By Shoshanna Israel
The city of Philadelphia celebrated Philly Tech Week last week. Kicking it off on the 16th was a small event at Venturef0rth, a collaborative workspace on N. 8th street. During the official Tech Week from the 17th to the 25th, over 150 events took place in the Philadelphia area, celebrating technology and innovation in ways unimaginable even ten years ago. Philadelphia has so many to thank for its thriving technology and startup communites. Venture capitalists, large companies like Comcast and the amazing universities and colleges in the area have all contributed to a culture of growth and innovation. First Round Capital, Robin Hood Ventures, Genacast, Comcast, University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple; all of these big names were represented at the Philly Startup Leaders Expo on Wednesday. These same organizations have developed programs and funds to grow small startups, spreading the “startup bug” to Philly high school students, older executives and everyone in between. The world’s largest student-run Hackathon is right here at the University of Pennsylvania. One must not forget the role the city has played itself; Mayor Nutter was in attendance at the Expo, and grant programs like Startup PHL have begun to, in the words of the organization “strengthen the entrepreneurial environment in Philadelphia by backing smart proposals that will energize the startup scene.” and “increase the availability of seed-stage capital by creating a public/private venture fund dedicated to making investments in Philadelphia-based startups.” Over 900 people reserved tickets for the Expo, and the presenter tables were completely sold out. Industry specific publications have cropped up to report on the burgeoning entrepreneurship scene, namely Technically Philly, whose media have catalogued all of these exciting changes. Tech Week highlights just how much the Philly business community has evolved from decades ago, a time when the city wasn’t even on the map from a tech perspective.
It’s about this time in an article or in a conversation next to a food truck in the midst of an event that someone asks the dreaded question, “Is Philadelphia the next Silicon Valley?” The fact of the matter is, most people in the industry hope not. Silicon Valley, whose big money, big perquisites attitude is often satirized in media (most notably by the TV show of the same name) is not known for building great businesses. As Bob Moul, CEO of Artisan (a well known mobile marketing startup) was reported saying last month in Technically Philly at the Niche PHL panel “The stories are replete with startups who put in a massage table and a pool table and food for everybody to eat, and they went out of business six months later.” It’s true that the Valley creates billion dollar valuations, but such companies are one in thousands. In fact, the fail rate of startups in Silicon Valley is up to twice that of the nation as a whole. Venture capital is a business based on a few home runs and a lot of strikeouts, where VCs hope that a few successes will tide them over while the rest of their portfolio companies muddle along. Unlike the Valley, few Philadelphians are chasing their first billion. Most of the city’s startups, like Bestimators and Roar for Good, the winners of Venturef0rth’s pitch contest, are grounded in reality; solving real problems with real business models. Bestimators is a marketplace for home improvement (need your roof redone?) where you don’t have to bother getting multiple bids and having contractors come out to your house. Roar for Good sells jewelry which can sound alarms, trigger calls to 911 and text family and friends one’s location at the push of a button. Their goal is to protect the jewelry’s wearer and prevent violence against women. None of these businesses pitch that they are the next Google or Facebook. Instead, they attack real problems with diligence and a shocking absence of massages and game rooms.
The city needs this innovation, and organizations like the Department of Commerce are doing their best to make companies and college students want to stay and employ people in the area. They are also doing their best to ascertain the benefits of this investment are spread to the struggling Philadelphia school system. There is still a long road to travel for the city of Philadelphia to effectively fight brain drain and income inequality. But, thus far, innovation and entrepreneurship appear a promising tool— more and more students participate in organizations like Start.Stay.Grow, PSLU and Penn Apps each year. I encourage those readers unaffiliated with the tech scene to attend an event next year. We might not be the Valley, but you can rest assured that the city’s best companies will still be around come Tech Week, and a long time after that.