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Study: Four ways Philly’s tech scene is different from those in San Diego and St. Louis

The universities and the sciences are less collaborative and there's more public investment, says academic Mary L. Walshok

Inside the VR museum. (Image courtesy of Look On Media)

Everyone here knows it: Philly’s got its own way of doing things.

But it can be enlightening to hear what an outsider (especially a smart outsider) thinks.

We caught up with Dr. Mary Walshok of the University of California, San Diego, who’s working on a study about regional innovation to get her take.

Her team has spent the last three years conducting interviews and meeting the players in Philly, San Diego and St. Louis to try to get a sense of how a region’s tech community interacts — and to understand how that fits in with formation of a region’s startups. Technically Philly, among dozens of others, was interviewed on several occasions since last fall.

Here are some of the preliminary locally relevant highlights from the National Science Foundation-funded study, which should be finished by October. Again, these are just initial observations that Walshok and researcher Nathan Owens shared with us — they are not (yet, at least) drawing any conclusions about their impact on Philly’s tech scene.

  • Philly’s various research universities take different approaches when it comes to supporting innovation and technology. Drexel University and Temple University seem to be focused on driving innovation with programs like Temple’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute and Drexel’s Laurence A. Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, but the University of Pennsylvania does not seem to support innovation quite as explicitly, Owens says. Call it the curse of tradition. Walshok says she heard over and over again that because the University of Pennsylvania is such an established, well-respected university, it’s slower to change and make the move towards technology and entrepreneurship programs. That is not to say that Penn doesn’t support Philadelphia, Walshok said, it’s just that it does it in a different way, notably through urban redevelopment.
  • Philly’s science and entrepreneurship communities don’t interact as much as those in other cities. The University City Science Center is trying to fill this gap, Walshok says, but it’s still fairly new and location is a factor. Since the Philadelphia region encompasses parts of Delaware and South Jersey, Owens said he heard from people in the community that it wasn’t always convenient to get to events at the Science Center.
  • Philadelphia startups receive more public dollars than startups in other cities. “We were taken with how much public money is being invested on the East Coast,” Walshok says, citing the state-funded economic development program Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners and Mayor John Street’s Innovation Philadelphia [see our previous coverage here]. She compares this to early-stage funding in St. Louis, which mainly comes from foundations, and in San Diego, which comes “exclusively from the private sector.” To Walshok, it’s still unclear what this means, but she notes that, “usually, public money has strings attached.” Still, she says that everyone spoke very highly of Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners and mentioned it not only as a source of funding, but as a “stamp of approval” if the program invests in your company.

Another interesting point: While Philly produces more startups overall than St. Louis and San Diego, it produces less startups per capita than San Diego (see graphs above and below), according to preliminary data from the study.

 

These are only preliminary numbers and are subject to change in the forthcoming final report. “High tech” refers to life sciences, as well as telecommunications, software, etc. Graph provided by Nathan Owens at the University of California, San Diego. Data source: Dun and Bradsheet.

While Walshok and Owens noted the differences between Philly and the other cities they studied, they wanted to be clear that these differences are not necessarily negative – they just show that Philly is doing its own thing.

And don’t we know it.

For more preliminary graphs and data from the study, go HERE.

Companies: Ben Franklin Technology Partners / Drexel University / Innovation Philadelphia / National Science Foundation / Temple University / University City Science Center / University of Pennsylvania

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