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Berwyn's Prepay Nation grows fast thanks to international micropayments

Anurag Jain and Ajay Vikas founded Prepay Nation in 2010 -- they had an ingenious idea for enabling micropayments across international borders in the form of mobile phone airtime. 
 
In its first year, the company had $2 million in revenue. By the next year, it was profitable. Two years later, revenues had grown an astounding 2,756% to nearly $85 million. Last year, the Berwyn company hit $110 million.
 
Jain attributes the phenomenal growth to the fact that Prepay Nation "enables an immigrant here to buy a commodity for family back home" in a manner that is free to senders and recipients, instantaneous and easy to use.
 
It works like this: Say you want to send $10 to a relative in Mexico. An international wire transfer costs far more in fees and requires that the recipient have a bank account. PayPal is cost effective, but also requires a bank account. Western Union also charges fees and necessitates a visit to a physical location by the recipient. 
 
Meanwhile, mobile airtime is a commodity of value to almost everyone, especially in the developing world. A Prepay Nation customer can buy $10 of airtime for that Mexican relative’s phone. The transaction is free on both ends and is credited instantly. The mobile network operator in Mexico pays a fee for reselling their airtime to Prepay, who in turn shares it with its network of retail distributors.  
 
Prepay's network spans four continents and 50 countries and is rapidly growing. The company is also looking to expand the commodities it distributes via its platform -- they are currently focusing on gasoline, another product used widely in the developing world not only for transportation, but for cooking and generating residential electricity. 
 
Prepay ranked as the Philadelphia region's fastest growing company in the 2013 Philadelphia 100. Last month, Forbes listed it as the 52nd most promising company in America. 
 
Source: Anurag Jain, Prepay Nation
Writer: Elise Vider
 
 

Bigger and better Pittsburgh Public Market reopens

Pittsburgh significantly upped its creative city cred last week with the official re-opening of the Pittsburgh Public Market
 
Pittsburgh had been without a public market house since 1965 when the last one was demolished. In 2003, Neighbors in the Strip began planning for a new indoor year-round market in the city's historic market district, The Strip.
 
The new market supports local businesses by allowing them to thrive without the high overhead of a traditional storefront.

"The idea behind the market is to give food-based entrepreneurs the opportunity to focus on building their businesses," says market manager Tiffani Emig. "We envision it as a third space away from work and home where people can feel comfortable hanging out -- a place for education, a place for social interaction."
 
The market opened in 2010 in a smaller, temporary location. It had a "soft opening" in October at its new 25,000-square-foot home, a vacant telecom equipment building that was re-purposed by the city's Indovina Associates. Emig estimates the capital investment at $1.2 million.
 
The new facility hosts 20 small businesses, mostly food based; many of them do their food preparation on-site. Eliza’s Oven, for example, is a full-scale bakery operating out of only 100 square feet. Work on the project continues, with a shared-use commercial kitchen scheduled to open by summer, and more signage and streetscape improvements on the way.
 
The Pittsburgh Public Market is a non-profit entity under the auspices of Neighbors in the Strip, a non-profit organization established in 1999 to promote economic development opportunities while preserving the personality, integrity and character of the Strip, a one-time shantytown and wholesale produce market northeast of downtown.
 
Source: Tiffani Emig, Pittsburgh Public Market
Writer: Elise Vider
 

CMU seniors launch Fabricate.IO with an array of inventions and ingenuity

With the realization that a traditional 40-hour work week can quash creativity -- and that inventors aren't always the best businesspeople -- two Carnegie Mellon seniors have created Fabricate.IO Invention Studio. It's part start-up (though just now being incorporated), part business incubator, part co-working space, part hackathon and all imagination.
 
With what co-founder Todd Medema calls "a bunch of wildly different products" in various stages of development and commercialization, Fabricate "finds these individual inventors, brings them on board and mashes together all these different skill sets."
 
The promising products include:
 
* The World View Clock, says Medema, is "an artistic yet functional item" that shows photographs of locations (Grand Teton National Park, Austin Texas and Pittsburgh to date) that match current time, then change slowly to mark time's passage. Fabricate sells a clock for $299 and has developed an app for Android (1,000 downloaded) and now for Apple.
 
* Litmus, a b-to-b service launched this week, crowdsources market research. Starting at $25 for a single test, users can upload marketing pitches and materials for polling and results from Litmus.
 
* Runner Lighting is motion-activated floor lighting invented by Medema's roommate and co-founder Scott Martin. The pair plans a Kickstarter campaign to fund production.
 
* Sendery, built during a hackathon event, is a free, seamless, ultra-fast file-sharing service.
 
* Bagpipe is a guide to building your own, well, bagpipes. If it looks like PVC pipe and duct tape, that's what it is. Martin is a bagpiper and real bagpipes can cost thousands. Fabricate posted free DIY instructions.
 
* Minecraft Lamp is another DIY project with free instructions.
 
Medema says he and Martin plan to stay and grow Fabricate in Pittsburgh. "We have strong roots at Carnegie Mellon," he says. "Pittsburgh is a great place to find new talent and promote new products."
 
Source: Todd Medema, Fabricate.IO
Writer: Elise Vider
 

BFTP/SEP and NextFab partner to help advanced manufacturing startups

For an emerging manufacturer on the road to commercialization, developing a product prototype can be an expensive speed bump. Now, under a new partnership, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern PA (BFTP/SEP) will match up to $5,000 to provide startups access to facilities, equipment and services at NextFab Studio.
 
NextFab, which bills itself as a "gym for innovators," offers cutting-edge hardware and software tools, technical training, consulting and, most recently, incubator services. Its 21,000-square-foot space in Philadelphia houses a wet lab, 3-D printers and scanners, laser engravers and cutters, and electronics, wood and metal shops.  
 
Evan Malone, NextFab’s founder and president, says that while $10,000 is not usually enough to fully fund the prototyping process, it enables emerging manufacturers to refine or make incremental progress. 
 
The first startup benefiting from the collaboration is Biomeme, a maker of mobile systems for advanced DNA diagnostics and one of five nascent companies in residence at NextFab. The funding will enable Biomeme to use NextFab’s 3-D printers, robotic circuit board assembly technology and computer-numerical-control machine tools to refine their design and begin pilot manufacturing. 
 
Companies don’t need to be NextFab members to apply. The focus is on medical technologies, alternative energy and new consumer products. According to Malone, this program should "help the Philadelphia region and the Commonwealth become even more attractive as a destination for the brightest young entrepreneurs."
 
Source: Evan Malone, NextFab Studio
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Taffy Activewear joins Reading's Jump Start Incubator

While working as a trainer at a Philadelphia gym, Katie Kozloff Banks was struck by how frustrating it was for her female clients sized 12-and-up to find stylish, comfortable and flattering activewear. 
 
She knew the market potential was huge. According to a recent piece in the Washington Post, plus-size fashion is one of the fastest-growing segments of the apparel industry with over $17 billion spent in 2012.
 
In 2010, Banks launched Taffy Activewear, exclusively for women sizes 14 to 24.  

"The concept is simple," she says. "When you feel good about how you look, you work out harder. Our mission is to help plus-size women feel confident about the way they look in activewear. Whatever their goal, curvy women can look stylish and attractive as they lead healthier, more active lives."
 
Banks works with contract designers to create products that meet her specifications; the garments are manufactured in China. With a national team of sales representatives and a contract fulfillment center in Pennsylvania, Taffy’s sales have nearly doubled every year. The clothes are sold at national retailers including Burlington Coat Factory, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Sales via Amazon are imminent.
 
Now Banks is launching a companion line, Katie K Active, with an extended size range (small through 24) aimed at a higher-end market. Online pre-sales will start next month and Katie K will be available starting in March at specialty retailers, boutiques, yoga studios and department stores, including Canyon Ranch resorts. 
 
Banks recently moved her company into the Jump Start Incubator in Reading. For now, she is a company of one, but her goal is to build a location where she can have in-house design, sales, warehousing and shipping under one roof. 
 
Source: Katie Kozloff Banks, Taffy Activewear/Katie K Active
Writer: Elise Vider
 
 

Davidsville's EOS Zoo creates tailor-made social networks

Anyone who uses social media knows how overwhelming it can be to find information tailored to your particular interests. 
 
Davidsville's EOS Zoo is hoping to solve that problem by creating narrowly defined, special-interest social media sites. The company's first website, Fiteos, is for fitness fanatics. Cheereos is for cheerleaders. The latest, Athleteos, is for student athletes. Under development are Hunteos for hunters and Fisheos for, well, you get the point.
 
In 2011, Miranda Taylor founded the company with the idea of marrying Facebook and YouTube, providing the same functionality without all the clutter. "So you won’t find video of someone’s cat sitting on the windowsill or someone making cookies," explains David Nau, EOS Zoo's marketing director. Instead, the company's websites allow users "to find what they want with no distraction and meet people who love to do what they do."
 
Each EOS Zoo website allows its members to post content, friend each other, share videos and photos, and privately message. The sites also have e-commerce components -- you can buy cheerleading wall decals at Cheereos or yoga equipment at Fiteos. The sites also have forums organized by topic (you can follow archery to X games at Athleteos) and subject-specific articles, many written explicitly for the sites (for example, The Athlete's Conundrum: How to Treat Overtraining Syndrome on Athleteos).
 
EOS Zoo recently received a $75,000 investment from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania which Nau says will be used to promote and improve the three existing sites. The company's immediate priority is to grow its e-commerce component.
 
Source: David Nau, EOS Zoo
Writer: Elise Vider
 

Precision POS/OrderEasyNow expands its software menu

Gino Piccolino grew up in the restaurant business and trained as a software engineer, so it was only logical that he started Precision POS in 2006, a company that supplies point-of-sale software to food and beverage operators. These systems boost productivity by allowing waitstaff to place orders on touch screen monitors.
 
About 50 restaurants in northeastern Pennsylvania, from pizza parlors to fine dining establishments, already use Precision's point-of-sale system. Now Piccolino is expanding his menu with OrderEasyNow (O-EZ),  a new company that develops cloud-based apps for restaurants. 
 
Say you like to eat at Thirst T’s in Olyphant. As an O-EZ client, Thirst T’s pays a monthly retainer, enabling it to offer free downloads of a custom-branded app to its customers. Using a smartphone or mobile device, those customers can browse the menu, view events and place orders for take-out or dine-in. Several hundred eaters have already done just that.
 
In addition, Piccolino continues to expand his point-of-sale software, developing a fully cloud-based system and a hybrid for Android devices that allows restaurateurs to manage from remote locations. But his primary focus now is on O-EZ, which has a large potential national market. The restaurant business, he says, is a notoriously late adopter for technology -- even many of the large national franchises don’t have apps.
 
Precision POS and O-EZ are tenants at the new TekRidge Center technology incubator at the Jessup Small Business Center. The combined companies employ two sales personnel and Piccolino says he expects to grow that number for O-EZ, possibly adding three to five jobs by year’s end.
 
Source: Gino Piccolino, Precision POS/OrderEasyNow
Writer: Elise Vider
  
 

Prize-winning PSU research flows from global water shortages

About 70 percent of the earth's surface is water, but clean, fresh, potable water is increasingly scarce. A team of Penn State students is at work on a solution that could address “the global water challenge that faces humankind,” says Abhishek Kar, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering. 
 
Their project recently won the $10,000 grand prize in the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards at Penn State, enabling the team to continue its research with an eye towards commercialization. Their approach is to introduce "micropumps" -- micro-particles that help boost the yield of clean water extracted from sea and wastewater via reverse osmosis, a widely-used technique. 
 
Reverse osmosis systems use a semi-permeable membrane to desalinate seawater and treat wastewater. Common problems with reverse osmosis include fouling and concentration polarization; this reduces the amount of potable water produced. The micropumps act like a chemical Pac Man, swarming to eliminate those problems and increasing the yield. According to Kar, this approach could have major social and economic impacts as well as commercial potential.
 
With the Dow win, the team (graduate students Kar, Rajarshi Guha, Hasin Feroz and Yuxi Meng, with faculty advisors Manish Kumar and Darrell Velegol) is continuing testing and beginning to design an element that could be incorporated into reverse osmosis systems. The grant gives the team the opportunity to continue work "on something we really believe in," says Kar. "Something of a global nature."
 
Source: Abhishek Kar, Penn State
Writer: Elise Vider

Going Electric: Tesla powers up in Pennsylvania

Tesla, maker of super high-end electric cars (base price $70,000), has powered up in Pennsylvania with a new King of Prussia store and a "supercharger" station off the PA turnpike.
 
The charging station at Somerset, which opened a few weeks ago, is part of Tesla's efforts to provide its drivers with a jolt of electricity along well-traveled corridors, enabling them to travel long distances for free. (Teslas can go about 300 miles on a single charge.) According to spokesperson Alexis Georgeson, Tesla chose Somerset to service travel between Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. 
 
With about 65 superchargers nationwide, Tesla is nearing its goal of enabling travel from Boston to Miami and coast to coast. 
 
Tesla's store at the King of Prussia Mall (which opened in June) exemplifies the car maker’s retail concept which is as revolutionary as the automobiles themselves. Think more Apple Store -- Tesla's nextdoor neighbor at the mall -- than Buick dealership.
 
Tesla chooses its retail sites -- 80 so far, with 24 coming soon -- based on foot not automotive traffic. In lieu of a freestanding building on a busy suburban roadway featuring a giant lot, Tesla opts for small (about 3,000 square feet) storefronts packed with interactive touchscreens. The goal, says Georgeson, is to create a no-pressure environment where prospective buyers can hang out, become educated about electric driving and create their own model with the features and functionality they want. 
 
Every Tesla is built to order so there is no need for a vast lot filled with inventory. Tesla maintains a few vehicles in the King of Prussia parking lot for test drives.
 
Tesla sold about 22,000 cars in 2013. Georgeson won’t reveal exact sales data for the King of Prussia store, but says the location is a "testament to the strength of that market."
 
Source: Alexis Georgeson, Tesla Motors
Writer: Elise Vider


PA Life Sciences Connect aims to keep life science talent in Greater Philadelphia

Thanks to a $750,000 state grant, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania (BFTP-SEP) and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) have launched PA Life Sciences Connect, a program to support new business ventures and create jobs in Southeast Pennsylvania's critical life sciences sector.
 
Anthony Green, BFTP-SEP's vice president for technology commercialization, says that as many as 6,000 life science workers in Philadelphia and its suburban counties have lost their jobs since 2006. They include everyone from "highly paid senior managers to lab bench workers to the people who clean animal cages," he says. "These are people you can start a company around."
 
The new program will pinpoint technologies that are ripe for commercialization, then work with technology transfer programs at universities, hospitals, the National Institutes of Health and other sources. Teams of job hunters can apply to tackle the process of forming a company around the technology; established companies can also apply as long as the project would represent an expansion. 
 
The resulting startups can locate within a network of nine incubators in the region where they will receive a suite of services including marketing, business planning and financing strategies. They can also apply for investment dollars from BFTP-SEP. 
 
"This is not a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, but we may be able to prove that this is a model," says Green. The goal of the two-year project is to create five to eight companies, yielding 20 to 30 jobs. "Then we can start to think about other sources of funding and other models to keep these jobs here and to keep the region vibrant."
 
Source: Anthony Green, BFTP-SEP and David Niles, MCEDC
Writer: Elise Vider

Two new natural-gas-fueled power plants underway in PA

With its Liberty generating station under construction on 33 acres in Asylum Township, Panda Power Funds has announced a second plant. The Dallas investment company expects to break ground immediately on 85 acres in Clinton Township for its Patriot plant.
 
Panda says that each project translates to about 500 construction jobs. When the plants go online in 2016, each will create about 27 skilled jobs (to operate the facilities) and an additional 45 indirect jobs in the respective communities. 
 
Each plant is being "specifically developed to take a advantage of its proximity to the Marcellus Shale," says Panda. Each will power up to one million homes and be cooled with air, rather than water, protecting the Susquehanna watershed by neither drawing nor discharging water into the river. The Liberty plant also incorporates special blade designs, low-output motors and building enclosures to minimize sound.
 
Panda acquired the planned Liberty plant in August from Moxie Energy, a Virginia-based power plant developer. In December, it announced its second acquisition from Moxie, this time for the Patriot plant.
 
Source: Panda Power Funds
Writer: Elise Vider

Glen Mills' Unequal Technologies provides secret ingredient for Sochi Olympics

Barreling around Sochi in the upcoming Winter Olympics, snowboarders Arielle and Taylor Gold, Torah Bright and Benji Farrow, and the entire U.S. Bobsled team will carry hidden, high-tech protection produced by Glen Mills' Unequal Technologies. The snowboarders’ helmets and the bobsleds will be lined with Unequal's military-grade composite padding -- an Esquire.com blogger recently named it the number one tech innovation of 2013.

Founded in 2008 by CEO Rob Vito, Unequal started out by producing a lighter, thinner and more flexible bulletproof vest for the military, which remains a key market. In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles approached Vito, requesting sternum protection for an injured Michael Vick. Vick went on to get hit five times and score 59 points against the Washington Redskins -- he publicly credited the product. 
 
Since then, Unequal has provided protective padding to NFL players, the Boston Bruins and tennis player Alex Bogomolov; they are currently finalizing a deal with Major League Baseball to outfit players in time for spring training. Sports -- professional, amateur and scholastic – now account for about half of Unequal’s sales.
 
The company's newest product is Unequal SOLO, supplemental head padding engineered specifically for athletes wearing helmets in snow, ski, board and other action sports.

"Athletes competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi … or those at the Summer X Games push limits with every run, race or trick," says Vito. "Being able to progress in a sport is about going bigger, being faster and doing more."  Still, he warns, "a helmet can only do so much."

To drive home that message, Unequal recently launched the Play it Safe program, emphasizing training, technique and technology.

Unequal employs 30 people at its 65,000-square-foot Glen Mills facility.
 
Source: Rob Vito, Unequal Technologies
Writer: Elise Vider

Green Spirit Farms, a vertical indoor farming operation, comes to East Benton

On a recent frigid day near Scranton the wind chill was well below zero, but inside a newly repurposed industrial building in East Benton, peppers, tomatoes, kale and a variety of lettuces were happily growing at Green Spirit Farms, a new sustainable, vertical farm.
 
Green Spirit, based in Michigan, is building up indoor farming operations at the former Owens-Corning fiber optic plant, vacant for over a decade. At full capacity, possibly by year’s end, the facility will house 1,715 vertical growing stations -- the equivalent of 200 acres of farmland, growing seven million plants (herbs, vegetables, fruit ) -- that can be harvested year-round, creating about 100 new jobs.
 
Green Spirit President Milan Kluko, an engineer, founded the company in 2011 after developing a scalable and commercially viable approach to vertical farming. Accoring to Kluko, his method uses 98 percent less water, 96 percent less land and 40 percent less energy than conventional agriculture. The system employs full-spectrum induction lights, carefully calibrated to create a microenvironment for growing produce on multi-level industrial racks. The lights create enough heat for the growing plants without wasting energy to heat the entire building.
 
Kluko says that the Pennsylvania location appealed to Green Spirit because of its proximity to large local markets. (Most of the produce will be sold within about 75 miles of the farm.)

"Our mission is to provide local communities with high-quality, fresh, pesticide-free, non-GMO and sustainably grown produce at a fair price," he explains. "When we build our indoor vertical farms, we believe they are sustainable and healthy places to grow plants and a workforce."
 
Working with the Governor’s Action Team, Green Spirit received a $300,000 Pennsylvania First Program grant, $303,000 in Job Creation Tax Credits and a $45,450 grant to train its new workforce.
 
Source: Milan Kluko, Green Spirit Farms
Writer: Elise Vider

Made in Allentown: Three manufacturing startups join Bridgeworks incubator

Manufacturing in Allentown just got a boost, with three startups set to join the Allentown Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) Bridgeworks Enterprise Center incubator. 
 
"These three diverse ventures have very promising business plans and represent the next generation of manufacturing for Allentown and the Lehigh Valley," says AEDC Executive Director Scott Unger.
 
Gonzo Pockets manufactures specialized mesh for lacrosse stick heads using a proprietary rubberized coating. Brothers Lou and Desi Gonzalez, both successful collegiate lacrosse players, founded the company after being frustrated by existing products. After teaming up with entrepreneur Tom Schmitt, they finalized a Gonzo Mesh prototype and distributed it in more than 100 specialty lacrosse stores across the U.S. and Canada in just nine months. 
 
HiJinx Brewing Company, currently based in South Whitehall Township, was started in a garage by Curt Keck and Chris Becker. Their nanobrewery already supplies beer to more than a dozen Lehigh Valley bars and restaurants and, after only a year, HiJinx is unable to keep up with demand. A new 10-barrel brewing system will be purchased and installed at Bridgeworks, fulfilling the founders’ lifelong dreams of owning their own production brewery.
 
Zzyzx Polymers (pronounced ziz-icks) has secured exclusive rights to nearly 20 patents revolving around new technology to create plastic compounds. The founders have applied for funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania to further develop their revolutionary processes. The company hopes to commercialize its novel mixing technology to create plastics with unique properties. The company also hopes to disrupt the recycling industry by reusing plastics that are currently sent to landfills by other waste management companies.
 
AEDC's Anthony Durante says Bridgeworks' goal is to help the manufacturers grow, "and then launch them back into the Lehigh Valley over a span of four to seven years so that we can do it again with another batch of startups." Founded in a refurbished Mack Trucks plant in 1989, the business incubator has helped launch 44 companies in Allentown that have created more than 285 jobs. Bridgeworks Enterprise Center is a member of the Ben Franklin Business Incubator Network, led by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
 
Source: Anthony Durante, AEDC
Writer: Elise Vider

With new venture capital, Pittsburgh's Aethon grows its market for healthcare logistics

It’s a happy new year for Aethon, maker of the TUG, a mobile robot that transports and delivers supplies in hospitals. The Pittsburgh company reports that it grew its customer base for TUG in 2013 with 21 new sites. It just announced a new $3 million investment from Mitsui USA, augmenting an initial $4 million investment in 2012. And late last year, Aethon unveiled a new product, MedEx Tube Track, a patent-pending system that secures and tracks deliveries sent through the pneumatic tube systems used to deliver medications in hospitals. 
 
Introduced to the commercial market 10 years ago, TUG is Aethon’s core product. Today, over 400 of the chest-high robots prowl hospital corridors, making 50,000 deliveries per week, transporting medications, meals, linens, equipment and other supplies. Altogether, TUGs have traveled over one million miles, monitored 24/7 by Aethon’s command center in Pittsburgh. 
 
"Robots are becoming more common in the workplace," says CEO Aldo Zini. "With healthcare organizations required to serve an increasingly aging population, yet respond to the pressure on costs, they need to do more with their current staff. This means each person must spend more time doing the highest-value aspects of their job.”
 
And that, he adds, means more time on clinical duties, less on logistical tasks. Zini cites a recent Harvard Business School study of nursing workflow indicating that nearly half of operational breakdowns are a result of supply problems and inefficient processes.
 
Aethon will use its new capital for expanded sales and marketing, and to move into international markets.

"Mitsui USA’s add-on investment is a sign of their confidence in the worldwide interest for Aethon’s solutions in healthcare logistics and the potential for applications outside of healthcare," says Zini. "We have an opportunity to grow the company rapidly, and this additional investment provides the resources necessary to accelerate our growth.”
 
Source: Tony Melanson, Aethon
Writer: Elise Vider
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