So You Think You’re A Stellar Start-up? Prove it!

By Diane Mastrull
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) According to Damian Salas, assistant dean of Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship, the Philadelphia start-up community is full of energy and getting stronger. Salas describes Philly’s start-up community as “coming of age.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer

The city where the nation began is once again in serious start-up mode.

So many people in so many places trying to come up with the next hot thing.

An app to steer consumers to locally sourced foods. A natural deodorant. A clip to keep a lid attached to a coffee cup, to avoid having to set it down on a dirty countertop as you add sugar and cream.

A bacteria-detection process to save beer and wine from spoilage. A smiling sponge that went on to be the highest-selling product featured on ABC’s Shark Tank. A wearable help-summoning device.

All emanate from Philadelphia-area start-ups I’ve written about since the Inquirer assigned me to cover that inventive and inspiring sector of the economy six years ago. Philadelphia Media Network wants to find and highlight even more through Stellar Startups, an inaugural competition open to an unlimited number of entrants from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

“As the largest media company in the region, we’re excited to spotlight their hard work and the products/services that are fueling our economy,” said Jennifer Wolf, director of special events at the parent company of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and

In an effort not to overlook what could be that next great thing, PMN is casting a wide net, accepting applicants from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties in Pennsylvania; Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties in South Jersey, along with Atlantic, Cape May, and Ocean Counties along the Shore; and New Castle County, Del.

Categories include health care, technology, products/services, women/minorities, college students, and coolest idea.

There are no minimum requirements for revenue, years in business, or number of employees. But the application process does ask several questions designed to give a better sense of the start-ups, including the problem each is trying to solve, the market potential, and job-creation projections.

Full details and a registration form can be found at The entry deadline is July 8.

Applications will be reviewed by a third-party panel of judges. Finalists will be invited to an awards program in September, where winners in each category will be revealed. Since start-ups consider exposure a valuable avenue to potential funders and consumers, PMN will profile each winner in a future edition of the Inquirer and on

A shortage of contenders should not be an issue, said Damian Salas, assistant dean of Drexel University’s Close School of Entrepreneurship, who described Philadelphia’s start-up community as “coming of age.”

“From the many coworking spaces now in the city, to the recent announcement of Drexel’s Schuylkill Yards and the soon-to-open Comcast Innovation Tower, the business of start-ups is everywhere and growing,” Salas said.

“And when you include government programs like the recent announcement by the city of Philadelphia to be the ‘B Corp Capital of the World,’ it cements a foundation of a start-up culture that will rival other regions, like New York, Boston, and Austin,” said Salas, referring to companies that meet certain environmental, social and other standards.

That’s a big change in a relatively short time, said Marc Kramer, executive director of Private Investors Forum, which runs the Angel Venture Fair.

“Back in the 1980s, there were a handful of business incubators, the University City Science Center, and the Entrepreneurs Forum,” Kramer said. “Now, we see cafés, coworking spaces, and ‘technology weeks’ brimming with people of all ages talking and launching world-changing ideas. It isn’t just Wharton and Penn engineering students. Now, it is Drexel, Temple, Rowan, and other schools creating opportunities and wealth.”

Last month, Camden hosted what organizers said was the city’s first start-up conference, which attracted nearly 200 participants and applications from 22 companies — mostly tech — to participate in a Shark Tank-like pitch event. Five were selected to make presentations to potential funders.

“Start-ups on the East Coast are usually operated in individual silos, and they don’t come out of hiding unless there are opportunities for them,” said one of the event’s organizers, Khai Tran, CEO of Waterfront Ventures, a nonprofit that helps start-ups and other early-stage companies in Camden.
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Tran cited “an overall air of fun” as one impact start-ups are having on South Jersey’s beleaguered riverfront city, and predicted that “the landscape of Camden will see a dramatic change within the next two to three years because of the start-up culture that’s brewing right now.”

On the other side of the Delaware, the start-up vibrancy is borne out by the proliferation of coworking spaces, including Benjamin’s Desk, City CoHo, and the just-arrived WeWork.

“The biggest trend we see at Benjamin’s Desk is not necessarily about a certain industry or market opportunity, but I see a trend in the actual quality of entrepreneurs who are coming through,” said CEO and cofounder Anthony Maher. “They are smart, they are interested in learning and seeking out resources, and, my favorite trait of all, they are driven.”

Drexel’s Salas said another striking characteristic is the “nontraditional” diversity emerging in the start-up world.

“We were recently approached by a local and major professional sports team to advise them on their corporate incubator,” Salas said. “They are hoping to find companies in the sport-tech space.”

“Major sports team in the start-up space? Yea, I’d say the Philly start-up community is full of energy and getting stronger.”

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