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September 27, 2017 | Philadelphia Business Journal
If startup accelerators or venture capital funds across the country took the same approach as the University City Science Center’s Digital Health Accelerator, the STEM fields might look a little different.
That’s the working hypothesis of Aron Starosta, the accelerator’s program manager, who says it’s instituted a selection process designed to take the bias out of decision making — and so far, it’s worked.
Out of the accelerator’s recently announced third cohort, six of the seven companies have female or minority leaders. In the past two cohorts, 11 out of the 13 combined startups are led or founded by a woman or minority.
The strong showing from groups that are often underrepresented in the field wasn’t intentional, Starosta said, stressing the accelerator is not impact-focused. Its central aim is on commercialization, helping to take early-stage companies from their prototype stage to bringing in revenue.
“The science experiment here is we removed the bias, and this is what happened,” he said.
About 100 startups apply to join the Digital Health Accelerator, housed at the Science Center’s ic@3401 space, each year. Most are from the tri-state area, but an increasing number of applications are coming from around the world (one startup in this year’s cohort, Semacare, is Australian. See the full list of participants at the Science Center's website).
A panel of about 20 judges who all work on-the-ground in the acquisition and investment space daily — a majority are women and minorities — first go through one-page applications where all identifying information about the startup’s team is removed, and select the best ideas from the pile. Those selections are narrowed down in the second round where identities are brought back to vet additional information, including the founders. The final stage in selection is a presentation, to pick out teams that are engaging and dynamic.
“When you take away the bias, these are the best companies,” he said.
Each startup will receive up to $50,000 from the accelerator, which does not take any equity in the companies, and will work with expert mentors over the next year to lay out milestones and set plans in place to draw in customers. The goals and curriculum will change month by month, Starosta said, depending on each company’s progress and pivots.
ImmERge Labs, which builds augmented and virtual reality simulations for emergency response training, is one of the startups to benefit from the accelerator’s network and guidance starting this fall. Founded by Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, ImmERge has been on a roll. In addition to $50,000 from the accelerator, it landed a $50,000 investment from Ben Franklin Technology Partners by winning the Penn AppitUP Demo Day in April. The Philly Geek Awards also named Leary its Geek of the Year in August.
Leary and her CEO Matt Grabowsky are working to get their simulations, which can be deployed on a variety of AR/VR enabled products, into corporations to show how game-changing the immersive training can be.
ImmERge began with a focus on CPR training because her expertise is in resuscitation science and since it’s a prolific experience — Leary said 12 million people are certified every year.
Two Fortune 100 companies signed on to one of its offerings, where the startup brings in its CPR training a month after employees receive initial certification to reinforce and improve their responses. But Leary’s work has a host of applications, including training people in responding to sudden events like anaphylactic shock, strokes or even an active shooter situation.
ImmERge already partnered up with Microsoft and the Southeast Pennsylvania branch of the American Red Cross to to host two training sessions at Microsoft’s King of Prussia store. An informal survey afterward said participants' confidence in administering CPR went up 61 percent after the training.
“Unless people experience VR and AR and its immersive capabilities, it’s hard for them to understand how much more powerful it is for training and education,” Leary said.
In the Digital Health Accelerator, they’ll work on honing their focus and collaborating with the six other startups that will also be working out of the Science Center. The accelerator also offers help with public relationships, legal advice and access to firms.
“We’re shoulder-to-shoulder and elbow-to-elbow with a peer group that has the same challenges and same inspirations,” Grabowsky said.
The fact that many of them are also women is just a bonus to Leary.
“It’s going to be a really great opportunity for us to help decrease the gender gap in this field and in these areas,” she said. Grabowsky added: “This is just meritocracy at work.”