Wanted for Philly's start-ups: Corporate love

Anna Welsh, 12, the youngest Stellar StartUps finalist, with her line of clutches, minis, and bags for eyewear in Wynnewood, PA on August 30, 2017.

You wouldn’t think Anna Welsh, a 12-year-old who just started seventh grade, would have much in common with Evan Brandoff, twice her age and four years out of college.

Yet they serve as Exhibits A and B that entrepreneurs come in a range of ages and interests.

Anna is founder of littlebags.BigImpact (littlebagsbigimpact.com), a business she started last year at her home in Wynnewood making clutches from fabric scraps. She donates a portion of her sales to Tree House Books, a giving and literacy center in North Philadelphia.

Brandoff is chief executive of LeagueSide, a company of 12 employees just off Washington Square in Philadelphia that he cofounded in 2015, that finds brand-name sponsors for youth sports leagues.

Both are finalists in the second annual Stellar StartUps competition hosted by Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com. It provides something those trying to launch successful small enterprises in the region say they need more of: help from bigger companies.

“Just don’t buy your bread and coffee locally, shop locally for your analytics tool and your marketing platform and your development product.” That’s Yuval Yarden’s call to action to Philadelphia’s corporate community as executive director of Philly Startup Leaders, the largest network of entrepreneurs in the city.

Last month, heading into the last holiday weekend of summer  — when Center City’s work population is typically sparse — more than 100 business types turned out for a late-afternoon event organized by PSL. And not just because beer was being served.

The draw was a pitch competition for six start-ups, which in itself wasn’t so unusual. As the city’s start-up community has dramatically evolved in recent years from small clusters of intrepid entrepreneurs working in virtual obscurity to a thriving economic sector of at least several thousand that has influenced university curriculum and captured City Hall’s attention, pitch events in Philly have become as ubiquitous as Rocky references.

The rare thing about this one, PNC StartUp Day, was its sponsor: a corporation. An opportunity to “bridge the gap between startups and enterprises” is how PSL promoted it on social media. That gap has been a bothersome deficit in an otherwise thrilling and promising maturation of Philadelphia as a seriously nurturing place for start-ups.

What made PNC StartUp Day so valuable, Yarden said, is not that one of the city’s largest financial institutions picked up the tab for the food, catered by local start-up Localstove.com, but that six top managers representing the company’s technology, asset management, corporate and institutional banking, and community development sectors listened to six-minute presentations from each of the six presenting start-ups and followed up with questions — a priceless opportunity for owners of fledgling businesses. They also agreed to keep working with them.

“We hope to get them the exposure that they showed they were worthy of,” said Greg Payton, vice president of PNC’s project and performance management team, the company’s technology group. “You can definitely expect more to follow.”

That will include mentoring tech start-ups, facilitating entrepreneurial workshops, and sponsoring innovation programs, Payton said.

It falls into the category of “corporate social responsibility,” he said, with a recognition that PNC — and the region as a whole — can benefit when start-ups thrive. “These companies are feeding job creation and economic growth in the city,” Payton said. “Everybody wins when we grow together.”

That thought was behind Philadelphia Media Network’s decision last year to launch the Stellar StartUps competition. The event did not offer prize money or a guarantee of an investor — it offered exposure, invaluable to young businesses with budgets too small to afford marketing. So well-received was the competition that PMN expanded it this year from six categories to eight, attracting 86 applicants. The Sept. 12 awards program will be held at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium. Tickets are available at philly.com/stellarstartups.

“As we undergo the transformation into a digital-first media company, we have learned how valuable creative entrepreneurs and their start-up companies can be — even to a legacy company like ours,” said Terrance C.Z. Egger, publisher and CEO of Philadelphia Media Network. “Our sales team, product team, and other departments have incorporated new technologies developed by start-ups into our operations with great success. We’re proud to support the Project Liberty incubator and its cohort of start-ups, who work in our offices. And we feel that other established companies should consider supporting start-ups, as well, to help our Philadelphia business community continue to innovate and thrive.”

This year’s Stellar StartUps categories and their finalists are:

• Stellar StartUps Alumni: MilkCrate; Social Detection; StratIS.

• Health Care/Life Sciences: Keriton; Picwell; Prevnos; TowerView Health; Trice Medical; Tx3 Services.

• Just Plain Cool Ideas: CourtVision; Gossamer Games; Homemade Gin Kit.

• Minority/Women Entrepreneur: Casa de Sante Foods; NeedsList; the Green Program; Therapeutic Articulations; Tozuda.

• Products/Services: A View From My Seat; College Affordability; LeagueSide.

• Students: Boost Linguistics; littlebags.BigImpact.

• Technology: Asset-Map; NeuroFlow; Photosonix Medical.

• Food/Restaurant: Mavuno Harvest. (Because businesses scoring fewer than 14 points were eliminated from consideration, this category has just one finalist.)

Attention it received as a winner in last year’s Stellar StartUps helped Tern Water get its smart faucet in front of founder Mohamed Zerban’s target market of real estate developers and Realtors, he said. It also helped him raise a total of $300,000 — enough cash to sustain the company of six employees that Zerban founded while a mechanical engineering major at Drexel University. He graduated in June and in August launched the company’s Know Your Water test kits, in part to build awareness for the Tern Faucet. The first 1,000 faucets are expected to be available by second-quarter 2018, said Zerban, 23, whose company works out of Benjamin’s Desk at the Curtis Center.

LeagueSide is hoping for similar productive exposure as one of this year’s Stellar StartUps finalists. Corporate connections are critical to a business securing regional and national sponsors to help make youth sports more accessible, CEO Brandoff said. LeagueSide also got to pitch at PNC StartUp Day.

“Executives at large corporations have been so helpful in providing LeagueSide a helping hand in getting us off the ground and now scaling,” he said. “Their experiences and knowledge are extremely valuable to us.”

But more diversity is needed, said Ethan Bresnahan, cofounder of Stellar StartUps finalist Boost Linguistics, a Drexel-based developer of a platform that uses artificial intelligence to help marketers select the most effective words to communicate with their target audiences.

“Philadelphia’s start-up ecosystem is stereotypically known for its ‘eds and meds,’ ” Bresnahan said. “However, you look around at the corporations that are in the area, and there is far more diversity of industry … Which begs the question of why there isn’t a better mix in the start-up space.”

More bigger companies advising start-ups and actually becoming their customers will help expand the spectrum of new businesses, Bresnahan said.

“As a start-up that doesn’t fall into the meds and eds, yet loves calling Philadelphia home,” he said, “I find it encouraging to know that companies in Philly and beyond are noticing that great things are happening here.”