They were a few faces in a big crowd: Adam Dakin and his team from PhotoSonix Medical, a Fort Washington start-up trying to sell the FDA and doctors on its Clens anti-acne therapy, were one of 140 applicants for last fall's "Lion's Den" fundraising competition, an event at last fall's Philadelphia Association for Capital and Technology (PACT) Impact Capital Conference.
With its ultrasound-and-light treatment -- an alternative to antibiotics -- PhotoSonix made all the cuts: it was picked as one of 80 "Featured" firms that met basic requirements; then one of 45 "Presenting Companies" invited to make quick pitches before a busy hall of attendees.
"And we were picked," said Tessie McNeely, Chief Science Officer. "Fairy Godmother came up and said, 'You get to pitch tonight.' "
With two other firms - PurpleCloudTechnologies (hotel software) and Fitly (food and calorie counts) -- PhotoSonix was called to the Lion's Den presentation, at the Crystal Tea Room in the Wanamaker's bulding, to face a grilling before five Philly-area founders and investors.
There was Michael Wells, managing director, Princeton Biopharma Capital Partners; Jonathan Brassington, CEO at LiquidHub, the IT outsourcing firm; Walter Buckley, boss at Actua software investors; Michael Hagan, whose past firms include NutriSystem and VerticalNet; Dr. Robert Corrato, of Devon Hill Capital Partners.
"It was just like Shark Tank," said Mark E. Schafer, PhotoSonix President.
Wells started the rapid-fire interrogation: "What's FDA going to say?"
"We have a pathway that make sense," Dakin offered, detailing test plans.
"How will you get to market?"
"Will kids do this?"
And then Buckley made it personal. PhotoSonix resonated with him, he said, because he'd suffered significant acne as a kid. He knew how motivated millions of young people are for new treatments, at a time when antibiotics are losing potency.
"I'm in," said Buckley.
"And the others fell in line," McNeely recalled.
All five judges committed cash -- $350,000 in all. (The other two Lions' Den finalists got offers from at least one judge; PhotoSonix was a rare unainmous pick.)
They didn't leave it at that. The partners over the next few weeks called dermatologists, checked FDA rules, and completed a round of due diligence at a level Dakin said is more typical of large venture capital firms than a group of local "angel" investors.
They liked what they heard. The five raised their total initial investment to $540,000. Wells joined the PhotoMedix board. The founders felt buoyed by the judges' close observation and advice.
Early money attracted more. State-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners added $250.000. "Fence-sitters" joined in, once they saw others were committing, Dakin said. PhotoMedix blew past its $1 million early-stage target and collected $1.7 million before year's end -- enough to start clincal studies.
The firm is now preparing its first venture capital fundraising -- "in the range of $10 million," Dakin told me.
Another 140 hopefuls have signed on for this fall's Lions' Den, to be held during this year's Nov. 29-30 Impact 2016 Capital Conference at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown.
Impact Chairman Sean Denham, a partner at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said his hope to attrac another 30 applicants over the next week before the deadline. College students welcome.
"Our theme is Growth Through Disruption," Denham told me. "From Uber to drones, changes in U.S. technology are altering how companies do business. We showcase that.
"We give the opportunity to receive capital investment for it. That creates an incredible buzz."
Wells, Corrato and Buckley are back as judges, alongside Tom Gravina, Evolve IP, Wayne; and Sashi Reddi, of SRI Capital, Yellowdigg, and WorkApps. More on Impact 2016 here. (Revised)