The contest offered no prize money, no guarantee of an investor to help propel their young businesses to the next level.
Yet nearly 100 of the Philadelphia region's early-stage companies entered this summer's inaugural Stellar StartUps competition presented by the parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, which yielded winners in six categories.
Headlined by serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Josh Kopelman, the awards event Thursday night at the new Pennovation Center in West Philadelphia sold out, and the waiting list grew to 30 people.
It affirmed what Kopelman, also chairman of Philadelphia Media Network's board of directors, asserted to an enthusiastic, multigenerational audience of 150 who paid $65 each to get in: "The Philadelphia community has embraced entrepreneurship. And our start-up community has never been more vibrant or active as it is today."
Nobody keeps track of its size in any quantifiable way. But there's no denying the momentum, said Michael Petrie, co-owner of finalist (but not winner) Social Detection Inc., an Old City company that has developed a comprehensive people-search engine to aid investigators in uncovering insurance fraud.
"It truly felt like we are in the Silicon Valley of the East aka the 'City of Brotherly Change,' " Petrie wrote in an email after an evening of networking and a panel discussion featuring the founders of homegrown start-ups Scrub Daddy Inc., PiperWai LLC, and Replica Creative that, he said, "helped answer the inner question of 'How can I?' "
Missing the event was winner Rajat Bhageria, a University of Pennsylvania junior whose ThirdEye Technologies has 1,300 users of its free app that provides auditory feedback to the blind and visually impaired on what they are looking at. Bhageria had two midterm exams Thursday evening - in a week when he had five.
Reached before he headed to another one Friday morning, he lauded Philadelphia as a "great" start-up community "because you can be a big fish in a small pond."
"I think everyone wants to go to the Valley because it's the sexy thing to do," said the founder and CEO of ThirdEye. "Sure, you're going to be surrounded by lots of money and great engineers, but you're also just one start-up out of thousands. Here, because the ecosystem is developing - though incredibly fast - you're one in a hundred instead, and so there are a lot more people willing to help you and give you access to resources."
For winner Arcadian Telepsychiatry of Fort Washington, a provider of video-enabled mental-health services, the region's abundance of medical institutions and related businesses has created an ideal incubator, said Rob Plotkin, founder and CEO.
The 3½-year-old company has a national network of 180 therapists and psychiatrists providing help via a videoconferencing platform designed largely to treat patients in a primary-care setting. With $1 million in revenue and major health plans among the company's customers, Plotkin plans to seek additional funding, in part to acquire other digital-health firms.
"We have a unique model that with all the pieces put together, nobody is close to doing," said Plotkin, 52, whose father's suicide when he was 10 inspired the venture. "I want to show my children that you can be an entrepreneur and do good work."
At Gridless Power, the Stellar StartUps win represents welcome "exposure" for the Collingswood company, formed four years ago by three friends since elementary school: Patrick Murphy, Jason Halpern, and Andrew Leonard, all 29. Their portable battery packs have largely been used by the Department of Defense, consequently "we couldn't talk about what we're doing, so networking was hard," said Murphy, president of Gridless.
Halpern said Hurricane Sandy presented "our big aha moment" - that Gridless' battery systems, powered by solar and virtually every other energy source, could play an important role in natural disasters. Since then, the company has expanded to a variety of uses, from construction projects to concerts. A nationwide launch of a rental program is planned by January, so Stellar StartUps "couldn't come at a better time for us to get the word out," Murphy said.
Chasing another type of rental opportunity prompted software developer Andrew Chambers, 43, another Stellar StartUps winner, to relocate to the Philadelphia area from Texas more than four years ago.
His Berwyn-based Renterval enables rental businesses to accept real-time online booking of any type of equipment, from backhoes to the most unique so far - a casket repurposed as a party cooler. Revenues are expected to reach $100,000 this year.
"I came to the East Coast to be a part of the growing entrepreneurial environment," Chambers said, adding that in Philadelphia he has encountered considerable professional generosity. "Philadelphia is doing a great job to actively promote entrepreneurs," he said.
That has been particularly noticeable in the region's colleges, the source of yet another of the Stellar StartUps winners: Tern Water, founded by Drexel University senior Mohamed Zerban, 22. He expects to ship his smart faucets - designed to purify water and alert users when filters should be changed - by summer.
His search for strategic investors has been centered on the East Coast, where Tern has marketed to apartment developers.
As for the sixth Stellar StartUps winner, consider the Grayson School in Broomall, Pennsylvania's only independent nonprofit day school designed for gifted learners, a training ground for future Zerbans, Bhagerias, and Kopelmans.
To keep the momentum building, Philadelphia needs to get used to flaunting its start-up story, said Jeffrey Bodle, a partner at the Center City-based law firm Morgan Lewis and one of the five Stellar StartUps judges.
"That's one thing we struggle with as a region - celebrating our successes," Bodle said. "I'm not sure if it's our Quaker roots. . . . The more we can promote our success, the better."