(written by Michael Borda, Ph.D. for BDX Access)
Philly has been making some bold claims over the last few months. If you have been reading the local news or following social media, Philly innovation is getting some serious attention. In a Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed piece from May, Penn Engineering Dean Dr. Vijay Kumar dubs Philadelphia the “robotics hub of the East Coast”. Is this just wishful thinking? I don’t think so.
Philly is already considered an innovative place to be – especially in the tech world – with media outlets like the Huffington Post naming Philly in the top five tech cities, and the Progressive Policy Institute calling Philly a top 10 “Emerging Start-Up Hub” in the US. And that was even before some big moves started happening in town.
Now, Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub (PERCH) – a robotics powerhouse sitting atop Pennovation Center – represents a unique facility where students and faculty brainstorm, design, and create groundbreaking concepts in collaboration with industry and startups. Already, Philly is attracting serious players in the robotics space – specifically drones, with companies like Qualcomm and DJI taking up residence. That doesn’t seem like wishful thinking to me.
Philly is also widely known for our strength in “Eds and Meds”, but there is a real sea change happening around the advances in cellular & gene therapies, and also in connected health. A Philadelphia Magazine article inquisitively titled, “Welcome to Cellacon Valley?” explores the next-gen medical innovations that are completely changing the cell therapy scene. Philly is the cutting edge.
Yes, the name is a little awkward, but the idea is no less powerful. Philly has been searching for a differentiator for years. You can’t have a discussion in this town about innovation without someone belaboring the comparisons to Boston or the Bay Area. Sadly, those comparisons are always something they have done or are doing that Philly is not. But Cellacon Valley may change that. Philly is arguably the world’s epicenter of basic research in gene and cell therapy.
Spinouts like Spark Therapeutics are leading the way and staying in the region. The Penn-Novartis alliance, as well as the Sean Parker Institute are examples of corporate and foundational engagements that are fueling this groundbreaking research and development. It is an exciting time for the region and we are currently way out in the lead of this race, but can we stay there? Only time will tell… well, unless we do something about it.
So, how does Philly “stay there” in the lead? A Brooking Institute report titled, “Connect to compete: Philadelphia’s University City-Center City innovation district”, seeks to provide recommendations. Brookings’ study relies on the idea of the innovation district; “dense engines of economic activity where research-oriented anchor institutions, high-growth firms, and tech and creative startups exist within an amenity-rich residential and commercial area”.
Philly most certainly has all the ingredients for a powerhouse innovation district centered in University City and the surrounding areas, but connecting the dots is what will truly create something special. Then there are concrete recommendations, e.g., “creating a series of initiatives aimed at growing the city’s advanced industry clusters where we already have significant strength”. Enter the East Coast Robotics Hub and Cellacon Valley! However, the real takeaway from the study, in my opinion, is that Philly cannot substantiate these ambitious claims by working as isolated, individual institutions or one-off initiatives. We have to come together. Not just “Eds and Meds”, but industry, public sector, and civic stakeholders.
I certainly feel that we are on the cusp of becoming a top-tier innovation ecosystem; in fact, maybe we’re already there. I am excited for the future and I am hopeful that we, as Philadelphia’s innovation and tech leaders, will find a way to work together and create a name for Philly… maybe even Cellacon Valley!
Michael Borda, Ph.D. is a strategist, implementer, change agent, & connector. At the interface between Penn and the region, Dr. Borda seeks to create deep connections into the PHL entrepreneurial ecosystem. Currently the Director of Strategic Initiatives in Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Borda is maximizing the impact of Penn’s investment in innovation at Pennovation Works and expanding Penn’s footprint in MedTech.