In a warehouse on the west end of Washington Avenue, a lot of new things are in the works.
NextFab, a network of makerspaces based in Philadelphia, just entered week four of its RAPID Hardware Accelerator Program. The program gives startups access to equipment, workspace, education, and up to $25,000 in funding.
It’s basically the entrepreneur’s starter pack, the infrastructure needed to start a real business.
This season’s cohort is comprised of five winners working away on products that could revolutionize the way we teach, bike, garden, and more.
This time, RAPID has brought some out-of-towners to play.
“This cohort is a lot more diverse than before,” said Todor Raykov, Venture Services Manager at NextFab. “It had to do with the types of applications we received: from different countries, and different regions in the US.”
The applications—37 total—flew in from as far as France, Brazil, and India. NextFab settled on a selection of East Coast entrepreneurs. Two of them are from Philly, and three are from New York, Boston, and the D.C. suburbs.
“We decided on these five companies because they were working on really interesting products that also meshed with our goals. We selected teams that were going to contribute to the community and learn something from the other members here,” Raykov said.
One of these teams is Alperen Topay and Emin Faki, collectively known as EAOS. They were college roommates, and Drexel grads who entered RAPID to continue development on SlimBuds, Bluetooth earbuds designed for motorcycle riders.
Their idea was born out of a mutual gripe: the Philly commute.
“We came up with it right before our senior year of college,” said Topay. “I was a mechanical engineering major, he was marketing, and we were both commuting to our co-ops on our motorcycles—me on 76, him on 95.”
As those who commute on the same routes can imagine, these rides didn’t always go smoothly.
“We’d always get stuck in traffic,” Topay said. “But when you’re on a motorcycle there’s no sound system, there’s nothing to listen to. It’s boring.”
So they researched, scanning the market for viable listening options. What they found was the start of an idea.
Through RAPID, EAOS has been able to expand its workspace and with that, its network by moving shop from a Drexel incubator to a private office at NextFab.
“Being in that space with hardware-minded people, and previous graduates of RAPID, has been really helpful,” Topay said.
This is the sort of environment Raykov wants to foster with each new generation of RAPID.
“We selected teams that we thought were going to contribute to the community and learn something from the other members of NextFab,” Raykov said. “Now, these teams are sharing and cross-pollinating ideas.”
For transplants, like the Boston company Unruly Studios, that start-up community is how they got here, and why they might stick around.
Unruly Studios created an interactive coding game, where kids program their own rules, and then act them out on light-up floor buttons.
“My partner Amon [Millner] had heard of [RAPID].” said Bryanne Leeming, founder of Unruly. “He’s always been involved with the maker communities, not only in Boston, but as a thought leader in the maker movement and someone who knows the maker spaces in different cities.
“He knew Evan [Malone, NextFab CEO]. It sounded like exactly we were looking for for the stage.”
Unlike EAOS, Unruly’s hours at NextFab are a bit more varied.
“We have a 30-day Kickstarter campaign starting Tuesday and for the campaign we’re traveling a lot,” Leeming said. “We’re set to deliver our product by October of 2018, so we’ve got a year. But, we’re working very closely with NextFab on those plans.”
A tight schedule hasn’t stopped Unruly from rubbing elbows with Philly’s creative tech communities.
“At events in Boston maybe we’ll meet people we’ve met before—which is amazing, those communities—but we love the fact hat we get to extend our network from Boston to Philly and grow it here,” Leeming said.
So, the question is: Can transplants like Unruly or natives like EAOS consider Philly as a permanent place to set up shop?
“In terms of final location for our office, I don’t know yet,” Leeming said
For Topay of EAOS, “It depends on the opportunities. If we can find the resources we need here, we would definitely like to stay. Philly has been really great so far.”
One sell could be the network of local manufacturers and vendors curated by NextFab, which teams can collaborate with as their products enter later stages of development.
We've selected five #startups for this Fall's enlarged RAPID #hardwareaccelerator. @byeaos is developing audio and communication systems for adventurous lifestyles. 🌱Kelby is revolutionizing how we study and grow plants with fully-automated, aeroponic, app-controlled cubes. @powti_innovations is developing the world's first fully automated, standalone, traumatic injury detection device. @robocandypro is designing premium, compact, and modular arcade cabinets for eSports tournaments and retro gaming enthusiasts. @unruly_studios is offering the first ever active STEM play experience for kids ages 6-12 to get them moving around and learning to code. #madeinphilly #startuplife #businessaccelerator #startupfunding #smallbusinesssupport
However, Raykov stresses that NextFab can’t do it alone.
“NextFab as a single entity can’t retain these entrepreneurs. There are lots of incentives for other cities like New York and San Francisco. But, we as a community could provide enough resources to [keep them].
“Hopefully if everyone collaborates and provides value for these people and they can see the value of staying here, they will.”
But Transforming Philly into the next entrepreneurial Mecca may not be their ideal next step—at least, not yet.
“For now, what’s huge is carrying local talent, because these folks have to pay taxes here,” Raykov said. “We have great business schools in this area—Wharton, Drexel, Temple. Some of the folks graduating from these schools are going to join large corporations.”
The hope is that some graduates choose startups instead.
“And hopefully, by bringing more startups to the region [through RAPID], this will create more opportunities for other startups here as well.”