Flying robots, hot glass, Google, 3-D flesh, NextFab: Philly’s first Maker Faire at Pennovation

June 24th, 2018

By Joseph N. DiStefano

Cool nerds from across the region convened Sunday for a first-of-its-kind carnival for start-ups in Philadelphia.

More than 1,200 engineers, investors, students and artists signed up to spend the sunniest hours of the weekend challenging and celebrating more than 100 start-ups and small businesses that showed off prototypes and perfected products they hope to bring to mass production.

The site: Pennovation, the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated business incubator and collaboration space on the grounds of the former DuPont Co. paint factory. The event: a small-scale production by Maker Faire, a California-based tech-show presenter.

NextFab, a Philadelphia-based makerspace chain offering member tenants the use of 3D printers and other digitally controlled cutting, shaping and reproduction machines at three sites in the city and Wilmington, accounted for more than a quarter of the start-ups in attendance Sunday. NextFab owner Evan Malone said he and other organizers are looking for a venue to showcase a “full-sized” Philadelphia Maker Faire next year, with thousands of attendees and hundreds of presenting companies.

This year’s event, while small, was not short on impressive work.

“I heard this was coming, I said, ‘We gotta go!’” said Joshua Thaler, a software engineer for TowerView Health.

The company brought its digital pillboxes, which emit a flash of light and send a text to users’ smartphones when it’s time for another dose of medicine. Chief technology officer Ankur Aggarwal said his cofounders include a group of medical school students in North Carolina and Texas, one of whom was a cancer patient facing a tough time balancing treatment, medications, and education demands. They moved the business to Philadelphia to be close to DreamIt Health, the start-up advisory and investment group based in University City. Penn Medicine and Malone are among its investors.

The art school-trained owners of Remark Glass, a South Philadelphia firm that turns vintage beer bottles into tumbler sets,  among other items, came to Maker Faire to learn from digital-machine experts how to make the traditionally energy-dependent glass bottle-blowing business more power-efficient, said Danielle Ruttenberg.

Pennovation’s black-netted, open-air drone-testing site — it looks like a baseball batting cage with extra room for pop fly balls — was the demo stage for students from at least three of the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science’s robotics labs. Dean Vijay Kumar’s light and flexible aerial drones have programmable jointed propellers for pinpoint lift-path design. Dan Koditschek’s squads of robots marched across the pavement in what looked like a galactic, live-action, knee-and-hip museum. Mark Yim’s modular robots snap together like Lego Transformers to walk or fly.

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