2022 Fire Awards: These 20 companies are setting Greater Philadelphia's innovation ecosystem ablaze – The Business Journals

Last year saw venture capital fundraising records shattered across Greater Philadelphia and, despite slowing national trends, funding continues to funnel into the region’s startups. Even more impressive is the diversity of the businesses driving that momentum. Known for its higher education institutions and life sciences firms, Philadelphia-area funding was spread across an array of ventures including fintechs, software startups, real estate firms – and, yes, plenty of life sciences companies.
Recognizing the trail that the region’s startups are blazing, the Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno are proud to present the inaugural Fire Awards. This is Inno’s premier awards program and is intended to showcase the businesses, institutions and individuals driving the region’s innovation scene forward.
Honorees were selected from a pool of nominations made by the public as well as suggestions from our editorial team. Our editorial board then determined this year’s 20 honorees, which range from growth-stage startups to unicorns.
In the profiles below, get to know each of these companies and why they’re on fire. We’ve broken honorees into four categories: igniters, igniting, ablaze and still burning. Igniters showcases incubators, accelerators, venture capitalists and even higher education institutions that are shaping the ecosystem from the ground up. Igniting recognizes those startups that are on the brink of great success, while ablaze highlights those that have made impressive strides. Lastly, the still burning category showcases those names that might be a little more familiar – and for good reason.
Collectively, this inaugural class of Fire Awards honorees are a microcosm of the success being bred locally and are intended to showcase those blazing trails in various ways – whether through fundraising, headcount growth, acquisitions or other metrics.
Aperture Venture Capital
Industry: venture capital
Headquarters: Philadelphia
There’s a huge disparity in venture capital going to minority startups. Black and Latinx founders raised just 2.4% of capital from 2015 to 2020, according to a Crunchbase report. William Crowder and Garnet Heraman are hoping to change that. After initially conceptualizing the idea for Aperture Venture Capital in 2019, Crowder and Heraman last year closed their first $75 million fund, AVC 2021 Fund. The firm counts five Fortune 500 companies among its key corporate investors. The goal of their Philadelphia-based VC is to invest in minority- and women-owned fintech and software startups. Through the fund — backed by FIS and Truist Financial Corp. and joined by PayPal — the founders are investing in companies seeking seed and early round funding. Already they’ve deployed a portion of that capital, investing in diverse-founded or -led companies. Neither Crowder nor Heraman are strangers to the tech or VC scene. Prior to Aperture, Crowder served as managing director of Dreamit Ventures in Philadelphia and oversaw the Comcast Minority Entrepreneur Accelerator Program. His California-based co-founder had stints at Aegis Investment Partners and was co-owner of clothing brand Karina Dresses.
Drexel University
Industry: education
Headquarters: Philadelphia
Founded in 1891, Drexel University has made quite a name for itself not just in Philadelphia, but globally, thanks to its highly regarded curriculum and its commitment to innovation. The school has churned out its fair share of well-known alums, including Yakir Gola and Rafael Ilishayev, the founders of unicorn delivery startup Gopuff. The university encourages ingenuity and helps burgeoning entrepreneurs shape and develop their ideas through myriad pathways like the Drexel Food Lab. Launched in 2014, the lab helps entrepreneurs develop and test their products. Another pathway is the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, which connects founders to funding, legal resources and infrastructure. It includes an incubation space and an entrepreneurship co-op. Its startup fund also awards up to $50,000 per cycle. Students who participate in the Close School of Entrepreneurship’s Launch It! class can also receive $2,000 in seed funding per team to further their ideas. The Baiada Institute has produced dozens of startups including Camden, New Jersey-based Sporttrade, which provides a trading exchange for sports bets, as well as drink brand Reveal and convenience store delivery startup Lula.
Sixers Innovation Lab
Industry: venture capital
Headquarters: Camden, New Jersey
It’s been over five years since the Philadelphia 76ers unveiled the first startups and entrepreneurs the team was supporting with capital and other resources through its Sixers Innovation Lab. Since, the venture capital initiative has gone on to invest in more than a dozen early stage businesses including drink additive Hydrant and oral health company Twice. Both have landed retail partnerships with CVS and Target. The lab is helmed by Managing Director Seth Berger and Director of Operations Rhyan Truett. Companies the Innovation Lab works with receive office space in the 8,000-square-foot Camden, New Jersey facility – located inside the 76ers’ training complex – third-party branding, marketing and legal services, and more. Making diversity a pillar of its strategy, at the time of investment 65% of companies the Sixers Innovation Lab has worked with had at least one minority founder and 41% had at least one woman founder. In April, the Innovation Lab launched its second venture fund. The $25 million in capital is again being deployed to support early stage startups. The continual commitment to innovation earned the 76ers the No. 5 spot on this year’s Sports Innovation Lab rankings of the most innovate sports teams in the world.
University City Science Center
Industry: nonprofit
Headquarters: Philadelphia
In its nearly 60 years of existence, the University City Science Center has helped over 1,000 early stage companies grow. Even as it prepares for its seventh decade, the Philadelphia nonprofit is showing it has ample adaptability. In 2020, it brought on new leadership by way of CEO Tiffany Wilson, who along with the board is leading a new focus for the Science Center. That includes furthering its longtime mission of helping health care startups gain access to capital, have space to collaborate, and provide resources to get ideas to commercialize products. In doing so, it is supporting headway on health equity. In December, the Science Center received a $4 million U.S. Department of Education grant for its STEM education program for underserved middle school students and earlier this year announced its intention to reach more underrepresented students in STEM throughout the city, particularly Black and brown students. In Wilson’s first calendar year, over half the startups the Science Center supported were minority- or female-founded. In total, that first year doubled the number of startups supported and generated over 300 jobs. This fall, the center will launch several new initiatives including the Founders Fellowship for first-generation graduate students and doctoral candidates to explore entrepreneurship.
Industry: business intelligence
Headquarters: Philadelphia
Over the past 12 months, car wash membership startup EverWash has made significant gains. Led by CEO Scott Caplan, this March the firm raised a $6 million Series B on the heels of its $5 million debt deal with Toronto investor Flow Capital last fall. In between, the company – which uses a flat-rate monthly membership model at participating car washes to help build its membership website, train staff and handle customer service calls – acquired New York-based OmniX Labs for $106 million. EverWash operates in more than 800 locations across the country. This spring, company officials told PHL Inno that EverWash is hoping to add 500 locations to its EverWash Direct program and another 300 locations to its EverWash Complete program. The latter is its traditional subscription model, while the former looks to attract new customers to locations with a membership program already in place. The company claims to be the fastest-growing car wash network in the country and last year ranked No. 45 on Andreessen Horowitz’s Marketplace 100.
Investor Cash Management
Industry: financial services
Headquarters: Wilmington, Delaware
After a year of talks, Chicago-based fintech startup Investor Cash Management formally announced last December it was relocating to Wilmington. Though it moved into just 5,000 square feet at 1201 N. Market St., the firm was already planning for future growth. Founder and CEO Fred Phillips projected adding nearly 400 jobs over a three-year period. “Wilmington is sort of the payments capital of the U.S. It’s a pleasant environment to recruit, it has great access to New York and there’s a huge finserv community in southeastern Pennsylvania with big companies like Vanguard and SEI and good quality of life,” he told the Business Journal in December. Founded in 2018, Investor Cash Management raised a $10 million Series B round in September, in which Visa participated. At the time, it also announced a strategic partnership with the financial services company. That most recent infusion followed its $9 million Series A last April, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and a seed round of $6 million raised during its first year.
Layer 8 Security
Industry: cybersecurity
Headquarters: Malvern
After a number of high-profile attacks, cybersecurity has been top of mind for many sectors over the past few years. As more smart devices – including medical devices – enter the market and proliferate in our everyday lives, we need security for them. Malvern-based Layer 8 Security is taking steps to that end. The boutique Main Line firm is focused on shoring up defenses for various sectors including health care, construction, manufacturing, finance, law and life sciences. It offers both risk advisory and technical security services and over nearly the past decade, the company has had more than 200 clients, including some outside the U.S. Its Medical Aegis program even works to address risks in connected medical devices before they go to market. The firm’s leaders know a thing or two about security. President Kevin Hyde served for 20 years in the Marine Corps and also with the National Security Agency and the United States Cyber Command. Similarly, CEO Jeffrey Lipson served with the Marine Corps and at the NSA’s Marine Forces Cyber Command. In the past two-plus years, amid the pandemic no less, Layer 8 has grown revenue by 30% and increased its headcount by 40%.
LucasPye Bio
Industry: life sciences
Headquarters: Philadelphia
Just 6% of those working in life sciences are Black. That number is marginally better for those who are Hispanic, at 8%, and considerably better for those of Asian heritage, at 19%, according to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center. Still, that’s a huge disparity in the industry, a gap that Tia Lyles-Williams is looking to address through her biologics contract development and manufacturing organization LucasPye Bio. Lyles-Williams, who founded LucasPye in 2018, is the first Black woman and second Black individual to own a large-scale biologics manufacturing organization in the U.S. In the few years since launching, LucasPye Bio has established a partnership with IndyGene US Ai, an Africa-based genomics company seeking to advance targeted therapeutics focused on health disparities. Lyles-Williams has ambitious plans to transform a 6-acre vacant lot in Southwest Philadelphia into a life sciences park that would further create equity within the sector. Her goal is to transform the city-owned parcel into an 80,000-square-foot bioprocessing plant and a 150,000-square-foot co-working space with a life sciences startup accelerator, which Lyles-Williams estimates could cost upwards of $260 million, generating hundreds of jobs.
Strella Biotechnology
Industry: biotechnology
Headquarters: Philadelphia
Landing a big-name investor once is a big deal. Doing it twice is all the more impressive. That was the case for Philadelphia-based Strella Biotechnology, which late this spring closed an $8 million Series A funding round in which Mark Cuban participated. The entrepreneur, “Shark Tank” star and billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks also backed the firm in its $3.3 million seed round, closed in early 2020. Co-founded and helmed by CEO Katherine Sizov, Strella Biotechnology has developed a proprietary sensor technology meant to reduce food waste. It’s a growing problem in the U.S., where an estimated 30% to 40% of food goes unconsumed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Strella Biotechnology’s sensors and its real-time data streaming are intended to measure produce ripeness. In doing so, it can monitor freshness from harvest to shelf. Since launch, the startup has monitored more than 2 billion pieces of fruit and even established an office in Seattle where it’s working with the apple industry. Based out of Pennovation Works in West Philadelphia, the fresh funding will help the company expand to more grocery stores and products and further reduce waste.
Swarthmore College
Industry: education
Headquarters: Swarthmore
Liberal arts colleges don’t immediately come to mind when thinking about coding performance, but Swarthmore College has been slowly growing its computer science program over the past 15 years. Since 2006, the Delaware County school has grown the program more than 600% from about a dozen student majors to between 70 and 80 today. Computer science is now one of the school’s top three majors and entry-level courses are increasingly gaining popularity on campus. Roughly 50% of undergraduate students will take at least one computer science class. That intentional building of the program landed the school a top spot for student coding performance, as ranked by San Francisco-based coding assessment software company CodeSignal. Swarthmore came in at No. 10 in its first appearance on the list this year. The report is based on General Coding Framework scores, often used by big tech companies such as Meta, Uber and Zoom in their hiring process.
Agile Brains Consulting
Industry: technology management
Headquarters: Philadelphia
176%. That’s how much Agile Brains Consulting grew in 2021, landing the technology management firm among the fastest-growing companies in the U.S., according to Inc. The Philadelphia-based company came in at No. 2,401 on its eponymous 2021 Inc. 5000 list. Founded in 2017, the company, led by Abrar Hashmi, specializes in “product delivery, organizational transformation, solution creation and value-driven development.” In keeping with its name, which has the acronym ABC, the company’s approach to its process improvement framework is also dubbed “ABC” – assess, brainstorm, and coach. That formula is proving fruitful and the firm has netted some big clients including Nike, Macy’s, Comcast, HBO, Toyota, Bank of America and Vanguard. Revenue wasn’t the only thing that grew last year – Agile Brains Consulting’s headcount nearly quadrupled from six to 22.
Industry: health care
Headquarters: Berwyn
Acquisitions and headcount are big indicators of company success and expansion. At Berwyn-based AscellaHealth, both have been growing at unprecedented rates in recent years. Founded in 2013 by CEO Dea Belazi and CFO Bill Oldham, the nearly decade-old firm had a huge 2021, which only compounded its already staggering growth. Over the past four years, the health care and specialty pharmacies services company grew revenue 1,556% to over $372 million last year. In late 2021, AscellaHealth announced Hub, a services and limited distribution pharmacy, to complement its offerings. Hub allowed the firm to save money for both payers and pharmaceutical clients. The company, which has raised about $50 million,also formed a partnership with Optime Care, which offers comprehensive services for therapeutic opportunities for rare and orphan disorders. Like with its other numbers, headcount is also soaring and has grown from 11 employees in 2018 to 142 today, a nearly 1,200% jump.
Harmony Biosciences
Industry: pharmaceuticals
Headquarters: Plymouth Meeting
It’s been two years since Plymouth Meeting-based Harmony Biosciences went public and the firm is already ensconced as one of the top 100 public companies in the region, per Philadelphia Business Journal data. In 2022, Harmony ranked No. 79 on the list, moving up from its previous spot at No. 85. Led by John Jacobs, the pharmaceutical company’s fiscal year 2021 revenue was $305.44 million, nearly doubling its revenue over the year before when it posted $159.74 million. Earlier this year, the company began late-stage clinical testing of pitolisant, the active ingredient in Wakix, a treatment for excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), or cataplexy in adults with narcolepsy. In 2017, Harmony Biosciences raised $295 million in equity financing to acquire Wakix, the only FDA-approved treatment for EDS that is not a scheduled controlled substance. The company, which has an equity capitalization of about $2.3 billion, is also advancing clinical development programs for pitolisant in idiopathic hypersomnia and myotonic dystrophy, or a progressive weakening of the muscles. It is also working on an active trial for Prader-Willi syndrome, which is characterized by the Mayo Clinic as a rare genetic disorder that “results in a number of physical, mental and behavioral problems.”
Industry: real estate
Headquarters: Philadelphia
When Mike Maher launched Houwzer in 2015, he set out to disrupt the traditional residential real estate model. The Philadelphia company pays its Realtors a salary and offers them a full support team. For sellers, there is a flat $5,000 listing fee, and for buyers, a 2.5% broker commission which is paid on closing. That translates to an average commission savings of $15,000 for homeowners, according to the company. That model has gained ample steam, and Houwzer has helped homeowners buy and sell around $2 billion worth of homes since its inception. It currently has three offices in Florida, plus an office each in Baltimore; Arlington, Virginia; and Mount Laurel, New Jersey, in addition to its headquarters in Center City. Growth has been rapid. In February, the Certified B Corp. raised $118 million in a Series B that included a $100 million warehouse line of credit. The $18 million of equity brought the company’s total equity funding to $35 million. As it continues to grow, Houwzer is looking to stake its claim in other home buying and selling segments like home insurance, adding to its existing brokerage, mortgage lending and title company.
Industry: biotechnology
Headquarters: Philadelphia
Imvax just keeps growing. At the start of 2021, the Philadelphia life sciences firm had 19 employees and by the end of the year had more than doubled to 45. Headcount has continued to soar in 2022 and is now up to 58. As Imvax grows, last year it more than doubled its physical footprint at the Curtis in Philadelphia to nearly 37,000 square feet to accommodate its needs. The clinical-stage biotechnology company is focused on treating glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer, as well as other solid tumors. Its investigational therapies approach is focused on developing personalized and whole tumor-derived immunotherapies. In April, the company presented new data on its lead drug candidate, IGV-001, which indicated promising preclinical findings for both ovarian and hepatocellular – a primary type of liver disease – cancers. Imvax was founded in 2015 by Thomas Jefferson University Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. David Andrews; Craig Hooper, a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in the departments of cancer and biology and neurological surgery; and former Pfizer executive Pete Corr. It is helmed by CEO John Furey. Imvax has raised a total of $166.7 million, according to Crunchbase.
Industry: software
Headquarters: West Chester
The proliferation of social media in the past 15 years came with plenty of upsides – an easy way to stay connected with friends and family, a place to voice an opinion, and a way to reach out to and interact with people the world over. For all its benefits, social media came with no shortage of downsides, and off-color posts from many years ago can crop up and hinder job prospects for some. LifeBrand’s leaders, CEO Thomas Colaiezzi and COO Jemma Barbarise, recognized that. Founded in 2018, the company helps users clean up their online image across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For companies, the West Chester firm also offers compliant social media searches for potential and current employees. The startup quickly established partnerships with local sports teams including the 76ers, Eagles and Phillies. To date, LifeBrand – which was selected in 2020 by “Shark Tank” investor Kevin O’Leary as the winner of the StartEngine pitch competition – has raised $37.1 million. Its oversubscribed Series A this year catapulted the company’s valuation to $130 million. LifeBrand’s goal with the fresh funding is to continue expanding, including headcount, which doubled in the past year to about 60 people.
Industry: software
Headquarters: Philadelphia
This June, Philadelphia medical technology company Proscia raised a $37 million Series C, bringing the firm’s total venture capital funding raised to $72 million. Proscia uses a software platform called Concentriq to analyze data contained in pathology slides. The ultimate goal is to help pathologists better diagnose and research diseases by analyzing that data at scale. Founded in 2014 by a team of biomedical engineers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pittsburgh, Proscia plans to use the funding to grow its headcount by about 40 over the next six months, co-founder and CEO David West told PHL Inno. That would bring its total headcount to around 140. In addition to working with a number of top pharmaceutical companies, in 2020 Proscia was hired by the Joint Pathology Center to digitize its 55 million glass slides and 31 million blocks of tissue. Earlier this year, Proscia entered into a multiyear agreement with Siemens Healthineers to expand its enterprise imaging offerings using the Concentriq Dx platform.
Industry: software
Headquarters: Philadelphia and Austin, Texas
“I have no question QuotaPath can build a billion-dollar company in the city,” AJ Bruno told the Business Journal three years ago, shortly after selling his business TrendKite for $225 million to Cision and going all in on his new venture. While the company may not have hit unicorn status yet, the CEO has been making progress toward that goal, rapidly scaling the software company that tracks performance and calculates commissions for sales team. Dual headquartered in Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, QuotaPath raised a $41 million Series B this April shortly after closing its $21.3 million Series A last July, bringing its total venture capital raised to around $70 million. As of March, revenue was up 480% year over year – after growing 1,000% in 2021 – and its paid users were up 335%. Last year, QuotaPath doubled its headcount and plans to continue growing. With the fresh funding, Bruno’s goal is to house the entire commissions process for sales teams.
dbt Labs
Industry: software
Headquarters: Philadelphia
One of just a few local unicorns – meaning it has a company valuation of more than $1 billion – dbt Labs may only have been founded in 2016, but it quickly made its mark. The data analytics startup’s CEO Tristan Handy told PHL Inno earlier this year that he was contemplating the possibility of going public at some point following a $222 million Series D fundraise. The funding came on the heels of a $150 million Series C last June. The fresh funding sent its valuation soaring to $4.2 billion as of February, making it one of the highest-valued startups in Greater Philadelphia. Dbt Labs – formerly known as Fishtown Analytics – works with 25,000 data professionals and over 9,000 companies including Canva, JetBlue and Nasdaq. With the new funding, dbt Labs is focused on further developing its platform to handle its fast-growing user base.
Industry: software
Headquarters: Ambler
Another of the region’s unicorns, Phenom is a human resources technology firm that uses an artificial intelligence-driven platform and machine learning to streamline the hiring process for recruiters and candidates. Named one of Deloitte’s fastest-growing tech companies in 2021, when it ranked at No. 253 after posting 519% revenue growth from 2017 to 2020, the Ambler company has more than 1 billion candidates from 180 countries in its system. Last year, the company raised a $100 million Series D, bringing its total venture capital funding to $161 million. That latest round brought company valuation to $1.4 billion and had CEO Mahe Bayireddi contemplating going public. In keeping with its growth strategy, which pushes the firm into Europe, the Middle East and Africa, earlier this year Phenom acquired German tech startup Tandemploy.
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