Meet 50 players changing Greater Washington’s startup and innovation scene

Aug 26 2021

The original article was published on The Business Journals – DC Inno on August 19, 2021 by Sara Gilgore

We reviewed the community’s nominations and used our intel to build a roster of Greater Washington’s hottest enterprises and innovators, and narrowed that list to the ecosystem’s 50 elite.

Then on Thursday, we brought together those very players who are reshaping the economy: DC Inno’s 2021 Fire Award honorees. These are the companies, organizations, founders, funders and innovators who were still able to raise money, grow their teams, reimagine their products and grow their revenue, and in many cases with greater equity and access in mind for those who’ve long lacked it, despite the past year’s terrible odds.

Thursday’s virtual event brought together business leaders, entrepreneurs and the people from the very ventures we gathered to recognize. We also had a discussion about thriving in challenging times and the future of innovation in Greater Washington with big local names. Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch video from the discussion of these entrepreneurs and advocates:

  • Melanie Akwule, founder and CEO of Minwo
  • Dahna Goldstein, chief investment officer with Halcyon
  • Sally Allain, head of JLabs in D.C. at Johnson & Johnson Innovation
  • Nathaniel Jackson, CEO of TrueAlgae
  • Erin Fristoe, director of talent and community engagement at Research Innovations Inc. — and 2019 Fire honoree and blazer winner — moderated the discussion.

Finally, we revealed this year’s blazers — the trailblazers leading the charge and driving the change that will come to define this community. A panel of judges from the region’s innovation economy voted and selected them, one from each category.

Read more about all 50 of the 2021 Fire Award honorees here, and scroll below for this year’s list of blazers for each of the categories.

Lifestyle: RemodelMate

The College Park startup offering a marketplace for bathroom remodeling projects is rapidly expanding to 30 other cities. After doubling the business in 2020, Remodelmate founder and CEO Chad Hall wants to hit a $10 million run rate and raise a $5.5 million Series A round in 2022, which would bring the seven-person company’s lifetime funding to $6 million. The startup is now hiring for software engineering, operations and sales roles, hoping for a headcount of 30 by the end of 2021. Remodelmate also landed a partnership with an HGTV personality couple, Hall said, declining to disclose the name at this point. But for the show, the team will be looking for the ugliest bathrooms to renovate in D.C., as well as Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Charlotte, North Carolina.

B2B: Morning Consult

A fast-growing software firm, Morning Consult raised $60 million in June, which it said yielded it a $1.01 billion valuation — considered “unicorn” status among startups. That came about a year after the company raised $31 million in its first institutional round, and seven years after launching from a D.C. rowhouse. The company is expanding to a new D.C. headquarters this year and is actively hiring as demand for its business grows. Led by co-founder and CEO Michael Ramlet, its software-as-a-service technology offers polling and research platforms for its commercial clients.

Med-tech: BrainScope

The neurotechnology company, led by CEO Susan Hertzberg, launched a new tool in March to help doctors more easily assess and treat concussions. That was after it scored Food and Drug Administration clearance to build on its existing product: a disposable headset and handheld device that processes the wearer’s brain activity to help evaluate suspected traumatic brain injuries within 72 hours. The Bethesda company is also closing in on a fresh $15 million. BrainScope reports that its device cuts down on the need for CT scans in the emergency department by more than 30%, while avoiding radiation and capturing the severity of the injury. It uses artificial intelligence to produce immediate results — and a faster diagnosis — for physicians.

Health care: Somatus

The fast-growing kidney care provider and now-two-time “blazer” gave us all deja vu when it raised $60.12 million in June, just a year after it closed a $64 million round. The 5-year-old McLean company has raised a whopping $165 million in lifetime funding. And it’s continuing to expand a new comprehensive care model for patients with chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease. Somatus now counts 600 employees and operations in 34 states, serving more than 150,000 patients nationwide — up from tens of thousands a year ago. Somatus, which partners with health systems, nephrology and primary care groups, and insurers, built a mobile app for patients to monitor their health and hopes to gain a foothold in the fast-growing dialysis market while helping prevent hospital visits and readmissions. Somatus, which took the ultimate title of the DC Inno Tech Madness competition in April, was founded in 2016 by Dr. Ikenna Okezie, its CEO and a former DaVita HealthCare Partners executive.

Biotech and life sciences: Sirnaomics

With back-to-back megaraises in the past 10 months that raked in $105 million apiece, Gaithersburg’s Sirnaomics is entering its next phase of growth with an eye toward an initial public offering, President and CEO Patrick Lu has told us. The biotech, which develops treatments for cancers, viral infections, metabolic diseases and fibrosis, plans to strengthen its manufacturing capacity to keep up with the demand it hopes to eventually build for its RNA interference technology-based therapies. In all, the biotech has topped $313 million in total funding, earning it a $613 million valuation by the end of 2020, per data firm PitchBook. Sirnaomics, with Chinese subsidiaries in Suzhou and Guangzhou, formed in 2007 before spinning out RNAimmune Inc., and its mRNA technology, in June 2020.

Cybersecurity, software and IT:

Based in McLean, the company helps customers manage and verify online user identities. It secured a gargantuan $100 million round in March to fund hiring and expand its customer base to more businesses and government agencies. That capital brought the company’s valuation up to $1.5 billion, securing its unicorn status. That followed its plans in late 2020 to hire more than 1,000 employees by the end of this year., founded in 2010 as TroopSwap and led by founder and CEO Blake Hall, makes login and identity credentials portable across platforms, and saw demand for its services increase, particularly in unemployment claims, as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated demand to deter fraud online.

Inno picks: MemoryWell

Senior care has a relatively new advocate in this D.C. startup, bolstered by $2.5 million in seed funding in March. MemoryWell, part of the Techstars Future of Longevity Accelerator in D.C., connects seniors and their families with professional writers to, in turn, better introduce them to their caregivers and, ultimately, improve their care. It took a hit during the pandemic when most of its business at senior living and skilled nursing facilities “evaporated overnight while providers focused on saving lives, quite understandably,” said founder and CEO Jay Newton-Small in March. So the company shifted to other markets such as home care, palliative and hospice care and senior living insurers — areas it’s looking to expand deeper into this year. The new funding is going toward developing its AI system to predict social determinants of health for hospitals and other providers. Newton-Small, a journalist, started the company in 2016 after caring for her father with Alzheimer’s disease.

Community Leaders: Shelly Bell, Black Girl Ventures

Black Girl Ventures has fast become a national name under the helm of Shelly Bell, who built the modest District nonprofit into a multicity effort to finance, support and promote Black female founders. BGV partners with big brands including Nike and Warby Parker, and hosts pitch competitions with chapters in major markets including Miami, Houston and Philadelphia. In all, it’s funded 130 women of color and hosted 30 pitch programs across 12 cities. And Bell, who’s grown her team to nine employees, has raised $2.6 million herself from the likes of PayPal, Google, Kroger and others.

Venture: Ardent Venture Partners

The new VC firm, created by local venture capitalists and general partners Phil Bronner, above, and Phil Herget, had aimed to raise $100 million to fill the gap between seed and Series A rounds. It’s also straddling the shift caused by automation technologies such as AI, machine learning and data science. Bronner is no stranger to the investment arena, having made investments with his Summer League Ventures and as a former Novak Biddle Venture Partners general partner. And the same goes for Herget, a founder and managing member of D.C. venture firm Avonlea Capital.

Consumer tech: MotoRefi

The Arlington startup raised about $45 million in May in a round led by a Goldman Sachs arm, marking its largest round in four years and signaling strong momentum in what it’s described as a $1.2 trillion auto refinancing market. MotoRefi, whose platform aims to make refinancing car loans easier for consumers, had secured $10 million just four months prior to that round, bringing its fundraising total to $60 million since it was incubated in 2017 by local fintech venture firm QED Investors. The two-time Fire winner, led by CEO Kevin Bennett, is moving its headquarters from Arlington to D.C. to accommodate its growing workforce.

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