Start-ups are thriving in the City of Brotherly Love

Yasmine Mustafa's mission to empower women came from eye-opening experiences she had on a six-month solo excursion across South America. The now 34-year-old entrepreneur found a scary, but true, reality among the women she encountered.

"As incredible as it was, I kept meeting women who would share some type of horrific story about a time they had been attacked or abused," Mustafa said.

When she came back to her hometown of Philadelphia about three years ago, that same message hit too close for comfort. Her female neighbor had been brutally beaten and raped. "That was the moment that ROAR for Good was born," she said.

The wearable start-up has created a pendant-style monitor and app to make its users feel safer and empowered in situations when they're feeling uncomfortable or might actually be in danger. The Athena wearable, which can be worn as a necklace or clipped to clothing, has two features: one simply alerts friends and family to a user's location and allows for tracking and communication; the other is an alarm and danger alert to emergency contacts. They're currently working on connecting it to law enforcement.

ROAR put the product on Indiegogo in October 2015, aiming to raise $40,000. Instead, they raised nearly $270,000. The first-generation product, which retails for $99, is set to ship in early 2017.

Yasmine Mustafa, founder of ROAR for Good, has designed a wearable device akin to a Fitbit to help keep women safe.
Kate Rogers | CNBC
Yasmine Mustafa, founder of ROAR for Good, has designed a wearable device akin to a Fitbit to help keep women safe.

Mustafa came to the United States from Kuwait as a child refugee in 1990, settling with her family in Philadelphia, and became a citizen four years ago. While it's family ties that inspired her to launch in the city, it's Philly's roots in innovation that are keeping her there.

"The thing that I love about Philadelphia is that we all help each other and want to lift one another up. We're tired of being compared to other cities," Mustafa said.

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And there's no reason to compare: Philly's start-up ecosystem is unique, innovating from the inside out. In 2012, then-Mayor Michael Nutter launched StartupPHL, a platform and liaison to support entrepreneurship that has seen close to 1,000 businesses launch in the past four years, according to Archna Sahay, director of Entrepreneurial Investment for the city. The platform also awards small grants to groups promoting entrepreneurship in the city, doling out close to $500,000 to 20 organizations. StartupPHL also has a fund with 10 portfolio companies in which it has invested more than $6 million over the past three years.

Funding is also flowing into the metro, which last year ranked No. 8 in terms of companies that received venture capital funding nationally, with 93 businesses totaling $516 million, according to the National Venture Capital Association. That's due in part to the nearly 35 co-working spaces, incubator and accelerator programs in the area, including DreamIt, an accelerator program and seed fund that's invested some $15 million in start-ups like Mustafa's ROAR for Good, focusing on different cohorts, from minority entrepreneurs to women founders.

"The important elements for any start-up company are customers, capital and community, and Philadelphia has all three of those," said Karen Griffith Gryga, DreamIt Ventures chief investment officer.

There's also access to talent, thanks to a pool of hundreds of thousands of students in the region opting to stay after getting their degrees. Grads like Danny Cabrera, a University of Pennsylvania alum, are making their own mark on Philly's start-up scene. Cabrera is co-founder of BioBots, which launched in 2014 and has created a smaller and less-expensive way to print biomaterials. The company's namesake printer allows big pharma companies, from AbbVie to GlaxoSmithKline and universities like UPenn, to print cells, from skin to liver to heart tissue, for research purposes. The printer costs $10,000, about 10 times less than this technology once did, thanks to 3-D printing.

Philadelphia start-up BioBots has created a 3-D printing device that has the ability to print living cell tissue.
Kate Rogers | CNBC
Philadelphia start-up BioBots has created a 3-D printing device that has the ability to print living cell tissue.

Cabrera said the company has hundreds of devices in more than 20 countries and across the United States.

"We managed to take advantage of a lot of great resources; it's been very cost effective for us," Cabrera said of launching in Philadelphia. "We got into NextFab, a collaborative makerspace, that allowed us to prototype really quickly and get this device on the shelf as quickly as possible."

Another local success leveraging Philadelphia's start-up resources is e-commerce giant RevZilla.com. The company sells motorcycle gear and accessories online and was launched out of an apartment in 2007. They've bootstrapped their entire operation, now with revenues of more than $100 million dollars and with over 1 million customers in 163 countries and counting, by marketing on YouTube. Chief financial officer David Price said local programs, like the Keystone Opportunity Zone, provides high-growth companies with tax incentives that in turn help them to reinvest in the city.

"Philadelphia is a start-up community," Price said. "The city has a unique mix of personal touch and feel. You can be a part of the community, but you don't get lost. People here support each other."