to create devices called graphene field effect transistors (GFETs) that are effective sensors for chemicals and biomolecules.
 
"The GFET is a relatively simple electrical device with a strip of graphene (‘channel’) as the key element," he explains. "This channel is about 10 microns in length, which is 1/10 the width of a human hair. Using biochemistry, we can attach things like antibodies to the graphene to make the GFET specifically sensitive to only one thing."
 
To make a GFET a sensor for, say, cancer, Graphene Frontiers can attach antibodies for cancer biomarkers.

“When we expose the sensor to a sample like blood or saliva, the target molecule will bind to the antibodies on the graphene," he continues, "and we can see a change in the properties of the GFET sensor." 

So far, GFETs have effectively measured the bacterium that causes Lyme's Disease, Salmonella and others. GFETS can also be assembled in a sensor array to simultaneously perform multiple tests.
 
Patterson says the company is currently in pilot production for the devices, and expects to have sensors on the market for research use as early as next year. Graphene Frontiers is also developing a vapor-phase (gas) sensor that uses single-strand DNA instead of antibodies.
 
"Our mission," he adds, "is to make the world safer and healthier with graphene technology."

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
 

Philly tableware mavens Felt + Fat earn fans far and wide

Port Richmond ceramics company Felt + Fat was founded in 2013 by Nate Mell and Wynn Bauer. In May, over 200 Kickstarter donors raised $26,256 for the young Philly business, which provides custom-made tableware to restaurants such as Fork, High Street on Market, South Philly’s Laurel and other fine dining spots in Brooklyn and beyond. They also offer direct sales to individual consumers through their website and wholesale distribution through shops across the country.

According to Mell, Felt + Fat would have continued without the Kickstarter infusion, but it helped them grow much faster than they could have on their own, adding a new kiln to their studio, acquiring other smaller pieces of equipment and bringing on board a paid employee.

"It’s been full-time since day one," says Mell of the hours he and his partner have put into the business; that said, they also worked part-time elsewhere while the company grew. Mell spent about seven years in local restaurants, which helped him connect with chefs who were looking to showcase their locally sourced ingredients on custom Philly-made tableware.

This past summer the founders were able to quit their part-time jobs and focus exclusively on Felt + Fat.

The name is a homage to mid-20th century German sculptor Joseph Beuys -- they liked his artistry and use of materials, most notably soap and animal fat.

"We were just trying to make a name that could exist in a few different realms of craft and art and design," explains Mell.

The founders have perfected a slip casting method for their unique wares, which feature different textures, finishes and colors, including a distinctive swirl. They also make their own porcelain.

"To a degree, it’s kind of like cooking or baking something. It’s a recipe," says Mell of the specially "tweaked" clay and mineral combo they use. Initially, they were mixing the ingredients themselves, but now a distributor does this for them; they then add water and the necessary materials to cast their plates and cups.

In slip casting, the liquid clay -- or "slip" -- is poured into a plaster mold. Wherever the slip meets the moisture-wicking plaster, a hard edge forms. When that layer is thick enough, the excess slip is poured out of the mold. What’s left forms the body of the cup or plate. When dry, it's removed from the mold and fired in the kiln.

All that takes time and space, which Philadelphia has in spades.

"Philadelphia is a particularly good place right now to be an artist and a creative person, because of the rapid growth of the moment," argues Mell. He appreciates the large client base a Philly location offers, without the living and studio costs of New York City.

Next up, the duo are hoping to expand into lighting fixtures and furniture accessories; they eventually aim to open a local showroom for their wares. They’ll certainly have more space to experiment: In January, Felt + Fat (currently at 3237 Amber Street) will expand to a second location in a Kensington studio building at the corner of I and Venango Streets.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Nate Mell, Felt + Fat 

Kiva City Philadelphia celebrates one year of boosting local small businesses

When Flying Kite last looked in on Kiva City Philadelphia, the crowdfunding platform had disbursed $200,000 to 50 local independent businesses. Now as the initiative celebrates its first anniversary, that has jumped to 71 loans totaling $318,000 – and manager Alyssa Thomas (who works out of the City’s Department of Commerce) estimates the program will approve up to seven more campaigns by the end of the year.

Kiva is a micro-loan service that caters specifically to aspiring entrepreneurs who lack access to traditional banking and fundraising avenues. Many of them have low incomes or are new arrivals to the United States. The Kiva system utilizes trustees -- such as local community development corporations (CDC) or neighborhood stakeholders -- to discover and sponsor recipients. Crowdfunding campaigns are then run through the Kiva site for $500 to $5,000.

This fall, Thomas has been taking a lot of “corridor walks,” touring commercial stretches throughout the city alongside CDC corridor managers.

"We talk to the businesses that we already know are in need of financing and would be good fits for Kiva," she explains.

A current campaign that stands out for Thomas is Cambodia native Chany's new venture Angela’s Boutique at 454 Wyoming Avenue (between Olney and North Philadelphia).

Chany and her nine siblings pulled together to support the family very early in life. Her father died when she was 12 and her mother, who was disabled, couldn’t support them on her own. The kids worked before and after school at a corner store they launched themselves.

After Chany married a U.S. resident and arrived here at 21, she and her husband had almost nothing. He worked in a factory; she used her sewing skills and took ESL classes. She also operated a Chinese food stand for a few years, but in 2008 decided to purchase the dry cleaner’s on Wyoming, which she and her husband now operate in addition to working four other jobs between them. Six months ago, with the help of the nonprofit Esperanza (one of Kiva’s new collaborators), Chany decided to pursue a longtime dream: opening her own custom formalwear boutique named after her daughter Angela. A campaign now live on Kiva’s site aims to raise a loan of $5,000 toward new signage, lighting and security for her storefront. 

On December 4, an anniversary party at the Center for Architecture honored the New Kensington CDC as Kiva City Philadelphia’s most valuable trustee of 2015 -- they sponsored the highest number of loan recipients, with a repayment rate of 100 percent.

According to Thomas, one continuing struggle is connecting an online micro-finance platform to entrepreneurs who may not have digital fluency or access to the Internet, an issue many low-income Philadelphians face.

"We’ve definitely seen the toll of businesses not being connected to the Internet," she says. Those that aren’t on Yelp or Google Maps suffer. "You don’t know they exist and it really stunts their growth."

Philly’s Kiva pays special attention to the trustees’ role of shepherding loan recipients through the online application and repayment process.

"It’s difficult, but we’ve learned now to work through it so it’s no longer a hurdle," adds Thomas. And ultimately, helping these business owners take their first steps online will benefit them in the long run. "[This] will inspire them to want to figure out how they can utilize those resources to grow their businesses.”

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Alyssa Thomas, Kiva City Philadelphia
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