Ex-AOL boss Steve Case bets on Philly entrepreneurs

Nate Matherson, from the University of Delaware, pitches LendEdu, which would create a marketplace for reducing student debt. Philadelphia was the 16th stop on Steve Case’s entrepreneurship-fostering “Rise of the Rest” tour. (MICHAEL BRYANT/Staff Photographer)

With video cameras running and money on the line, Philadelphia entrepreneurs put their best feet forward Tuesday to charm visiting investor and AOL cofounder Steve Case.

In turn, Case said - early and often - that Philadelphia has "the history" and "good attitude" to become a leader in socially relevant start-ups, a cause he says is "oft ignored" in the greedy environments of Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston, which claim "75 percent of venture capital investments."

"The idea of businesses as a force for positive change isn't just nice to do but a must-do, especially for millennials," the wealthy investor said.

At day's end, Case left at least $100,000 lighter, after opting to invest big in the scholarship search tool Scholly, plus a wee bit in a non-invasive temperature monitoring system called Fever Smart.

All was part of his "Rise of the Rest" tour - Philly was the 16th stop - which aims to identify and promote a new era of entrepreneurship across the United States.

Case and company were kept busy schmoozing and noshing with movers, shakers, and makers over breakfast, lunch, and an ice cream social at Franklin Fountain in Old City. They also made bus runs to Philly hot pockets of technology in Center City and University City, all coordinated by the city's director of entrepreneurial engagement, Archna Sahay.

At the National Constitution Center, University of Pennsylvania-spawned inventor William Duckworth won first prize with his reusable temperature-measuring patch in the $10,000 Philadelphia Student Speed Pitch, co-sponsored by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

Then came the $100,000 Pitch Competition, a nail biter in which Case and others - sports media personality (and former Inquirer sports writer) Stephen A. Smith, Amy Stursberg of Blackstone, and David Hall of Revolution Ventures (a Case company) - enthusiastically questioned eight product/service developers, from an online funeral planning service ("I'm Sorry to Hear") to an aquaponics farming concept ("Focus Food") newly contracted to install rooftop greenhouses at ShopRite food markets.

The grand winner was not surprising. Scholly's charismatic front guy, Christopher Gray, had already won over the gang on ABC's Shark Tank, been endorsed by schools and municipalities, and helped students claim "over $15 million" in funding, he said.

A sentimental local favorite among the runners-up was Wash Cycle, a commercial laundry service that started in Philadelphia, picks up the dirty stuff in bicycle-powered haulers, and works hard to employ the homeless and formerly incarcerated.

In morning visits to successful start-ups, Case showed enthusiasm for a smartphone-connected DNA-, food- and water-testing tool dreamed up by the North Third Street start-up Biomeme. Until the FDA grants approval, the device must be marketed "for research purposes only," said Biomeme co-founder Jesse vanWestrienen.

Also on the tour, the market analytics firm RJ Metrics touted its fast growth while Curalate showed how social media data - user-posted photos of newly acquired outfits - can be repurposed as red-hot marketing tools by the likes of Urban Outfitters and Forever 21.

Out in University City, Case and friends toured the Drexel Excite Center, where interesting stuff is being done in high-tech fabrics, and the Singh Center for Nanotechnology of the University of Pennsylvania. Robotic pets and a set of drones flying in formation caught Case's eye, but Vifant - which can spot vision impairment in non-verbal patients as young as 2 months old - fulfilled his "do well by doing good" mantra.

takiffj@phillynews.com

215-854-5960@JTakiff