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Philly's DreamIt backed Meerkat, BioBots: winners at SXSW

DreamIt Ventures picks go national; Should Comcast worry?

Meerkat, a free smartphone download that makes it easy to stream live video from your smartphone to everyone else's, is this year's ubiquitous app at South by Southwest (SXSW), the yearly Austin, Texas film-music-tech festival. Meerkat "dominates" the conference, says Mashable; it's "the next Snapchat," says Bloomberg; it's "turning live video into a big deal again," says The Verge (and "Meerkat conquered all"); everyone in Austin this week is "Meerkatting," says USA Today; Meerkat founder Ben Rubin "is riding an enviable wave of popularity" as Twitter and others rush to catch up, writes the Wall Street Journal.

Separately, BioBots, a South Philly start-up that makes milk-crate-sized $5,000 human-tissue 3-D printers, has been named "Most Innovative" among 48 finalists at Oracle Corp.'s SXSW Accelerator venture competition. (BioBots was the only Philadelphia firm named a finalist by the Oracle judges; three from Pittsburgh were also finalists, though none won honors.) (The $1,000 prize didn't cover airfare, and didn't win BioBots its 'Healthcare' category, but it's recognition all right.)

Meerkat developer Life On Air and BioBots have this in common: Both are backed by Philadelphia-based money. Each enjoyed start-up financial and technical backing from DreamIt Ventures, the University City start-up support network that makes an initial $25,000 investment, and sometimes follow-up investments from its affiliated investment fund, plus legal, patent and organizational support, in new firms, in exchange for 6% of the company and rights to 25% more in a second investment round.

"What is amazing is the rate at which people look at this technology and figure out this is something unique," DreamIt cofounder Steve Welch told me, about Meerkat. "Nobody had cracked the code in live video before. Meerkat has figured out how to allow consumers to figure out their own content and distribute it directly. They will continue to innovate at a very rapid rate," and the media exposure will only make it easier to raise investments, stimulate competitors, and energize customers to download the app.

Danny Cabrera and Ricardo Solorzano, who cofounded BioBots with fellow recent Penn grad Sohaib Hashmi,  are floating happily on a cloud above the streets of Austin, Welch reports. "They exceeded expectations" and can expect financial and technical offers that will help boost their enterprise toward its goals of improved capacity and mass production and distribution.

What Meekat and BioBots have in common: "We're looking at ideas that people can use as platforms to change the world," said Welch, a veteran entrepreneur (his past firms include Mitos and KinderTown, each sold at a profit) and past GOP U.S. Senate candidate back home in Pa.  Welch sketched the scene for me by smartphone, raising his voice among the happy street noise in Austin.

And Meerkat really is everywhere on the SXSW scene, which has gone viral and national, Welch adds:"Rand Paul went live yesterday to reach his followers. The reporters following Jeb Bush around New Hampshire have been using it. CNN is using it. I was at an event where people were pitching (Dallas Mavericks owner and venture capitalist) Mark Cuban using Meerkat."

Is this bad news for Comcast and other entrenched video distributors? "The future of video is becoming more decentralized," Welch told me. "They are empowering consumers to create content and distribute that content. I've been using (an early, beta version) for two years to wtch my kids' soccer games when I am traveling. I watch them, live, in high definition, on my phone."

Welch found Rubin and his team at a start-up "tech club" event in Israel three years ago. "The idea originally was to push one button on  your phone and instantly broadcast a high-def video to as many people as want to see it." He lured Rubin to San Francisco to be the "lovable" face of Meerkat; the tech team remains in Israel.

DreamIt has backed 178 companies since its founding in 2008. "Our goal," says Welch, "is to find the best and brightest entrepeneurs around the world who are solving problems, and adapt them to scale up, based on market feedback."