From Congress, a diverse pair boosts tech start-ups in S. Philly

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Gathered at NextFab’s “makerspace” in South Philadelphia are (left to right) Alperen Topay, cofounder of motorcycle-headphone company EAOS; U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester; Evan Malone, president of NextFab; and U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

In 10 years, Cornell University Ph.D. Evan Malone has built NextFab into a for-profit chain of Philadelphia and Wilmington “makerspaces,” where high-tech materials scholars and start-up inventors pay to build stuff with 3-D printers and other digital machines. This week, Malone hosted a bipartisan mini-session of Congress at NextFab’s Washington Avenue flagship location in South Philadelphia.

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D., Del.) reached out to a fellow freshman, Bucks County Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, to propose that the two build cred with grassroots manufacturers by using the occasion to promote the Startup Opportunity Accelerator Act.  The measure would give the U.S. Small Business Administration $6 million a year for the next five years to seed new tech incubators, up from the current $1 million a year.

SOAR particularly focuses on getting more “accelerators” like NextFab going in urban and rural areas — most of the incubators that have mushroomed in recent years are in Silicon Valley and other high-end communities. Blunt Rochester and Fitzpatrick said they want to spread the opportunity, and not “leave American workers and entrepreneurs in rural, suburban, and urban areas behind,” as Fitzpatrick put it in a statement.

The U.S. economy “is driven by the entrepreneurs and small businesses who are investing in innovation,” Blunt Rochester added. She and Fitzpatrick are cosponsors of the bill.

Rich and poor, city and country, many “passionate visionaries” have great tech and business ideas, but “entrepreneurship is complex, stressful, and risky,” Malone said. Accelerators such as NextFab offer not just useful machines, he said, but also “consulting networking, space, and capital, [and] moral support of fellow entrepreneurs and staff.”

The SBA has given five- and six-figure incubator grants in the past to the University City Science Center and to the Pennsylvania-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners loan fund, among others, noted Robert Goza, spokesman for the SBA. (More here and here.)

Blunt Rochester, who represents all of Delaware (she is the state’s first woman and first African American in Congress), focuses on jobs, so SOAR is a natural, said her aide Courtney McGregor. Fitzpatrick, who serves in the majority Republican caucus on the House Small Business Committee, has “committed to working across the aisle” to make law “that would positively impact our economy” and U.S. workers as part of a “strong, bipartisan coalition” of supporters for bills like SOAR, she added.

Blunt Rochester “hopes that passage of this bill will allow small businesses like NextFab and its clients to benefit from additional funding.”

Alongside the members who pay for monthly access, NextFab’s investment accelerator program has lately attracted “impressive” start-ups, marketing chief Laate Olukotun said.  Current products that members are building include math- and science-oriented play toys by Unruly Studios, motorcycle headphones by EAOS, intensive small-space farming systems by Kelby, secure digital apartment access from GuestOf, fast response for fallen service members by POWTI Innovations, and stadium video gaming by Robocandy.