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Philadelphia is a place to ‘pursue your ideas’: Alan Greenberger

Not long after he was appointed city commerce director, Alan Greenberger started paying attention to the nascent Philly tech scene. Four years later, his office - the Commerce Department - has driven some of the most headline-grabbing efforts to support the tech scene.

Alan Greenberg in Israel during the Mayor's trade mission in fall 2013. Photo by Kait Privitera for the City of Philadelphia.
Updated 3/5/14: A previous version of this article incorrectly described a tax change. The correct tax change is: "If a business has six or more employees, it gets a two-year tax holiday from business taxes [for those first two years]."

Not long after he was appointed city commerce director in June 2009, Alan Greenberger started paying attention to the nascent Philly tech scene.

Four years later, his office — the Commerce Department — has driven some of the most headline-grabbing efforts to support the tech business class, including:

  • StartupPHL, the city’s $3.5 million early-stage seed fund and grant program in partnership with PIDC.
  • helping suburban tech companies relocate or open satellite offices inside the city (including Bentley Systems, Fiberlink, First Round Capital)
  • the Mayor’s constant presence at startup office ribbon cuttings, not to mention that Greenberger’s chief of staff, Luke Butler, is a mainstay of tech events about town

Greenberger, a former architect, said that his office is so focused on the city’s technology scene because you can’t separate technology from economic development today.

“Tech just touches so many things,” he said. “And our culture has figured that out.”

Greenberger was the keynote speaker at the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executive Group‘s Innovation Leadership Forum event last week focused on how the public sector can spur innovation. He offered Philly a preview of his talk.

Below, we talk to him about the process of attracting businesses to Philadelphia, how the new Comcast tower will change the city’s business landscape and his first date with the Philly tech scene (hint: it involves beer and pizza).

Edited for length and clarity.

When did it click for you that you should be paying attention to the city’s tech community?

About four years ago we started meeting people from the tech community, like [former Philly Startup Leaders president and Artisan CEO] Bob Moul. Bob had been in the Commerce Department and had gotten to know the staff, who said “You gotta meet this guy.”

There was another situation, where there were Facebook postings about things that people in the tech scene were concerned about in the city. It caught my eye. I thought, “We should be in touch with these people.”

So I had them over for beer and pizza.


Yes, I personally bought the beer and pizza. I thought, “We need to know this community better.” Through people like [PSL events organizer] Gloria Bell and Bob Moul, we got introduced to others. There was never any doubt that we should be interested in the tech community. The question was: Where can we be effective? We spent about a year, talking to people, going to meetings and events to find that out.

We became aware of where there were gaps in the system, like funding — so we started the StartupPHL Seed Fund. The Call for Ideas grants were our way of supporting the culture of the community.

We go to events because we want to show that this is important to us.

And it’s not just about technology. It’s about the culture of business innovations, the culture of new ideas that lead to new businesses — big and small. We want Philadelphia to be a place where you can pursue your ideas.

We’ve seen a stream of suburban tech companies move into the city or open satellite offices. What’s next for that effort? Where do you see it moving?

We’re going to keep working at it. We’ll be very competitive about trying to attract businesses big and small. Right now we’re talking to at least half a dozen significant sized companies — not necessarily Fortune 500 but maybe Fortune 2,000 — who are deep in the exurbs somewhere and they’re having the talent issue.

We’re not going to get all of them. We know that. But it’s a set of serious discussions prompted by several factors: the talent one and also real estate. It’s actually harder to get development approved in the suburbs than in the city.

There’s also traffic: in the suburbs, most of the getting around is by car on single roads. Those roads get congested fast.

We go to events because we want to show that this is important to us.

What’s the future of the satellite offices for larger companies like Bentley Systems or Fiberlink?

As for those companies that have long situated themselves in the suburbs, they’re not moving their headquarters and we understand that. So we’ve created the concept of satellite offices, what we call gateway offices.

Their conception of these offices probably started as a way to get people into the company and eventually end up in their headquarters, but we hope that those gateway offices take on a life of their own — and they have. When employees [of Bentley Systems, Fiberlink] found out there was going to be an office in the city, they asked to work there.

How about venture capital firms? How’s it going when it comes to bringing them here?

Getting Josh Kopelman and First Round Capital to move into the city was a huge step for us. We used to give him a hard time about his business card that said San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia — we said, you mean Conshohocken? Now he can legitimately say Philadelphia.

There’s a convenience factor [when it comes to convincing VCs to move here] . VCs like aggregating — that’s what you see on Sand Hill Road and kind of in Boston. So we’re working to get other local VC firms here. We’re also working to get a very prominent West Coast VC that specializes in the life sciences to relocate.

What’s it like convincing a company to move into the city?

The bigger the company, the harder the decision is. It’s very much related to the culture of the company. Like GlaxoSmithKline, when they made the decision to move to the Navy Yard, it’s because they had a very strong, willful visionary leader of the company based in London, who said “This is where we need to take this company” and that’s what they did.

We have made some tax changes to encourage a startup to be here. If a business has six or more employees, it gets a two-year tax holiday from business taxes [for those first two years].

Next year, the first $100,000 that a company makes won’t be taxed. For the 85,000 registered businesses in Philadelphia, that will zero out taxes for a good half of them because most are small businesses, like those with investment properties.

How do you think the new Comcast tower change the city’s economy?

Here’s one specific way: businesses will move to be closer to Comcast. It’ll be like the big star in the solar system that other stars surround. It’s something that Comcast is clearly trying to do themselves –they have a much bigger vision for themselves. They don’t just want to be your cable provider. This is a much bigger story about what Comcast can do to expand the world of businesses in Philadelphia.

Companies: Bentley Systems / City of Philadelphia / Comcast / Fiberlink / First Round Capital

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