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June 03, 2015

11 entrepreneurs creating wacky, wonderful inventions in Philly

Entrepreneurs Lifestyle
Biomeme Team Rachel Kotkoskie/for PhillyVoice

Max Perelman, Jesse vanWestrienen, Maximilian Maksutovic and Marc DeJohn collectively make up the brains of Biomeme

For as long as people have been breathing, they've been dreaming up ideas -- those intangible and inexhaustible products of human curiosity. Because no matter how far along on the spectrum of progress we travel, we continue to find problems worth solving.

From the wheel to the Walkman, the iPhone to the PenPhone, we just keep going.

Yes, the PenPhone.

Which is to say that not every idea is a good one, but they're worth exploring all the same -- both the fun and the serious, the wacky and the wonderful.

Below you'll find just some of the Philly inventors who are keeping the marketplace of ideas alive -- the guys and gals who enhance our lives through the settled dust of their blustery brainstorms. Here, the full spectrum of eye-catching inventions you'll find gracing city limits today: the silly (a dog coat with speakers), the world-changing (a portable DNA tester), the practical (a toothbrush made from plants) and the utterly bizarre (a so-called "supercomputer").

Jonathan Sockol -- The 'Ambucycle,' saving lives by bike

Jonathan Sockol Ambucycle

Jonathan Sockol, CEO of LifeCycle, prepares to ride an ambucycle in Israel. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Sockol

It's a motorcycle, it's an ambulance -- no, it's the "ambucycle."

As nonsensical as it sounds on the surface, it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Because each minute matters in an episode of, say, cardiac arrest, a bike that's capable of zigzagging through traffic makes all the difference in saving lives. And, to boot, it saves hospitals money.

“What happens, is our person gets there in two minutes, and at the same time that ambulance is going to take 12 minutes to get there. We get someone there much faster," LifeCycle founder Jonathan Sockol told PhillyVoice.

If all goes according to plan, Ambucycles would have regular routes, and would be on call based on a swipe from an app that's downloaded.

By getting there so fast, he said, it gives the cyclist specialist -- hired by LifeCycle but part of a working relationship with hospitals -- an opportunity to gauge the situation and send back an ambulance in the case of false alarms. It also, theoretically, decreases the amount of work the hospital has to do on a patient when they get to the hospital if they've already been defibrillated or otherwise attended to. And, as they say, time is money.

Sockol said his business model is mostly modeled after Israel, which has a similar operation. Though, his technology -- a functioning app that would be built into the existing 911 service in Philadelphia -- would be completely unique. LifeCycle's integration, he said, would be dependent on a subscription-like contract with the city. 

He's currently seeking EMTs for a test launch of the service.

Matthew Baron -- The 'Woofer,' streaming your favorite jams through your dog


Matthew Baron, creator of The Woofer, hunches over his Woofer-wearing labrador. Photo courtesy of Matthew Baron

Get it? The "Woofer"?

Kidding aside, Matthew Baron -- a regular mad scientist of novelty products -- developed his dog-coat speaker in 2009 and has been revising the product (and selling steadily) ever since. The idea came when he was working in advertising, and thought it could be an inventive way to get people to hear commercials or new types of music. Then he received more and more requests for them for casual use and decided to sell direct-to-consumer. He builds and designs the coats himself.

The coat, first inspired by a tuxedo-lapel speaker he put on people, plays music through smartphones attached using a headphone jack -- compatible with most auxiliary cables, he said. 

"I believe I'm the only person who's played an electric guitar through a dog," he laughed. 

He said he's claimed the patent for "all four-legged animals" and has considered making the device for horses, cats and rabbits, but has yet to bite the bullet. The demand just isn't the same as it is for dogs.

"People tend to put their taste on their dog," he said. "You'll never see more of a projection than when people dress their dogs."

Marvin Weinberger -- Lil' Trucker, the tool that does ... well, everything

Marvin Weinberg

Marvin Weinberger is owner and CEO of Innovation Factory and director of Venturef0rth, a coworking space in North Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Marvin Weinberg

Companion product to the Trucker's Friend (its "father"), the Lil' Trucker was created as a response to a Missouri fireman who lamented that he didn't have a compact enough tool for a tornado search-and-rescue. The man requested a tiny device that could fit in a glove compartment and incorporated a saw blade, could break glass and could cut clothing. 

After incubating as an idea for three years, Lil' Trucker was finally born.

"We spent a lot of time talking with fire and rescue professionals to design the final product to meet the highest standards," Weinberger, founder of the product line, told PhillyVoice. "It's designed to 'do it all' in an emergency or rescue situation -- not to mention when escaping from zombies."

Lil' Trucker

The Lil' Trucker multi-tool, companion to the heavy-duty Trucker's Friend tool. It weighs 1.3 pounds and is about a foot long. Photo courtesy of Marvin Weinberg

Part of an ongoing Kickstarter campaign from Philly manufacturing company Innovation Factory, the multi-tool device is bluntly described as a "kick ass and take names" kind of object. The tool serves as a wedge, a hammer, a hatchet blade, a wire twist, a gas valve wrench, a nail puller, a can opener and more.

Weinberg's next step is to fill his Kickstarter orders and then manufacture the product for the masses. He's also got plenty more product ideas in the pipeline, he said.

Perhaps a Cousin Trucker will be coming soon? Stay tuned.

Staci Civins -- Little Standout teethers, keeping babies safe and adults entertained

Staci Civins

Staci Civins is founder and CEO of Little Standout. Photo by Staci Civins

After six years of working in children's boutiques in San Francisco and New York, Civins decided to make a change, going from being the strolled to being the stroller.

Just last month, she launched her baby business Little Standout, a collection of teething products made with FDA-approved sillicone that's free of phthalates, heavy metals, lead and other chemicals you might find on the average toy shelf. The sillicone, she said, is durable and can be frozen -- unlike plastic. 

"We want our customers to feel safe knowing our products won't leak chemicals, fall apart or be a choking hazard," Civins said. "I want safe teething toys in the hands of those who need them most."

The designs of the teethers are especially important to her, she said.


Aside from being sillicone-based, the teethers are made in shapes that are more conducive to adult tastes. Photo by Staci Civins 

"Because babies will put just about anything in their mouths, I wanted to design teethers that represent adult passions and interests," she added. "This way, adults can enjoy looking at them, engage with the design to spark new conversations and show off their interests."

Designs so far include a hashtag and a camera. She designs the teethers herself, and prints prototypes at Penn Maker's Space.

On the back of a Kickstarter funding round, she hopes to ship teethers by August.

Marc DeJohn and Co. -- Biomeme, testing the world's DNA through an app

Biomeme Team

Max Perelman, Jesse Van Westrienen, Maximilian Maksutovic and Marc DeJohn collectively make up the brains behind Biomeme. Photo by Rachel Kotkoskie

Introducing the app that can test DNA on the go.

No, seriously. Bear with me, folks.

A group of bio-tech experts led by initial prototype creator Marc DeJohn, the team at Biomeme developed an iPhone app that works in tandem with a cartridge system and thermocycler. No lab involved, no week-long wait. Within an hour, a test sample is analyzed by the hardware of the iPhone.

Max Perelman, cofounder, told PhillyVoice that the device's most practical application could be in the world of consumer advocacy.

"Most recently, I was so incredibly frustrated watching the latest 'Frontline' episode exposing food producers and government regulators who hid behind excuses when there was a major Salmonella outbreak," he said. "Watching the program, I thought to myself, 'If my child got sick, I could reach in the garbage, swab that chicken package and prove in less than an hour that it was positive for Salmonella.'"

Biomeme App

The Biomeme app, which collects and analyzes DNA. See a demonstration of how it works here. Photo by Rachel Kotkoskie

The team is hoping to be part of what they call the "mobile health revolution." They're currently testing the system with a panel of sexual health experts at Drexel Medicine. They're also trying to get the product in the hands of "citizen scientists."

"High school students at String Theory [Charter School] isolated the mayor's DNA just last week!" Perelman joked.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to make the product something you "keep on your kitchen counter, or in your bathroom cabinet."

Priyanka Aggarwal -- From.Earth, the toothbrush that makes you feel good about scrubbing plaque

Priyanka Aggarwal

Priyanka Aggarwal is CEO and cofounder of From.Earth, which creates organic products. Photo courtesy of Priyanka Aggarwal

Priyanka Aggarwal and her cofounder, Behrad Javed, both Wharton students, have created the toothbrush that takes teeth-cleaning back to basics.

Realizing that many people in India (her home) and Pakistan (his home) were using plant-based bristles on their brushes, they scratched their heads and wondered why the U.S. wasn't doing the same -- especially with its all-natural trend kick at the moment. 

"We were surprised that people in the U.S. are trying to eliminate plastics and chemicals from all parts of their lives, but continue to put plastic in their mouths for four minutes every day," Aggarwal told PhillyVoice.

The toothbrush's bristles are made from miswak and Salvadora persica plants, used eons ago as natural toothbrushes and host to active ingredients that, Aggarwal said, allow for a more effective clean and eliminates the concern of enamel erosion and gum recession that comes with drugstore brushes.

Organic Brush

From.Earth's organic toothbrush, with plant-based fiber bristles. Photo courtesy of Priyanka Aggarwal

The brush handle is made of a dyed-maple hardwood, and only needs replaced once every three months -- the kicker being that more than a billion plastic brushes, handle and all, currently occupy landfills each year. New brushes are delivered to your doorstep, she said.

From.Earth, which is planning a line of all-natural products, will launch a Kickstarter in the coming weeks before rolling out the brushes to retail in September. The brush and handle will retail for $10; the brush alone will cost $5.

Ben Garvey -- Kids Morning Adventure; aka, the solution to getting your kids ready for school

Ben Garvey and Son

Ben Garvey, creator of Kids Morning Adventure, with his 5-year-old son. Photo courtesy of Ben Garvey

Calling all moms and dads who hate getting kids ready in the morning: Kids Morning Adventure is exactly the time-saver you need.

Launched in September 2014 by Ben Garvey, Kids Morning Adventure is a printout game that was developed to keep kids on track during their morning routine. The gist of the game is simple: Kids get to roll the dice as an "attack" against a monster as long as they're ready for school on time. Each morning is like a swing of the sword to a monster in a fantasy world made up of printout "levels." If they're ready on time, it's a hit. If not, it's a big ol' miss.  

You might say the venture is a direct swing of the sword to Garvey's own problem as a father of two.

"I changed jobs in 2013, and getting the kids ready for school suddenly became my responsibility," Garvey told PhillyVoice. "I found myself yelling for an hour straight every morning, and I knew there had to be a better way."

School Kids App

With Garvey's game, bed-making and shoe-tying become part of a fantasy role-playing adventure through a series of "levels." Photo by Ben Garvey

To add incentive, kids get a bonus to their "attack roll" when they do activities on their own.

"I didn't even know my 3-year-old could put on his own shoes until the first day of Kids Morning Adventure," Garvey joked.

The game will relaunch with new features in August. The age range for the game, he said, is 3 to 9 years old.

James Fayal -- Zest Tea, the fix to your mid-afternoon caffeine crash

James Fayal

James Fayal, right, is the founder and CEO of Zest Tea. Photo courtesy of Venture for America

We've all been there: afternoon comes, and coffee's just not cutting it anymore. The caffeine crash, sadly, has hit full force.

Fayal realized as much while working long hours at a venture capital firm in Cincinnati as part of the Venture for America program. A tea drinker by preference, he sought an alternative, but couldn't find one. So, he created his own.

Zest Tea was made with high caffeine content in mind -- Fayal even cites it as the most caffeinated tea on the market. The teas contain 135-155 mg of caffeine, comparable to caffeine and about 100 mg more than the average tea. He accomplishes this with a tea-extract proprietary blending method that, he admitted, sometimes makes people skeptical of the product.

Zest Tea

The four blends of Zest, a variety of black and green teas. Photo by James Fayal

"One argument we've dealt with, is tea is a zen market, so if natural is big in the general market right now, it's huge in the tea market," Fayal told PhillyVoice. "But we have a fanatic customer base, and we're starting to gain industry respect."

Zest Tea won Best New Product at the World Tea Expo just last month. The tea contains L-Theanine, an inessential amino acid that works in tandem with caffeine to produce a clearer, longer-lasting caffeine high.

Based out of Old City, he sells most of his tea in bulk to corporate clients with "white collar, creative, Millennial" workforces that, like himself, didn't want to feel comatose in the middle of the afternoon with another eight hours ahead.

Fayal is currently raising a round of funding and hoping to expand his product to retail. 

Yasmine Mustafa -- Roar, the innovative assault defense for women

Roar Team

Yasmine Mustafa, second to the right, poses with Mayor Michael Nutter and her team at the Entrepreneur Expo during the 2015 Philly Tech Week. Photo courtesy of Yasmine Mustafa

The idea for Roar -- an assault-protection device named after the Katy Perry song -- was born out of a trip to South America. Yasmine Mustafa was outraged when she met victim after victim of sexual assault in her travels. When she came back from her trip, she learned that a neighbor on her block had been raped -- the ultimate eye-opener that the problem hit closer to home than she ever realized. 

And she wanted to do something about it.

So, she invented Roar -- a tiny, clip-on device that flashes a light of warning to the attacker and automatically sends location texts to designated friends and family, as well as connects with 911. It's like a 21st-century rape whistle -- but cuter.

Roar Clip

The Roar alert device, attached to a necklace, keychain and wallet. Photo by Jonathan De Jong

"Wearable technology has brought innovation to the self-defense space for the first time in over 70 years, and in talking to thousands of women, I learned that they found existing solutions like pepper spray, tasers and knives combative and aggressive," Mustafa told PhillyVoice. "We intentionally designed our safety devices for women so they aren’t intimidated by them, and we made them into jewelry first so they want to wear them and have it readily on hand."

The team is currently wrapping up the build of their mobile app, which will allow friends and family members to track their whereabouts during, say, a first date. They're also gearing up for a crowdfunding campaign in anticipation of a full launch of the device, its fashion accessories and mobile app.

Mark Donohue -- Spor, charging your phone with the sun's rays

Spor Team

Jason Browne, Mark Donohue and David Hunt, cofounders of Spor. Photo by Joseph Master

Spor, a solar-powered portable charger, solves the problem of what cofounder Mark Donohue calls "outlet jail" -- that is, being stuck at a Starbucks outlet while your phone regains its juice.

The idea, thought up by the group of recent Drexel grads, is that the sun -- as underutilized an energy source as it is -- is a perfect fit for portable chargers. The charger is made up of a customizable shell, a circuitboard, a solar panel and a battery. The product is also open-source, meant to "demystify" the product and allow for organic upgrades to its features. 

"Our target market is socially conscious customers who are tired of the same old black electronic products and desire a device that's an extension of themselves," Donahue told PhillyVoice. "Those same people likely want to be able to influence their product, something we invite them to do with ours."

Spor Charger

The Spor charger, which is solar-powered. Photo courtesy of Mark Donohue

Of note, it's a dual-use charger -- so, owners are welcome to plug it into a socket and charge it that way, but the solar panel means that its energy supply will constantly be topped off, decreasing standard energy consumption. 

Spor raised $112,000 through a Kickstarter fundraising round earlier this year, and is currently manufacturing out of their Philadelphia basement with the help of 3D printers -- a conscious choice to stay local, Donohue said.

The next step, he added, is to not only offer Spor to the masses, but expand the company's product line, teasing that an electric bike might be next on their list.

The Hackers of Hive 76 -- CLYDE, Philly's (sort of) supercomputer

Hive 76

The Hive 76 membership crew. The idea for CLYDE came from Brendan Schrader, who recently passed away. Photo by Brendon Costello

OK, so CLYDE's not really a supercomputer. But he is an incredible simulation.

A group of zany creators at Hive 76 -- a motley community of people who are literally there to make stuff -- decided to develop a fake-out supercomputer for ... well, giggles, more or less. A gag invention for minds in need of placating, it's made to look like a "calculator from the 1970s" capable of answering life's most meta and granular questions.

The device is engineered with cables, inputs, sliders, a microphone and more to look deceivingly complicated -- like a supped up Siri. In reality, though, a randomized switch goes off inside of it that blinks "Yes," "No" or "Error" on the interface.

"It's kind of like a play on 'Mythbusters,' but from a totally asinine angle. [We ask] stuff like, 'What's better at putting out fire, water or pudding?'; 'Is disco cool?; or 'Does raising chickens on a boat keep them safe from predators?'" said Daniel Provenzano, a co-creator on the team that built the device. "We thought it would be funny to have a similarly silly supercomputer to calculate answers to these questions."


Meet CLYDE, the Hive 76 supercomputer that can answer all of your burning questions. Photo by Brendon Costello

CLYDE makes pop-up appearances at Philly tech events and, during Philly Tech Week, stopped by the studio of FOX 29. 

Next up is a CLYDE-inspired Pope-Bot (really) that they're planning for the World Meeting of Families

"Making a joke supercomputer is our idea of fun," he said.