Patrick Hayakawa spends his working life ensuring Chester County is a place where entrepreneurs can grow the companies and technology of the future.
With the recent opening of 23,000-square-foot life sciences incubator 8HUB in Malvern and the Keystone Innovation Zone designation of the building holding the forthcoming nth Innovation Center in Coatesville, Chester County Economic Development Council’s (CCEDC) VP of innovation and emerging technologies says the county is primed for that economic growth.
8HUB plans to offer lab space to life science startups, while the nth Innovation Center, which formerly housed a steel manufacturing company before sitting vacant, aims to attract technology companies.
“While COVID-19 has slowed some business sectors, Philadelphia-area biotech companies continue to see an increased need for research and development infrastructure in 2021,” said 8HUB and 8BioMed COO Hubert Ho in a statement about the new incubator. “We are making a strategic investment to meet that demand by converting part of our reserved space in our headquarters into collaborative lab space.”
The project affirmed Hayakawa’s belief that a county contributes to its own growth by investing in innovation. He talked to Technical.ly about economic opportunities in Chester County, and the municipality’s future as an innovation hub. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Technical.ly: How do these innovation hubs reflect Chester County’s economic growth?
Patrick Hayakawa: Both of these projects, nth Innovation Center and 8HUB, are physical, tangible signs of the progress that Chester County innovation economy has made in the last year. Between the two of them is over 50,000 square of space for innovation in tax advantage zones with the potential for 50 or so tenants. The innovation center is the first construction project in Coatesville in 50 years and part of the revitalization of the city and testament to great collaboration and entrepreneurial spirit.
Silicon Valley is held up as an archetype to aspire to and we can all do it. All communities can have a shot at this and it’s also about keeping character. Coatesville has a proud history and personality. It’s a whole number of reasons why businesses want to locate there. I believe even in a COVID world, businesses want to go where businesses are. That sense of place is what you will get at that innovation center.
What does Chester County have to offer in terms of innovation?
It’s important to understand what innovation means for everyone. Is this a desirable place for business to grow? Also, does everybody as much as possible have a shot to benefit? Who has a shot at the jobs and the internships?
This is exciting when a biotech [company] makes a new drug, but let’s look at the tangible economic opportunities for people living in these communities. [Exton-based product development company] nth Solutions has a paid internship program where students from local high schools including Coatesville have local tracks for engineering or marketing. It’s that foot in the door that we want everyone to have. Susan Springsteen is leading development of the nth Innovation Center, and her company nth Solutions will be a lead tenant.
There are also other examples. We have a whole program devoted to getting young people hands-on exploration in STEM careers. If they decide [they want to pursue STEM] when they go to college, that’s great. The point is for any kid see that you can do this if you want to do this — “Here’s what it’s like to be a meteorologist or to work with robots.” It’s the exposure of young people seeing themselves. Girls Exploring Tomorrow’s Tech is a big [program of CCEDC’s] and 100% free.
An aerial view of 190 W. Lincoln Highway, the future site of nth Innovation Center, in January 2021. (Photo courtesy of Valley Creek Productions)
Looking 10 years into the future, what will Chester County’s innovation economy look like?
One of the reasons these projects are possible is because locally, we have a dedicated group of people like the i2n [Ideas x Innovation Network] board and partners in city and local government. All these folks are thinking and talking every day about how we can make Chester County the best place for entrepreneurs. It doesn’t happen overnight. The headlines are great, but they belie cups of coffee, conversations and moving forward together as a community.
To me, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t do with that sort of spirit in 10 years. We’re proud of Chester County but it’s a global question as to whether Philly can compete globally. Many incubators are out of state. Many prospects moving to the area are out of the state or out of the country. In 10 years, if the region can continue doing what we’re doing, we can be on the map locally, nationally and globally.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in helping to develop these hubs?
When I started this type of work 10 years ago, there was a lot of talk about how important financial capital is. That’s true to a point. What I’ve learned is that the single most important thing for any entrepreneurial venture is social capital. Who you know or need to know can shorten your distance to your goal. That’s particularly true through the lens of equity and inclusion.
Maybe someone is a first-time entrepreneur and didn’t go to an Ivy League school or doesn’t have an uncle that’s an investor. Or they’re a registered nurse in a hospital. They’re lacking social connections. A year ago we created the Entrepreneurs Roundtable for first-time founders to talk about what’s going well, what they need help with, or to give advice within a safe space for 20 to 30 local founders. That’s what I mean by social capital. Outside of meetings they can make recommendations, review slide decks and more.
It’s about that point of entry, if I have an idea but don’t know where to start. Come to this group and no one is going to laugh at you. It’s not that place. So much of that attention goes to the glossy success stories. My concern is focusing on that too much is a disservice to entrepreneurs. People are staying up at night thinking how they will make payroll or pay their mortgage. The more we can make that part of the education process, the more healthy we can make the community.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.