A man with a cooking passion since childhood. High school friends who bonded over a chemistry project. A former EMT whose on-the-ground experience triggered a desire to figure out a better way to get patients to medical appointments.

They are among the Inquirer's 2018 Stellar StartUps winners. From nearly 100 contenders, winners in nine categories were announced Thursday night at a gala at South Bowl Lounge N' Lanes in Philadelphia. They were selected by a panel of judges with an expertise in entrepreneurship and start-ups, an increasingly important part of the region's economy and driven by a range of founders, including students, millennials, and those who left the corporate world by choice or downsizing and are now pursuing a second act.

The contest is a months-long effort to spotlight the inventiveness and doggedness of the region's start-up leaders.

Terrance C.Z. Egger, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, noted that it was the company's third year to host the event that recognizes some of the outstanding entrepreneurs in the Philadelphia region.

The winners by category are:

Alumni: TowerView Health

Founded after a cofounder and college roommate was diagnosed with cancer, TowerView Health helps patients with chronic illnesses better manage complex medication regimens. Patients receive presorted medication trays filled by a pharmacy, inserted into a smart pillbox that senses when patients forget a dose, sending an automatic text, phone, email, or on-box reminder to patients and their caregivers. Rahul Jain, CEO and cofounder. Based in Center City (www.pillbox.com).

"I feel really honored," said Jain. "It's hard for Americans to take all their meds because they average five to seven per day, and we're looking forward to a rollout with Humana, HealthNet, and a launch of a version of our product direct to consumers."

The winner of the food category is Simply Good Jars, CEO Jared Cannon (left), accepts the award from Harris Fishmen, president and CEO of MassMutual Greater Philadelphia.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The winner of the food category is Simply Good Jars, CEO Jared Cannon (left), accepts the award from Harris Fishmen, president and CEO of MassMutual Greater Philadelphia.

Food and Restaurants: Simply Good Jars

Driven by the idea to eradicate single-use plastic, food waste, and hunger through their Jars, SGJ brings fresh, locally sourced, and healthy chef-crafted meals (less than 600 calories) to the workplace in their refrigerators that act like vending machines. Jared Cannon, founder and CEO. Based in West Philadelphia (simplygoodjars.com).

Health Care: RoundTrip

The start-up removes barriers to care by connecting health-care providers with transport, to get patients the very best ride. RoundTrip software streamlines patients' ride coordination for hospitals, health plans, medical transportation providers, caregivers, and patients. Mark Switaj, founder and CEO. Founded in Center City, now in several states (www.rideroundtrip.com).

"It's incredibly rewarding to help build employment opportunities here in Philadelphia," said Switaj. "I knew the system of health-care transportation was broken and I spent a lot of time on fixing the problem."

Just Plain Cool Idea: REC Philly

Part creative incubator (a gym membership for artists) and part creative agency, REC Philly provides the tools, resources, and community for local artists to build sustainable careers — all while working with large and small businesses to help solve their creative marketing challenges. Dave Silver, founder. Based in North Philadelphia (www.recphilly.com).

Minority/Women Entrepreneurs: Greppo Technologies

A medical device start-up developing a unique high-performance, actively steerable surgical needle enabling minimally invasive treatment of cancer tumors in difficult-to-access anatomy. Eza Koch, senior engineer; Sasha Schrode, cofounder and CEO, Mark Yim, founder. Based in University City, Pennovation Center (www.greppotech.com).

"We're committed to making the lives of cancer patients better," said Schrode.

Products/Services: Kleer

A software platform for dentists that enables them to offer dental-care plans directly to their patients, eliminating the cost and hassle of the insurance company middleman. The result is simple, affordable dental coverage for patients and a dental-care plan that works for dentists. Dave Monahan, CEO. Based in Wayne. (www.kleer.com).

Second-Act Start-ups: (A tie) Pathogend and ShuttleBee

Pathogend's mission: to provide healthier, safer spaces utilizing the latest tools in hospital-grade disinfection to eliminate the most difficult pathogens such as C. diff, MRSA, Staph, flu, norovirus, mold, E. coli, and TB. Pathogend's EPA registered, proprietary Curis hydrogen peroxide fogging technology allows the highest-level disinfection in the air and on all surfaces where spraying and wiping can't reach. Rich Mullen, cofounder and CEO. Founded in Landenburg, Pa. (pathogend.com).

ShuttleBee is a co-op that merges routine transportation needs of families, schools, and organizations. Building technology to automate procedures and to create the safest product, ShuttleBee stops short of using tanks — they're not approved for transporting children (in all seriousness). Kristina Fahl, founder, John Fahl, CIO. Founded in Queen Village, Center City (shuttlebee.net).

Students: (A three-way tie) Rex Riccardi, Sharing Excess, Wish Respect

Rex Riccardi is a modern twist on the pocket square, combining art and fashion with 10 percent of each pocket square sold benefiting Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. Ryan Klauder, cofounder and CFO; Christopher Muth, cofounder and CEO, both Devon Prep school students (rexriccardi.com).

Sharing Excess is a nonprofit that helps university students share food excess with community members in need. The group advocates, designs, and implements donation programs that allow students to donate unused meals from their dining plan to people facing food insecurity in their surrounding community. Evan Ehlers, founder and executive director. Founded at Drexel University (sharingexcess.com).

Wish Respect wants to ensure everyone's last wishes are informed, known, and respected as part of its mission. The start-up provides education on the rights and choices everyone has related to advance directives and end-of-life physician orders. Tina Heilman, founder (wishrespect.com).

Technology: Group K Diagnostics.

Revolutionizing patient care through innovative point-of-care (POC) diagnostics. Group K solves inefficiencies of current lab solutions by bringing the "lab" to the provider. Within 20 minutes, the MultiDiagnostic POC test and accompanying software platform gives patients direct access to results and allows providers to take immediate therapeutic action based on reliable results. Brianna Wronko, founder and CEO (groupkdiagnostics.com).

Helping hand from big business

Before the awards, Inquirer small-business reporter Diane Mastrull led a panel discussion on what the city's large corporations are doing to support the start-up community. Panelists included Lisha Davis, head of Vanguard Innovation Studio; Brian Lobley, president, commercial and consumer markets, Independence Blue Cross; and Rose Ritts, executive vice president and chief innovation officer, Jefferson Innovation Pillar.

Since health care is expected to grow to 24 percent of U.S. GDP by 2025, up from 18 percent currently, "we've realized that the traditional models aren't working," said Lobley. "Health-care data is among the last to be monetized," and Independence Blue Cross has partnered with DreamIt Health and venture funds to "screen companies like these start-ups for us."

Ritts said Jefferson's focus for start-ups includes medical marijuana and cannabis research, given that "legalization is compelling." She highlighted Jefferson's business plan competition on Oct. 3, and invited start-ups to apply.

For a list of the 30 finalists in this year's 2018 competition, as well as 2017's winners, visit our website to read more about the talented start-up ecosystem in Philadelphia.