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Where’s Philly’s PayPal mafia?

The tech community has to build out the resources to ensure the region gets a major win. That's one of the suggestions from a report that the Brookings Institute released today.

University City. (GIF via Cory Popp's "Philadelphia in Motion" video)

For the past 18 months, the Brookings Institute — a D.C.-based think tank — has been taking a close look at Philadelphia. Specifically, what it’s calling “the most significant innovation hub” in the region, a so-called innovation district spanning University City and Center City.

And today, the organization released a 62-page report titled “Connect to Compete: How the University City-Center City innovation district can help Philadelphia excel globally and serve locally” based on its findings.

“Stretching from 17th Street to 43rd Street along the Market Street corridor, and south along the Schuylkill River to Grays Ferry, the 1.5 square mile innovation district in University City and West Center City is perhaps the most significant innovation hub among several in the Philadelphia region,” the report said.

The research project was funded by some of the city’s better-known anchor institutions (which just happen to be located in, or have presence within, that corridor): Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Comcast, Drexel University, Independence Blue Cross, FMC Corporation, PECO, Penn Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, University City Science Center and Vanguard.

(Full disclosure, the researchers spoke to associate editor Juliana Reyes as part of the report.)

The authors are researchers Scott Andes, Bruce Katz  (who has penned research on Philly before), Jason Hachadorian and Jennifer Vey. Throughout the text they signal the bounty of innovation happening in the area (“The innovation district and Philadelphia at large are replete with innovation institutions and initiatives”) but point to the lack of cohesive work towards a transformative goal (“[The institutions] lack the structure and support needed to fully exploit regional potential in high-impact, next-generation clusters.”)

The report is peppered with good stats. Here are a few:

  • 74 percent of the city’s university research expenditures happen within the district.
  • The city’s institutions and businesses generate 2.8 million jobs.
  • The corridor described above has over 104,000 jobs and is a “regional job magnet, with over 44 percent of area workers commuting from 10 miles or more away.”
  • The number of residents is up by 8 percent since 2000 (versus just over 1 percent in the city).

There are also some less-than-flattering stats, mind you.

  • Philly, a top-10 metropolitan area by population, trails its peers in fields like employment share in advanced industries (Philly is No. 51 on the list), new firm creation (No. 34) and total patents (No. 12). This according to stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Only 1.5 percent of new firms in the metro area grew to employ at least 50 people over a five-year period.

Download the full report

But the juiciest part of the report might be the suggestions for capitalizing on the growth that has occurred, the potential that is here and how to get there (though some say we already are where we need to be).

1. Establish an “Innovation Council.”

“The Innovation Council would serve as a steering entity comprising 10 to 15 innovation district anchor, corporate, civic, and economic development leaders,” the authors propose. “The council’s primary charge would be to identify an initial set of specific strategies and initiatives for growing the regional innovation economy, and work to identify the organizations best poised to lead each.”

Who would be in charge with assembling such a group? The researchers suggest The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. From the task at hand, convening and coordinating the stakeholders sounds like a better job for the University City Science Center.

2. Design initiatives aimed at growing the city’s advanced industry clusters starting with precision medicine.

The report lauds local development of precision medicine (think gene therapy startups, like Spark Therapeutics) as a starting point for the increasing clustering of industries with potential. We bet the region’s universities and their tech transfer departments like that one.

3. Launch an “Anchor Firm Entrepreneurship Initiative.”

“Some experts interviewed for this report expressed worry that because Philadelphia has yet to produce its ‘PayPal millionaires,’ it does not have the deep bench of technology investors, firms, and entrepreneurially minded philanthropies needed to support the ecosystem,” the report reads. (We’ve heard this time and time again.) That’s why one of the suggestions here is leverage existing organizations to boost access to customers, mentorship and funding.

4. Coordinate and expand anchor-based skill-building, education, and procurement initiatives.

The end goal for this suggestion is clear: growing a more inclusive district where “a diversity of people and ideas” populate the offices where innovation is happening.


5. Establish a connected-corridor task force for University City–Center City.

People want to work in a place where they love to live. And the corridor, according to the report, is already that place. BTW, Mayor Jim Kenney also feels this way. Yet, some initiatives around public transportation and urban planning can further leverage on that advantage.


Minus the time hook, the report at least partially echoes what we wrote here at the end of last year: University City and Center City are sitting on a golden opportunity to become a catalyst for Philly’s innovation growth. Will the suggestions laid out here gain footing? In case they do, we’ll be the ones to tell you about it.


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