(Photo by Sue Spolan)
Welcome to South by Southwest 2016. Or, as one Philadelphia entrepreneur put it, “the modern-day World’s Fair.”
On your left is the Des Moines tent, where you can get a free haircut in an airstream while listening to a live band play a country cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.” Say hi to someone from Des Moines, says Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the public-private partnership behind the tent.
Regions everywhere are touting their strengths. What's Philly touting?
Closer to the Austin Convention Center and across the two-floor, open-air bar that Samsung rented out is the WeDC house, a restaurant transformed into homebase for a delegation from Washington, D.C.
Everyone seems to be wearing a WeDC T-shirt. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is there and Mark Walsh, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s innovation head is wearing one, too. They have flown in to Texas for the occasion. They address the crowd after a D.C. startup showcase. “A piece of D.C. is here in Austin,” Walsh says to much applause.
And right inside the Convention Center, at the SXSW Trade Show, is a little piece of Philadelphia.
The city has its own little alley on the trade show floor — nine booths and a miniature LOVE statue, the culmination of an wide-ranging partnership to showcase Philadelphia at this modern day World’s Fair. (OK, the Philly alley is a bit overshadowed by the gigantic, glowing “BRAZIL” sign above Brazil’s alley, but look, it was only Philly’s first shot at this.)
The effort is called Amplify Philly. There’s a bit of healthcare IT in insurance software startup Picwell, some dev shops like Chariot Solutions and Arcweb and consultant-turned-entrepreneur Vanessa Chan, who sold 30 of her earbuds-that-don’t-tangle in the last two hours.
Philly — like Des Moines, like D.C., like Brazil, like the cities on our Tomorrow Tour — wants to brand itself as an innovation hub, a place to build your tech startup, a place you could fall in love with. It’s a broader movement, known to some as the rise of the rest, where cities are carving out a niche next to the mainstream tech centers of Silicon Valley and New York City. Now that it’s been established that a tech community can blossom anywhere, Philadelphia is making moves to determine exactly where it can stand out.
When AOL founder Steve Case came to Philadelphia on his Rise of the Rest tour, tech scene leaders took it as an opportunity to flex.
The city’s Commerce Department put together a tour for Case to meet the city’s most promising startups: the NEA-backed visual marketing firm Curalate, the 100-employee analytics firm RJMetrics and a representative of the region’s hopes for health IT prominence with Biomeme, the makers of a smartphone-based DNA test. (And, because Philly is trying to shed its cheesesteak persona, the Franklin Fountain ice cream parlor was also on the docket.)
All the energy behind Case’s visit may have caused some to roll their eyes. How does this help our tech scene? “Good old-fashioned marketing,” said investor Brett Topche.
“We’re trying to get the word out to the rest of the country,” said Topche, the MentorTech Ventures director who helped organize the local tour. “Outside of Philly, I don’t think that people know that stuff is going on here.”
Indeed, much of the conversation centered around a phrase that we’ve heard so much it almost sounds tired: Philadelphia’s tech scene needs to get better at telling its story.
In an interview with Technical.ly Philly, Case said it was a characteristic of all the fledgling tech scenes he had visited.
“They don’t tell their stories with enthusiasm,” Case said. “They feel like second-class communities because most of the attention and capital goes to a few places.”
It may also be the truth that it’s hard to tell a story if not everyone’s on the same page, if there’s not a collective identity to rally around. Of course, it’s impossible (and likely not helpful) to force the tech scene into a box.
But think about it this way: When someone asks, “What’s the Philly tech scene like?” how do you respond?
There are inherent characteristics, sure, which the Amplify Philly initiative sought to codify:
- Philadelphia is a small town/big city, where everyone is “six degrees away” and you can get an introduction to anyone.
- It’s a hub for talent thanks to the density of universities.
- It’s an affordable medium between New York City and Washington, D.C.
But aside from those qualities, we’ve seen leaders work to build critical mass around a handful of strengths: health IT, civic innovation and diversity.
Oncora Medical is shaping up to be the poster child for the region’s healthcare IT aspirations.
The early-stage oncology analytics company was born at Penn, by Md./Ph.D. student David Lindsay, and has tapped into and raised money through the city’s infrastructure for healthcare startups, like Dreamit’s health IT accelerator, the University City Science Center’s Digital Health Accelerator and life sciences venture firm BioAdvance. Oncora has Gary Kurtzman, Safeguard Scientifics’ healthcare managing director, on its board. The company, which closed a $1.2 million seed round in March, also has a research collaboration with a major local institution (that Lindsay couldn’t disclose).
When someone asks, 'What's the Philly tech scene like?' how do you respond?
The company’s trajectory is an early testament to the region’s healthcare firepower, a sort of “New Philadelphia” take on the historical strength of eds and meds. It’s a movement that traditional business leaders, too, have joined: In November 2015, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce announced a $2.4 million partnership to kick health IT into high gear. The likes of Independence Blue Cross, Jefferson and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia signed on to make it easier for startups to find inroads to large healthcare institutions.
“In its most simple form, the Collaborative helps early-stage companies avoid the guessing game they often face, wondering what solutions large health care institutions are looking for and developing products or services that may or may not be needed,” Independence Blue Cross CEO Dan Hilferty said in a statement.
That’s one problem that’s holding the health IT movement back. Another is large institutions’ willingness to take a chance — and put their money behind — new healthcare products.
“Well-heeled, established Philadelphia businesses have been slow to innovate,” said Todd Johnson, the CEO of health IT company Noble.MD.
He urged the region’s “healthcare elite” to “accelerate real business relationships to support sustainable innovation” or else miss the boat to become a real leader in the space.
Now that there’s a coalition behind health IT, perhaps it’ll be easier to lobby the region’s big players.
It was a full-blown Philadelphia takeover at the 2015 Code for America Summit in Oakland.
The morning of October 2, 2015, Philadelphia’s then-director of civic technology, Aaron Ogle, took the main stage to tell the story of alpha.phila.gov, the redesign project of the city’s website that was happening out in the open and before Philadelphians’ eyes.
“For us, the user is not a transaction or an ad click,” he said. “The user is our neighbor and the better we can serve them, the stronger our communities will be.”
Earlier that week, City Hall developers Gabriel Farrell (now of adtech firm Vistar Media) and Mjumbe Poe hosted a workshop at the Summit about the technology behind alpha.phila.gov, while city data scientist Lauren Ancona spoke about analytics for the site and Chris Alfano and Dawn McDougall spoke about building an inclusive tech community through their work leading civic hacking group Code for Philly.
To top it off, Philadelphia technologists Kathryn Killebrew, Corey Acri and Lloyd Emelle accepted an inaugural Code for America Technology Award for their bike route-tracking app called CyclePhilly.
The local civic technology community’s rose during the Michael Nutter administration and flourished in large part thanks to the open data movement, a grassroots effort that started among civic technologists outside government, like Azavea’s Robert Cheetham, and then made its way into City Hall. It’s a class of technologists that have broken down the walls between government and the broader technology community — it’s common to find Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski, like his predecessor Mark Headd, at a weekend hackathon or a Code for Philly meetup.
The technologists behind Code for Philly appointed leaders in 2015 and are working toward becoming a full-fledged nonprofit, but the biggest test of their power is ongoing. With a new mayoral administration comes a new set of priorities. Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid, who led the charge to build an innovation team, has already left, as have Ogle and Farrell. Despite that, can the city continue to lead in civic tech?
One fall evening last October, inside a room on the second floor of the Marian Anderson Rec Center at 17th and Catharine streets, three Philadelphians worked to build a website in HTML and CSS.
Among the students were Tom McNeill, a 68-year-old South Philadelphian who wanted to learn how to code so he could teach youth at the city computer labs he runs, and Haomin Tian, a Chinese immigrant studying IT at the Community College of Philadelphia.
It was a class of Coded By U, a 12-week developer bootcamp for people who can’t afford traditional dev bootcamps. The camp, run and taught by Iraq veteran Sylvester Mobley, received a nearly $20,000 grant from the City of Philadelphia’s StartUp PHL program, as part of an effort to fund projects that aimed to make technology more accessible in Philadelphia.
The grants were an example of the way Philadelphia is thinking about creating a diverse pipeline of tech talent and making the tech scene more inclusive. On his Rise of the Rest tour, Case encouraged tech leaders to lead the way in diversity in tech.
“Philadelphia can show the way for the country to level the playing field,” Case said.
(He also said a similar thing in Baltimore, later telling Technical.ly that many of the stops on his Rise of the Rest tour were focused on building inclusive tech scenes.)
We believe Philadelphia’s success in this arena is tied to its efforts to close the digital divide, so there’s still a large amount of work to do. There have been early, promising efforts, like an injection of federal dollars into a School District tech apprenticeship program called the Urban Technology Project and how the city negotiated a franchise agreement with Comcast to vastly expand Comcast’s low-cost internet option. The issue, too, is already part of Mayor Jim Kenney’s stump speech to the tech scene.
On March 17, 2016, Ben Franklin Technology Partners spokesman Jason Bannon and director Omar Mencin flew to Salt Lake City to meet with tech leaders from 15 other cities who, like Philadelphia, are forging their innovation identities.
It was the launch event for D.C.-based venture firm Village Capital’s Rise of the Rest-inspired investment program, VilCap Communities, which aims to fund startups in places other than Silicon Valley and New York.
But more than that, state-backed investment firm Ben Franklin Technology Partners saw it as a way to build “a national network of support,” Bannon said.
It makes sense. Many of the Rise of the Rest cities face the same issues, something we’ve seen firsthand on the Tomorrow Tour, Technical.ly and Comcast’s tour of growing tech scenes across the country — a dearth of early-stage capital, the constant search for talent, the desire to be recognized.
Bannon hoped that joining VilCap Communities would be a step toward a more unified Rise of the Rest movement and a way for Philadelphia to situate itself within the national context.
“We shouldn’t stay isolated,” he said.
The possibilities are larger, that way: Maybe, the way that Philadelphia and the suburbs compose one region, Philadelphia and Baltimore could be a joint Northeast hub for health IT. If we build up an infrastructure to support civic tech startups, might another city send them our way? And vice versa?
Maybe remembering that we’re part of a bigger movement is the key to figuring out our own tech scene identity.