Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Flying robots, hot glass, Google, 3-D flesh, NextFab: Philly’s first Maker Faire at Pennovation

Organizers of this year's first Philadelphia Maker Faire are planning a much bigger event for next year.

At Philly's first Maker Faire, Kevin Fallon (at table), Sam Weissman (rear, left) and Nolan Gelinas (rear, right) work on their drones as part of the Kwad Squad, a group of high school classmates and family friends formed to pursue their passion.
At Philly's first Maker Faire, Kevin Fallon (at table), Sam Weissman (rear, left) and Nolan Gelinas (rear, right) work on their drones as part of the Kwad Squad, a group of high school classmates and family friends formed to pursue their passion.Read moreTOM GRALISH

Cool nerds from across the region convened Sunday for a first-of-its-kind carnival for start-ups in Philadelphia.

More than 1,200 engineers, investors, students and artists signed up to spend the sunniest hours of the weekend challenging and celebrating more than 100 start-ups and small businesses that showed off prototypes and perfected products they hope to bring to mass production.

The site: Pennovation, the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated business incubator and collaboration space on the grounds of the former DuPont Co. paint factory. The event: a small-scale production by Maker Faire, a California-based tech-show presenter.

NextFab, a Philadelphia-based makerspace chain offering member tenants the use of 3D printers and other digitally controlled cutting, shaping and reproduction machines at three sites in the city and Wilmington, accounted for more than a quarter of the start-ups in attendance Sunday. NextFab owner Evan Malone said he and other organizers are looking for a venue to showcase a "full-sized" Philadelphia Maker Faire next year, with thousands of attendees and hundreds of presenting companies.

This year's event, while small, was not short on impressive work.

"I heard this was coming, I said, 'We gotta go!'" said Joshua Thaler, a software engineer for TowerView Health.

The company brought its digital pillboxes, which emit a flash of light and send a text to users' smartphones when it's time for another dose of medicine. Chief technology officer Ankur Aggarwal said his cofounders include a group of medical school students in North Carolina and Texas, one of whom was a cancer patient facing a tough time balancing treatment, medications, and education demands. They moved the business to Philadelphia to be close to DreamIt Health, the start-up advisory and investment group based in University City. Penn Medicine and Malone are among its investors.

Brit Killeen and Lauren Raske of 7 Textures, a North Philadelphia-based dance, costuming and set-rigging company, displayed intricate show costumes, including those for the upcoming Ghostly Circus, a benefit premiering at Laurel Hill Cemetery on Aug. 10.

The art school-trained owners of Remark Glass, a South Philadelphia firm that turns vintage beer bottles into tumbler sets,  among other items, came to Maker Faire to learn from digital-machine experts how to make the traditionally energy-dependent glass bottle-blowing business more power-efficient, said Danielle Ruttenberg.

>> READ MORE: Applications are due June 29 for Philadelphia Media Network's 3rd Annual Stellar StartUps 

Pennovation's black-netted, open-air drone-testing site — it looks like a baseball batting cage with extra room for pop fly balls — was the demo stage for students from at least three of the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science's robotics labs. Dean Vijay Kumar's light and flexible aerial drones have programmable jointed propellers for pinpoint lift-path design. Dan Koditschek's squads of robots marched across the pavement in what looked like a galactic, live-action, knee-and-hip museum. Mark Yim's modular robots snap together like Lego Transformers to walk or fly.

Among the other Faire participants was Allevi (successor to BioBots), which makes milk crate-sized 3D printers capable of building structures from living animal tissue. The $5,000 Allevi 1 and $10,000 Allevi 2 are a lot more elegant and more durable looking than custom early models from a few years ago. (Ricardo Solorzano is now CEO; cofounder Danny Cabrera took the original name and moved to the West Coast; and the company now employs 10.)

Addressing Faire-goers gathered on Pennovation's concrete bleachers, Max Perelman, cofounder of Biomeme, presented his company's quick medical-testing service with the confidence of a seasoned pitchman: "I'm going to test the DNA and RNA in my nose," Perelman said, presenting a comic eyes-open, nostrils-flaring profile. Dipping an oversize swab into his proboscis, he ostentatiously swiped traces of snot into color-coded test boxes to prep and check the sample, then projected analytics overhead, showing both his current clean bill of health, and also how his winter flu was identified, tracked and died in less than a week..

The company employs 35 and counts doctors at Penn Medicine and Temple University Hospital among its testers. "This is gold-standard DNA analysis," shipped to an app on your smartphone, Perelman said. The company has  moved to larger quarters three times in four years, most recently to Center City offices of the Sidney Kimmel School of Medicine of Thomas Jefferson University; and last year raised $4.5 million from investors, including Malone's fund.

Robert Williams, a student at Springside-Chestnut Hill Academy, was at the Maker Faire to demonstrate his high school clothing line. Evan Weinstein was building whimsical chocolate candies — with a 3D printer. The Penn student said he's mulling options: pursuing a master's degree in engineering at Penn or starting a company. It will depend on whether he raises enough capital for a new venture, he said.

>> SEE MORE: Photos from Philly's first Maker Faire

Jessie Garcia is raising money, too. The Lehigh grad is founder and chief executive of Tozuda, creators of a concussion field-testing device. On Sunday, the company's Kickstarter campaign had just three days to go, having raised $24,000 of its $30,000 goal to fund its first full production.

Its demo booth at the Maker Faire attracted attention from football and soccer players, parents and medical professionals.

NextFab owner Evan Malone, whose tech-developer tenants and members at his Washington Ave. "makerspace" of 3-D printers and other digitally-controlled cutting, shaping and reproducing machines and satellite sites in Center City and Wilmington accounted for more than a quarter of the firms in attendance, said he and other organizers are looking for a venue to showcase a "full sized" Philadelphia Maker Faire, with thousands of attendees and hundreds of presenting companies, next year.

Spotting NextFab owner Malone in Perelman's audience, I told him Perelman had earlier been kidded about another medical-testing company, Theranos. That "unicorn" medical-testing company, which raised more than $500 million from some of Silicon Valley's top capitalists, had collapsed in a series of embarrassing disclosures culminating in founder Elizabeth Holmes' fraud indictment earlier this month.

Biomeme is no Theranos, Malone promised. The company has moved to larger quarters three times in four years, most recently to offices on the Jefferson campus at Tenth and Chestnut; it now employs 35, and last year raised $4.5 million from investors, including Malone's fund.

The art-school-trained owners of Remark Glass, a South Philly firm that turns vintage beer bottles into tumbler sets and other useful objects, came to MakerFaire to learn from the digital-machine people how to make the traditionally energy-dependent glass-bottle-blowing business more power-efficient, said Danielle Ruttenberg, as Jesse Daniels turned on a propane furnace borrowed from East Falls Glassworks to demonstrate one of the area's longest-lived commercial crafts, glass-blowing.

Outside, three dads from Delco were marveling over an electric racing car built by Temple students. What did they hope to learn at the Faire? "Our kids are all at Garnet Valley High School. They keep coming up with these great ideas, but they have no idea how to turn them into businesses. They tell us dads, 'You are Shark Tank fanatics, figure it out!' And we tell them, 'Get your noses out of the video games and come meet these people and learn to do this," said Suresh Annappindi, data scientist at Placelogix, Newark, Del., as his colleagues — Shiv Wodeyar, a banker, and Naren Akula, a technologist at Deloitte — laughed.

Their kids – including Yashas Annapindi, Adi Wodeyar and Anhu Akula, their friends and siblings — had their own table promoting recyclable soap cores, an improved trash-lid handle and a domino base.

A red-shirted table of Google engineers who took the train from the nearest Google offices — in New York and Washington, and at scattered sites for the work-at-homes — was crowded with engineer-built Lego robots demonstrating Google voice-control and Internet of Things technologies, and some built from Google kits now on sale at Target. They told me they weren't authorized to speak for the record, but they looked and sounded as happy as grown-up science-fair kids with cool gadgets, the latest software and big promotion budgets could be.