“… And then the pandemic hit.”
It was a common phrase heard in the first half of 2020, and even shining stars of the local tech galaxy weren’t immune to the economic fallout that followed COVID-19’s U.S. debut.
At the beginning of this new decade, Technical.ly’s editorial team called out the top 10 startups in each of our markets that showed the most promise as innovators and as companies that would elevate our respective cities’ tech communities.
In Philadelphia, we selected 10 RealLIST Startups — all founded in the past three years — as current movers and shakers of the tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem ranging in industry from data to robotics to biotech to jobs training.
The founders and leaders of these companies have varying backgrounds: Some are first-time founders, while others we’ll dub “serial entrepreneurs.” Some companies have a small staff of a few employees while others are rapidly hiring.
As we do every year (although, nothing is quite normal in 2020), we reached out to our 2020 RealLIST startup companies to see how things have changed for them six months later. Here’s what they told us.
This precision medicine company is run by two former venture capital investors, Tracy Warren and Tammi Jantzen, who have since taken their savvy in raising money for others to their own startup. The team had an especially banner year in 2019 — raising a $5 million Series A round in May and an additional $3.5 million in November.
When the pandemic hit, it was hard to get medical centers to focus on the company’s flagship product, NICUtrition, a suite of digital tools and diagnostics that supports feeding protocols, practice and decision making in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) for premature babies, Jantzen told Technical.ly.
“We were thrilled to double the size of the team in early 2020 and then the pandemic hit. Selling our NICUtrition solution to hospitals was challenging as they were all laser-focused on COVID-19, however we are now seeing movement from our hospital clients and are optimistic about the remainder of 2020,” she said. “In addition, we have completed analysis of our NICUbiome dataset and plan to introduce the solution by the end of the year.”
The on-demand graphic design startup, founded in 2017, became a go-to for companies looking for design services and has some mass appeal from its unique subscription model: unlimited design services managed through proprietary software for a flat rate per month. It’s been heralded for extending those services to Camden nonprofits that couldn’t afford them for a single dollar. It earned enough clout to land on the Inc. 5000 list last year at number 1,006.
Penji set up shop in Camden near the waterfront two years ago, but its significant staff growth — up to about 60, as of November, cofounder and CEO Khai Tran said — was cause for the startup to move operations over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Philly in fall 2019. Tran told Technical.ly at the time: “The mission didn’t change. Just the location did.”
Because of the planned move, Tran told Technical.ly the team had already been working remotely, and have continued to do so during the pandemic.
Penji’s graphic design membership model “actually grew so much within the last six months that we are expanding and building several new products,” he wrote in an email. “We are launching an SEO content marketing membership and a SaaS software both scheduled to launch first quarter of 2021.”
Three-time founder Bob Moore jumped into his latest project, “LinkedIn for data” startup Crossbeam, in 2018 with cofounder Buck Ryan. The duo raised a $12.5 million Series A in August led by FirstMark Capital with participation from existing investors First Round Capital, Uncork Capital and Slack Fund.
Since we talked to the company at the beginning of this year, Moore said that the startup’s focus on partnerships has made for good business in 2020, when you can’t make connections IRL. Moore said the team has broken its own records this past quarter, picked up some exciting new clients and grown to a team of 28 (about double this time last year) with plans for a few more additional roles.
“To keep our team connected, we’ve tried to be creative: Everyone has an Oculus Go headset for VR social events and gaming, we have had several Zoom trivia nights, and everyone received a custom ‘snackathon’ snack box in the mail for our recent fully virtual hackathon,” Moore said.
And, hey, it looks like the company wrote an ebook:
🎉 WE WROTE A BOOK AND IT'S ONLINE NOW! 🎉 The Partner Playbook is @Crossbeam's comprehensive guide to building best-in-class partner programs, succeeding as a partnerships leader, and more. It's free to download here: https://t.co/FiLcZi6Irb
— Bob Moore (@robertjmoore) July 13, 2020
This news subscription startup was born in Brooklyn, but lured to the City of Brotherly Love for the 2019 LIFT Labs accelerator class — and has since decided to make Philly its home. NICKL, and its product NICKLpass, found success in the idea of bundling and selling news outlet subscriptions to groups, namely companies
Since we talked to Zaza in early 2020, the founder has been busy, especially since everyone has seemed to be tuning in for more news during the pandemic.
“People aren’t just interested in the breaking news, but also what [the virus] means for their team, their jobs, their life,” he told us in May. “Because of that, it’s created a lot of demand.”
The startup now has more than 150 publishers on board and raised recent round of bridge fundraising, $225,000.
The Northeast Philly startup is run by two childhood friends, Yossi Levi and Jake Levin, with years of experience in traditional auto sales and a stint at goPuff for Levin, who helped launch the local delivery service company that got a $750 million investment in 2019. The pair launched the showroom-less auto seller in 2018, essentially an online platform where folks could shop for a used, reasonably priced car and get it delivered the next day.
The company raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding in 2018 which included San Francisco-based e.ventures. A Gettacar spokesperson told Technical.ly in December that it employed 100 people locally and operates a 25,000-square-foot reconditioning center in Northeast Philly.
Early this month, the company announced it expanded to the Washington, D.C. area, six months after it expanded to Baltimore.
“Even before the pandemic we saw a huge demand from consumers looking for an easy and accessible way to get in the driver’s seat without spending hours at a dealership,” the cofounders said in a statement. “Now that demand is growing even more as car buyers look to practice social distancing and take advantage of our contactless delivery. People feel even more uncomfortable going to a traditional dealership during the pandemic, so our experience makes a lot more sense because of how easy, fast, and safe it is.”
QuotaPath made the 2019 RealLIST for reasons that remain true in 2020: It raised a $1.5 million seed round led by Austin-based ATX Seed Ventures and angel investors, and the company’s profile is raised with cofounder AJ Bruno. His first company, TrendKite, was acquired in 2018 in a nine-digit deal. The company also raised $3.5 million, doubled its employee headcount and had a company kickoff in Philadelphia where it flew its Austin employees up for a hackathon and a day of strategic sessions.
Six months into 2020, Bruno told Technical.ly that the pandemic forced the company to push back its paid launch because of COVID, but finally went live with it in June. The company had one its most productive quarters to date, and is now 25% above its early March high in terms of total users. The team has also added two people to its headcount.
“No job losses from us and I’m thankful the team responded so quickly and well to the work from home change,” Bruno said.
This Pennovation Center-based medtech startup was founded by University of Pennsylvania grad Rui Jing Jiang in 2017 while she was at The Wharton School. The company’s product, VisiPlate, aims to treat open-angle glaucoma with an ocular implant that’s designed to remove excess fluid from inside the eye. The device releases pressures that damage the optic nerve.
In 2019, the company said it was funded via non-dilutive grants and awards including a $225,000 federal government grant from the National Science Foundation and additional funding from Penn, Ben Franklin Technology Partners and VentureWell E-Teams, among others. Last year, Avisi went through the MedTech Innovator Accelerator based in San Francisco.
And since we last checked in, the company was one of 13 accepted to the UCSF Rosenman Institute startup cohort, and had its patent issued and trademark approved, Jiang said.
This job training and reskilling company was started in NYC, but its founder, Pennsylvania native Kristy McCann Flynn, told Technical.ly last year that she was coming home to run the business from Philly. McCann Flynn launched the company in 2018 to offer a SaaS and customer-facing solution to the professional development market.
The app relies on a network of customers and career coaches who work together to bring folks up to speed on current workforce trends and skills. It tracks KPIs, has behavioral assessments and brings in a range of “coaches” for various industries. The company is remote friendly, and has a handful of employees in Philly, New York, California, Washington and North Carolina.
Since the start of the pandemic, business for virtual job training has been up, McCann Flynn said. The company has trained 3,500 “future leaders,” helped more than 300 displaced “coachees” and getting at least 25% of them back into the workforce, and is planning to announce a new partnership toward the end of summer.
Former professional chef Jared Cannon launched this line of jarred, ready-to-go meals stored in connected smart fridges at the end of 2017, and has seen slow but steady success with the venture since. Cannon was chosen for New York-based Food-X, an accelerator program for food-related startups, in 2019, and said Simply Good Jars had tapped a handful of Fortune 500 companies as customers.
Since the beginning of 2020, Cannon has had to shift the company’s business model, since many office buildings and meeting locations (where many of the smart fridges were located) have been empty. The company has started offering at-home delivery service, and recently partnered up with delivery startup goPuff to expand its reach.
Cannon also said the biz has completed full commercialization of the products for regional distribution, launching in more than 60 locations in Chicago over Easter weekend and secured placement in 175 Sheetz locations on Memorial Day weekend. The company is also opening up bridge round of fundraising for $750,000 to achieve annual revenue of $1.7 million in 2020.
“With the closing of salad bars and buffets pretty much everywhere, we believe the second half of 2020 will provide a new opportunity to help bridge the gap between shuttered salad bars and catered events,” Cannon said in an email. “We also have some new exciting partnerships underway utilizing our vending technology in entirely different ways and also expanding our regional distribution footprint.”
10. FORT Robotics
The one-year-old company is a spinout of Humanistic Robotics, which was founded in 2004 and created devices to keep humans safe from landmines which were deployed in areas such as Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. In about a year, FORT, which has a mission to create a secure, end-to-end wireless platform that ensures human safety around dangerous machines, grew from its original team of 10 to about 25 employees and raised $4 million in seed funding in 2019.
The company didn’t respond to requests for comment about an update, but its LinkedIn and careers pages shows the company is hiring for a handful of roles like embedded software engineer and senior hardware engineer. Back in March, it also announced a next-generation platform, Oversight. The control system “enhances worker safety and machine security with built-in encryption, safety-certified communications, and advanced software features with seamless connectivity through web and mobile applications,” the company said in a statement.