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How Philly sees itself: Hub for health IT, civic hacking, tech diversity

Three areas where Philadelphia stands out.

The Independence Blue Cross building in Center City Philadelphia. (G. Fred DiBona Jr. Building in Philadelphia by Tupungato via Shutterstock)

The flagship program of a top-down campaign to grow Philadelphia’s healthcare IT scene launched on a cool fall morning on the 44th floor of the iconic Independence Blue Cross tower in Center City.

That’s when RoseAnn B. Rosenthal said it.

“I don’t want to be the Silicon Valley of anything,” said the longtime, esteemed CEO of state-backed investment firm Ben Franklin Technology Partners, sitting on a panel next to other healthcare and tech bigwigs who were part of the so-called Health Care Innovation Collaborative.

Ahh, shots fired.

Her comment was a clear, albeit playful, dig at Independence Blue Cross CEO Dan Hilferty, seated just to the left of her, who has been known to say that Philadelphia should become the “Silicon Valley of health IT.”

Hilferty picked it up immediately, and with grace: “From now on,” he said, “I will never use the term ‘Silicon Valley of healthcare innovation.'”

It was a quiet, throwaway moment, easily overshadowed by the bigger announcement of the morning — that the Health Care Innovation Collaborative was looking for fresh health IT ideas to incubate at local institutions. But it was a complete gem, a look at how a young tech scene is working to identify itself and how conversations that have started on the ground level (“We shouldn’t try to be like Silicon Valley, let’s do our own thing”) have worked their way up to people in power, like Rosenthal and Hilferty, and were making their way into more traditional business circles. Even outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter knows the drill.

So now that (nearly) everyone agrees that it’s not productive or wise to compare Philadelphia to Silicon Valley, what can Philly’s tech scene be known for?

(This, btw, will be a topic of conversation at the Philadelphia kickoff of’s Tomorrow Tour, a multi-city event series sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal. Register for the free Jan. 27 event here.)

As for Philly’s main strengths, we’re trying these on for size:

1. Health IT

The health IT campaign taps into Philadelphia’s long-established strength in “eds and meds.” The tech scene, the thinking goes, should grow around heavy hitters like the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Independence Blue Cross and Jefferson and Penn, with their hospital systems and med schools. DreamIt Ventures launched its first health IT-focused accelerator in Philadelphia three years ago and has been attracting health IT startup across the country to the city (though Philly is still working on how to retain all of them). Now, the health IT push is more focused than ever, with the $2.4 million effort of the Health Care Innovation Collaborative.

Another class of Philly technologists that have found national acclaim?

2. Civic hackers

You can find Philadelphia’s civic hackers inside and outside of City Hall — they live in both worlds, building apps to improve the city on and off the clock. The city’s civic hackers propelled the open data movement within City Hall, which officially launched when Mayor Nutter signed an open data executive order in 2012. A civic hacker named Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America, became the city’s first Chief Data Officer.

“Philly is to civic technology what Nashville is to country music,” Headd once said.

Naturally, it was Tim Wisniewski, another hackathon regular, who took over for him when he left his post.

The city’s civic hacking group, Code for Philly, appointed leaders last year and is working on growing from a meetup to a fully-fledged nonprofit.

And, last but not least:

3. Diversity

Philadelphia, as AOL founder Steve Case put it during his Rise of the Rest tour stop here, could show the rest of the country what a diverse tech entrepreneurship community looks like. This is a nascent strength, for sure. Philadelphia’s tech scene still has a lot of work to do around making its tech scene more inclusive, but early efforts have been promising.

The local chapter of Girl Develop It, the national coding education nonprofit for women, is the most active in the country, hosting the most classes and events of any chapter — not to mention that its executive director (a Technically Media alum, full disclosure) is based in Philadelphia. Workforce development groups are working with city government and corporations to pilot coding bootcamp for low-income adults and youth. Entrepreneurs and technologists of color have launched meetup groups to create a stronger community.


There are other regional strengths, too, like the way that one founder of a sales startup said that Philadelphia has the best salespeople in the world. (We’re scrappy, OK?) But, now that we’ve gotten that whole Silicon Valley thing out the way, the Philadelphia tech scene would do good to choose a focus or two and get to work on organizing around it.

Companies: Coded by Kids / DreamIt Ventures / Girl Develop It / Independence Blue Cross

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