NextFab Seeks to Invest $100k in Four Hardware Startups

Application process now open to innovative start-ups with a prototype

By Walter Foley

NextFab’s RAPID Hardware Accelerator is accepting applications now through Jan. 18. for its spring 2018 cohort, in which four hardware startups will each receive up to $25,000 in funding, along with access to equipment, software and training to help propel their ideas into the real world.

“We are looking for startups that have a physical prototype and are working in a sector where we have strong expertise, like medical devices, new sensors and systems for monitoring and detection, consumer electronics, and devices that improve the STEM experience for kids and students,” said NextFab CFO Ken Tomlinson in a press release. “Of course, we are going to consider good applications from other sectors as well.”

RAPID—Revenue through Advanced manufacturing, Product development, Innovation and Design thinking—will match the selected teams with mentors, provide technical and business consulting, and offer resources for prototyping. At the end of the program, teams can pitch their startup strategies to a panel of judges made up of entrepreneurs, advisers and NextFab staff. 

The 12-week program runs from March 1 through May 24, primarily through NextFab’s 2025 Washington Ave. location—although this isn’t strictly a Philly affair.

“Our previous cohort greatly expanded our reach, because we managed to attract startups coming all the way from Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.,” said Todor Raykov, NextFab’s venture services manager. “For our next cohort, we will keep the geographical scope the same, but we are going to double our efforts to bring even more value to the selected entrepreneurs. Connecting them to our network of local manufacturers, investors, advisers, successful entrepreneurs, and the great talent pool available in Philly is what we think will keep these startups in our region.”

Recent members of the program include Blue Dragon Bioimaging, which produces research-grade microscopes with souped-up technology; Circalux, a developer of portable lighting designed to be less invasive to sleep patterns; Strados Labs, which is working on smart technology for people with chronic asthma; and Vibrating Therapeutic Apparel, a developer of technology to alleviate phantom-limb pain among people who have had limbs amputated.

Read more about NextFab here.

Dream Makers

NextFab’s expansion is also an evolution from makerspace to incubator

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By Danielle Corcione

Entrepreneur Jessie Garcia walked into Philadelphia-headquartered makerspace NextFab with an idea, and walked out with her company, Tozuda. 

A former student athlete who knew the risks of repeated head injuries, Garcia developed a small sensor that can be attached to any type of helmet. It activates under force and changes color to indicate concussion risk, and the product comes with a can’t-forget-it tagline: “If it’s red, check your head.” 

At other makerspaces, Garcia may have just gone in, prototyped her product and walked out. In fact, that’s what she may have done when NextFab first opened its doors in 2010, when Evan Malone founded NextFab to bring the maker movement—an umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers—to the City of Brotherly Love.

Particularly, Malone wanted to “bring in advanced manufacturing tools to help entrepreneurs and artists use these tools and do great things.” He teamed up with University City Science Center to open a West Philadelphia location more as a “gym” than the cohesive, complex spaces he runs today.  

But now, in addition to providing the physical tools to help professionals kickstart their businesses, NextFab wants to be a development resource, especially for first-time entrepreneurs. The space has started an incubator program that hosts companies such as Garcia’s on-site and helps them get the answers they need to move forward as a business.

“[NextFab] took my product to the next level in terms of manufacturing capabilities,” Garcia adds. “[Before], I only had access to a 3D printer, but now, things that would cost me several thousands of dollars, I can make now for a 10th of the price. I’ve learned skills I can repeat over and over. Before, I would’ve contracted these skills out.”

Under NextFab’s mentorship, Garcia’s original target demographic of student athletes expanded into the much larger markets of professional sports players and construction workers, giving her young company an even greater chance for success. 

“[The incubator program] helped me think bigger,” Garcia says. “I came in very focused on athletics, but with [Next Fab’s venture services manager’s] help, we realized we should look at different market segments that are affected by concussions and brain injuries.”

NextFab is pinning its own success as a company on positioning itself as a place where entrepreneurs can take advantage of a holistic approach to product development, and remaining flexible and nimble. While other local makerspaces—such as the Department of Making + Doing and the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym—have closed, Malone’s network has continued to expand. In addition to two locations in Philadelphia, they’ve opened a Wilmington, Delaware, location.

“We’ve got a lot of investment capital,” Malone explains. “We’ve got great people. We have a lot of different methods of making money and don’t have all our eggs in one basket. The maker movement is evolving rapidly. It doesn’t pay to have a locked-in model, from my perspective.”

Each space provides informative classes in 2-D and 3-D printing and photography, design software, electronics, jewelry, laser cutting and engraving, metalworking, textiles and woodworking. Class levels begin at “introductory” and progress to “expert.” This constant knowledge exchange helps makers become more well-rounded and network with other members, who may potentially become business partners or colleagues.

“Each location is a collection of shops,” added Laate Olukotun, marketing manager of NextFab. “Traditionally, most of the shops would be their own businesses and private entities. What’s cool about NextFab is that under one roof, you have everything from a wood shop to a metal shop.”

Membership plans—which grant access to classes, resources, equipment, a growing community and expert staff at all three locations—range from $19 to $199 per month.

Malone says the accelerator program that Garcia participated in takes a would-be business titan “from raw idea to launching a business and getting ready to reach the market. It takes companies through all the necessary steps for a successful business model.”

In addition to providing mentorship and tools over a 12-week period, NextFab invests up to $25,000 in each team in its RAPID Hardware Accelerator program—look for the launch of their third accelerator cohort this fall.