The start of a new decade usually comes with hope, inspiration and a slew of new challenges for the tech and innovation community.
But nothing quite prepared us for what 2020 had in store: a global pandemic, a recession and spike in unemployment, and a renewed focus on racial equity amid one of the most important election years in modern history.
Through the last six months have brought unfathomable challenges to our city and beyond, Philadelphians have birthed some incredibly forward, community-minded and innovative solutions to tackle these issues. Through the incredibly dark spots, we’ve seen slivers of light, and we’re honoring the local people, companies and organizations that have managed to do important work.
The Technical.ly Awards return this month with a more intentional aim of reflecting this moment: More than celebrating success for success’ sake, we want to honor challenges overcome, as well as ongoing work to make local tech and entrepreneurship communities places that also challenge racism, the pandemic and the unjust status quo.
We solicited nominations from members of the community over the past few weeks and curated these final nominees based on our own reporting. Now, it’s time for your vote on who deserves to be celebrated this year: Voting is open through Monday, Sept. 21. Read more about each nominee below (and refresh yourself on 2019’s nominees and winners).
Invention of the Year
What product, project or release this year is positioned to ease the effects of the coronavirus pandemic?
- @yafavtrashman — In little more than three months, sanitation worker Terrill Haigler’s viral Instagram account has earned 20,000 followers and raised awareness for sanitation workers’ needs during COVID-19. Haigler has used his platform to raise more than $32,000 in a crowdfunding campaign for sanitation workers to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) to more safely do their jobs. Haigler also uses Instagram to communicate directly with the public about delays and challenges sanitation workers are experiencing during the pandemic.
- CoverAid PHL — At the beginning of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment was running extremely low, this community partnership made up of stakeholders in the fashion, manufacturing (including NextFab), the maker and healthcare industries banned together to fast-track production of PPE. From March to May, the collective helped produce and distribute thousands of masks and face shields to healthcare organizations.
- Fuel the Fight — This initiative, born out of wanting to both support the local restaurant scene early on in the pandemic and the frontline healthcare workers, was created by a handful of folks from behavioral intelligence platform startup ForMotiv. After launching the Fuel the Fight GoFundMe page on March 20, they raised more than $114,000 and delivered more than 50,000 meals.
- Philly Startup Sprint — After many area summer internships and fellowship opportunities were canceled because of the pandemic, local marketing analytics pro Michael Kania launched the Startup Sprint to bring virtual job training opportunities to students who were missing out. Over 100 students participated and heard from pros from the likes of Osage Partners, Saxbys and Amino Payments.
- Philly PPE — To aid the fight against COVID-19, entrepreneurs Ben Waxman and Nathaniel Parks collaborated to supply various Philadelphia locations with vending machines selling PPE at an affordable price. In July 2020, they opened the Philly PPE store in South Philadelphia — the first store in the area of its kind. The biz is currently working on 10 machines to distribute to various locations.
Impact Leader of the Year
Who has most made this community better through impact work, leadership, policymaking or other pathways?
- Devren Washington — Washington is a senior policy organizer for the advocacy nonprofit Movement Alliance Project and has been a frequent advocate for digital access in marginalized communities. MAP’s new Philly Tech Justice initiative raises awareness about the city’s digital divide, and Washington was a key figure in organizing a protest outside of Comcast for better internet access for underserved families. He also is a founding member of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and organizer with Black Lives Matter Philadelphia.
- Rajvi Mehta — Mehta is the organizer of Philly’s chapter of Women in Data, which has pivoted to virtual and remained connective during the pandemic. “She has launched a data movement in Philadelphia, leveraging many of the city’s resources and talented people on behalf of Women in Data,” a nominator wrote to us. “She has built networks and created a large interchange of ideas and relationships where there was nothing before.”
- Office of Innovation and Technology — This City of Philadelphia team has seen plenty of change within the last year with restructuring and budget changes, but has remained the go-between local government and its ongoing struggle with digital equity, especially during the pandemic. Notably, it’s helped form the Digital Equity Coordinating Committee to address online schooling and getting low-income households connected. It’s worked with Comcast on this initiative, as well as with the Digital Literacy Alliance to create “digital navigator” positions to get more folks online.
- Marieke Jackson and Michael Chow — During a year of intense challenges, eyes turn toward organizations like Code for Philly, which helped with of-the-moment civic tech projects like Penn Medicine’s hospital capacity tracking tool as well as ongoing projects such as the Philadelphia Bail Fund Interactive Data Portal. Current brigade leaders Jackson and Chow quickly pivoted to virtual, and the organization recently launched a paid fellowship to provide three technologists with professional technical experience and mentorship.
- Kiera Smalls — An entrepreneur herself, the former Philly Startup Leaders executive director led the organization through a redesign and revamp of programs, is committed to helping other founders with their startup journey, and quickly secured half a million dollars for underrepresented founders in a few days before suddenly leaving her post this summer. Her successor will have big community engagement shoes to fill.
Technical Leader of the Year
Who is incorporating community-minded action into their technical leadership?
- Nicodemus Madehdou — Madehou is the head of JumpButton Studio, the growing entertainment studio he cofounded in 2012 that develops games, animations and apps. A young entrepreneur himself, Madehou is also an occasional public speaker on the importance of entrepreneurship for young people. Recently, JumpButton created food delivery startup Black and Mobile’s new app and has spoken out for the Black Lives Matter movement.
- David Wallace — Wallace, clinical payment company Greenphire’s CTO, was heralded by his nominator for handling the pandemic with care for his team and their clients. “At the beginning of this year, Greenphire had many things on our innovation roadmap,” they wrote. “When COVID-19 hit, all of that had to change. We had to maintain our competitive edge but ensure that clinical research sites and pharmaceutical companies worldwide had the payment and travel solutions in place to help keep their clinical trials operational despite the world shutting down. David did this with great care for clients, as well as his team.”
- Frank Lee — The longtime Drexel University educator has received praise for the creative way he uses game design to teach complex subjects like urban planning. In August, Lee led a team of Drexel students as they projected insights on subjects like criminal justice reform and sexism in politics from a Twitter thread onto a Drexel building, and his Entrepreneurial Game Studio’s SIM-PHL recently received funding from the Knight Foundation to support its development.
- Vicki Boykis — The data scientist keeps the bots running as a machine learning engineer for the fully-distributed-but-San-Francisco-based Automattic, and keeps the comedic relief coming amid dark times for her 25,000+ followers on tech Twitter. She can also be counted on to launch the occasional (and delightful) side project, like a startup name generator, and to write about her processes, like getting machine learning to production.
- John Cappiello — The former adtech pro and Start Philly cofounder (remember that?) has been leading HealthVerity’s engineering team and its tech platform for five years. The Center City-based maker of a privacy-minded data marketplace for the pharma and insurance industries tripled its office space, doubled down on some hiring that was sped up due to demand because of the pandemic, and recently acquired cloud-based drug rebate company Curisium. The company also recently announced a research collaboration with the FDA to support COVID-19 clinical study and treatment opportunities.
Culture Builder of the Year
What empathetic leader or organizer is making their workplace or professional group more inclusive and resilient? (“Leader” doesn’t need to mean they hold a leadership title.)
- Uva Coles — Coles’ recent launch of her diversity and inclusion firm, Inclusiva Global, is the latest in her long D&I and workforce development tenure in Philadelphia. The realization that a “triple pandemic” of healthcare, race and social equity issues were severely impacting business practices inspired Coles to start the firm, she told us last month: “I could wait to transition to do this work more fully, as I initially envisioned, later in my career, or I could accelerate my transition and rise to meet the moment,” she said.
- Beth Perkins — Fishtown-based digital product agency O3 World’s director of people and culture is known for her human-first approach to leadership. Catch her on recent podcasts talking about reducing employees stress and maintaining company culture in the time of coronavirus: “We’re trying to be really mindful about creating opportunities for human connection,” she said in one.
- Nicole Phoenix — Promptworks’ operations and community engagement coordinator supports both the custom software development firm’s internal work on team building and diversifying its pipeline, and its external work of organizing events for the larger tech community, including the recent “Secrets of a Growth Mindset” with Philly Tech Sistas’ Ashley Turner. (Promptworks is also donating 500 hours of its team’s time over the next calendar year to supporting Black entrepreneurs; tell the team and partner Indy Hall if you’d like to support the project.)
- Shannon Morales — Still early in her Philly tech presence, Morales has displayed a commitment to diversity and inclusion in tech throughout her work. She is the founder of Echo Me Forward, a digital platform that enables employers to find and hire diverse talent, as well as a resource for that talent to prepare for tech employment via skills training. Morales also recently started the Philadelphia chapter of Techqueria, an organization to support and create space for Latinx people in the local tech industry.
- Dan Rhoton — The Hopeworks Camden CEO’s nominator said he’s been a “relentless advocate for dozens of young people” during the pandemic who otherwise would be without resources they need to be successful with remote work: “He has offered everything from laptops and internet access to on-the-clock space to process police violence with counselors, all while maintaining the kind of unshakeable faith in the resilience and intelligence of young people in Camden and Philadelphia that carries real weight,” they wrote.
Startup of the Year
What promising young company (under 50 employees) is inspiring a brighter collective future?
- Black and Mobile — Since February 2019, founders and twin brothers David and Aaron Cabello have operated this Black-owned food delivery service app that works specifically with Black-owned restaurants and aims to get them a higher profit margin than other food delivery apps. During the pandemic, Black and Mobile upgraded its app to meet a higher demand, and expanded its services to serve Detroit and Atlanta. The Cabello brothers were recently featured in Pharrell and Jay-Z’s “Entrepreneur” music video.
- Stix — This startup was founded by two women who were sick of the options available for women’s healthcare needs like fertility and pregnancy tests. Cofounders Cynthia Plotch and Jamie Norwood launched the startup last year, and have since doubled down on access during the pandemic, building up their mail subscription model and launching a health and wellness education series. The pair also recently added to their team and raised a $1.3 million seed round.
- Fishtown Analytics — This SaaS company has seen plenty of traditional growth in the last year, with a $12.9 million Series A raise led by noted Silicon Valley VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and Amplify Partners in the spring and plans to hire more than 30 by the end of 2020. It’s also implemented some timely recruiting changes, including searching for candidates directly from underrepresented groups and building an internal social justice work group.
- Percepta — This tech startup, founded by University of Pennsylvania students while in undergrad, uses “ethical AI” to anonymize shoppers’ race, gender and age for to avoid racial profiling in shoplifting detection. The team participated in the Pennovation Center’s summer accelerator and is one of three local companies in the most recent cohort of Comcast’s LIFT Labs accelerator.
- REC Philly — Will Toms and Dave Silver’s REC (aka Resources for Every Creator) has been around for a few years, the team has grown a lot in the last year, opening up their new flagship location, creating programing and events for members and the public alike, and pivoting their community and resources online during the pandemic. The latest is the launch of REC Relief, a fund for Black creators and others impacted by COVID-19.
Growth Company of the Year
What growing tech company (50 to 1,000 employees) is using its success to help people better weather the 2020 storm?
- Misfits Market — This 2018-born “ugly produce” startup saw accelerated growth during the pandemic’s early days, when food-delivery boxes were in high demand. The company hired 100 people to keep up with demand at its South Jersey facilities, and more hiring is on the horizon. The company also raised an $85 million Series B to help expand throughout the U.S.
- Dropps — The sustainable cleaning product company has had a big 2020 so far. In February, Dropps received a $10 million investment. In August, it was named the fastest-growing private company based in Philadelphia on the annual Inc. 5000 list. Its direct-to-consumer business model has helped the company continue to grow even in a pandemic, founder and CEO Jonathan Propper told Technical.ly, thanks in part to how many customers are now home — and running the dishwasher more than usual.
- The Meet Group — It’s a good time to be in the virtual dating business. The long-standing Bucks County-based company just went through an acquisition by German media group ProSiebenSat.1 and private equity firm General Atlantic’s joint company NuCom Group, which owns matchmaking platforms eharmony, Parship and Elite Partner. In recent years, it’s picked up a handful of new apps and launched new games, as well as established a Center City beachhead with about a dozen employees in 2018.
- Houwzer — The real estate startup was booming before the pandemic triggered a home-buying spree, but the startup also recently expanded to Baltimore and Orlando, adding about 20 employees to its 80 existing since announcing its $9.5 million Series A this spring. The company is currently hiring for about 25 roles, its marketing manager told Technical.ly.
- STRATIS IoT — The East Falls-based smart home device maker, which was recently acquired by Texas’ RealPage, made this year’s Inc. 5000 list and stands around 60 local employees. The company’s nominator wrote that CEO Felicite Moorman’s priority is “to build a team of diverse humans working toward a similar goal. She embraces and encourages open communication and expression, in particular when it comes to uncomfortable, difficult conversations surrounding race and gender inequality, systemic violence against people of color, and anything else in our current environment that may bring pain or distress to those here at STRATIS.”
P.S. We’ll be officially announcing the launch of the 2020 RealLIST Engineers program soon, too. Submit an early nomination an impressive technologist.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.