Business

Jan. 20, 2012 1:43 pm

Stephen Tang, Science Center CEO, puts down the politics that slow innovation [Friday Q&A]

The University City Science Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, but this month, Stephen Tang [Coverage] is marking his own anniversary: four years since being appointed President and CEO.

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Steve Tang discusses his participation with the Innovation Advisory Board.

The University City Science Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, but this month, Stephen Tang [Coverage] is marking his own anniversary: four years since being appointed President and CEO.

“I’m celebrating, but I don’t know if anyone else is,” Tang said, followed by laughter, in a telephone interview last week.

It’s hard to imagine that his staff wouldn’t: the Science Center has an increasing connection to regional and national innovation under Tang’s leadership, and if its programming is as successful as it appears, a closer connection to the regional community that is impacted.

The Science Center has stepped up its game in helping to define University City as a vital technology corridor in Philadelphia. Tang is actively seeking $20 million to fund in perpetuity its QED proof-of-concept incubation model. The rebranded Breadboard program has become a celebrated and energetic arts and sciences intersection that grew out of a once stodgy art gallery space. NextFab Studio, a high-tech prototyping workshop created in partnership with the Center, is now expanding to South Philadelphia. And though it just launched in 2011 and the Center’s Quorum entrepreneur clubhouse has yet to be measured completely, the resources of support are there.

Earlier this month, Tang joined the Innovation Advisory Board — a national advisory committee to the United States Department of Commerce — in releasing a report [PDF] about the economic competitiveness of American innovation.

The board, comprised of 15 well-known innovators like Arthur Levinson, Apple’s new Chairman, and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, had a notable local presence. Tang joined Natalia Olsen-Ortecho of Center City-based EG.

For those with an understanding of the issues confronting American innovation competitiveness, the report was certainly not groundbreaking in its overarching research:

  • Federal investments in research, education and infrastructure were critical building blocks for American economic competitiveness, business expansion and job creation in the last century;
  • Failures to properly invest in, and have comprehensive strategies for, those areas have eroded America’s competitive position; and,
  • In a constrained budgetary environment, prioritizing support for these pillars are imperative for America’s economic future and provide a strong return on investment for the U.S. taxpayer.

The outcome of the report now rests in the hands of the Secretary of Commerce, who will put together a plan to confront these challenges. But in an election year, as Tang puts it, that process “is likely to be highly politicized.”

After the jump, we caught up with Tang to hear his thoughts on the report and on the fourth anniversary of his joining the Science Center as President and CEO.

Tell us about the Innovation Advisory Board and the process of putting together the report—

First of all, it’s an honor. If you look at the 14 people other than me, I felt like Vance Worley in a pitching rotation of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. Arthur Levinson is the Chairman of Apple. I mean c’mon! Irwin Jacobs is a founder of Qualcomm. These are impressive folks to be around. My first inclination was to listen to them. I love the saying: “You’re given one mouth and two ears, use them proportionally.”

Well, you made the starting lineup. Why do you think that was? How did you use it to your advantage?

I was able to fit in that discussion by providing practical views of how innovation is done at the grassroots. I was also able to put a spotlight on the Greater Philadelphia region. I’m in a very fortunate role that I see the world through the eyes of all [of the Science Center’s] stakeholders. Certainly entrepreneurs and innovators. Academics and people involved with R&D. People in industry and venture capital. I think that my participation gave a view of how those things fit together and how regional innovation strength plays into the overall map.

Having now seen the full report, what would you have added or changed?

The report is broken into sections: research, education, infrastructure, manufacturing. What was not called out was how those things come together to build strength in innovation and then convert that innovation to companies and jobs. If you think about how to make America more competitive in the global market for innovation then you have to think, ‘why does it matter that the U.S. is strong?’ The next level is what parts of the U.S. matter because they have uncommon strengths in research or education or infrastructure. You get into discussion of regional innovation clusters and strengths. We could have focused on that aspect.

Second, the U.S. is unique in that we’re a melting pot. We share a future and not a past. How do we encourage a constant flow and replenishment of people and thinking? That’s where immigration comes in. It’s a topic that’s very polarized and it’s confused with illegal immigration in the border states. In Philadelphia, there are a tremendous amount of students that come from abroad, many of whom who come to study in STEM fields. If we don’t create an environment where they can stay, they go back and build companies that compete us against. There’s a defensive and offensive reason that policy should be much more accepting of people who are going to create innovation through our education fields.

What are the outcomes of the report? What surprised you?

I want to elaborate what I told the Inquirer: that “the line between policy and politics is very fine.” As part of the advisory board of 15 people, I think the report would have been different if it had been written by those 15 people. There would have been a greater sense of alarm about how far we’ve fallen behind. There would have been much more pointed and detailed discussion about what to do in terms of policy. The reality is that the report is a result of legislation. It was written by the Administration and we accept that. Those of us that live and breathe this understand that there’s got to be more structural changes to make us more competitive with innovation in this world.

Is this report actionable? What are the next steps?

The next step from this report is literally that Secretary of Commerce is charged to create a strategy based on this document on how to address these issues. It’s finding common ground with the issues in order to develop those priorities. The challenge is, we can acknowledge as obvious that this is an election year, so that strategy is likely to be highly politicized. We don’t know who will be President or how much ownership that president will have in this strategy. Unfortunately because of politics, we’re building strategy in innovation in fits and starts.

How does the report impact us on a local level?

I think we are as a region under-appreciated in terms of our innovation capacity. There’s still a view that we’re a blue collar, bare knuckles town. The reality is that our strongest industries are education, health care and life sciences. Yet other regions like San Francisco, San Diego, the Research Triangle, Boston, get more airtime than we do. [Having two representatives from Philadelphia] really created an awareness that Philadelphia wants to be known as an innovation center and deserves to be. It allows us to have other conversations with government, other industry partners and foundation sponsors, to enhance our overall approach to innovation.

You’re celebrating this month your fourth year at the Science Center. How are things different now compared to then?

I’m celebrating, but I don’t know if anyone else is [Laughs].

People tell me this is a tough job because you’re dealing with a lot of folks with different agendas. I knew that coming in to the job. What I’m most satisfied about is that Science Center is viewed as something that attracts people toward our mission of innovation entrepreneurship. That’s largely because we started out wanting to listen to needs. What I’ve tried to do, hopefully for many more years, is first fit in and then stand out. You can’t declare yourself anything in Philadelphia. You can’t impose yourself on the community.

My most recent experience before the Science Center was a multinational company located in Japan [Olympus]. When you’re part of a subsidiary to foreign-based company, you learn as an executive that you have more influence than control over what’s going on. In Philadelphia, you’re better off trying to persuade people than to force people to do things. At all times, I want to be known that we’re under-promising and over-delivering. At end of the day, if people like us, they’ll gravitate toward us. If not, they’ll go some place else.

What has changed across the city and region in the last four years?

We’ve survived some tough economic circumstances. I think that as a community you grow stronger through that because you’re forced to do more with less. Great working relationships are forged in those times. Sometimes when you’re in boom times, where there’s no need to work with other folks, you don’t develop that level of cooperation. I hope that we’ll come out of that downturn not just with stronger economic resources, but better relationships and better activity.

What do you hope to do in 2012? Any big changes on the horizon?

We’re beginning the process of raising $20 million to endow QED [proof-of-concept entrepreneur funding program] to make that sustainable in perpetuity. With Quorum, you have more great incubator companies that come through our facilities. We’re also planning our 50th Anniversary for 2013. We’re the third oldest research park in the country.

What’s your background? What got you to the Center?

Because I grew up in the area, and because I knew about the Science Center and knew its mission, I thought it was an intriguing blend of stakeholders that would be great to work with. My entire career has been in for-profit sector with exceptions of early stints in academia. I was leery of the nonprofit community but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the talent and commitment of people at the Science Center. And I’m able to sit at both sides of the table with investors and entrepreneurs. I’m able to bring all of this to the job every day.

Plus, I have a great passion and love for Philadelphia. I want us to do better than we’ve done before. It’s a matter of getting the word out there locally, nationally and internationally that we’re the place to be for innovation.

How’d you end up in Philadelphia?

I was the son of Chinese immigrants who both came to the county for education. I grew up in Wilmington and my first baseball team was the ’64 Phillies. Of course you know what happened to the Phillies that season— they were viewed as the greatest September collapse of all time. I grew to love baseball. I became a good baseball player in high school and college, and my parents encouraged me. You go to places that your parents didn’t go, just as they went to places that their parents didn’t go.

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Brian James Kirk

Brian James Kirk is a cofounder of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Kirk was Web Editor of PlanPhilly, an independent online news resource covering planning and development issues in Philadelphia, and a freelance writer and designer. He resides in South Philadelphia.

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