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How institutional innovation hubs are learning from coworking spaces

At PACT's annual luncheon, high-ranking executives from Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department talked about building where their workforce lives.

Roselle Safran. (Courtesy photo)
Full disclosure: The author moderated the roundtable discussion referenced in this article.
When a couple billion dollars of investment in physically clustered knowledge workers is represented on a stage, you could be forgiven for expecting the conversation to blandly follow the same decades-old business park strategy. But there was something fresh to an hour-long roundtable discussion that headlined the annual ritzy luncheon earlier this month from PACT, the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies.

Rather than dour bean counters discussing fresh Class A office space far enough away that a tax man’s SEPTA pass can’t reach it, high-ranking executives from Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department talked about building where their fast-changing workforce wants to live.

“This is going to make us more competitive for attracting the kind of people we need to hire,” said Marc Siry, a vice president of strategic development at Comcast, on the telecommunications giant’s plans to build a second, $1.2 billion Center City skyscraper.

Likewise, since at least its 1989 Center City headquarters consolidation, executives at healthcare network Independence Blue Cross have felt the benefits of the city have outweighed the costs of building a business there, said Brian Lobley, IBX’s senior vice president of marketing. The company’s new $50 million startup fund and health IT center represent further investment in that idea.

“The healthcare industry is undergoing heavy change,” Lobley said. Like other sectors in the post-web adoption world of today, much of the big ideas that start as risky experiments are happening outside of big institutions. IBX wants to be closer to them to adapt to the future, he said, and that means being in and near Center City.

Increasingly urban-bound, small-scale experimentation is also helping to lead a resurgence in university tech transfer programs, the initiatives that aim to take academic research and commercialize it. It’s a way of bringing important discoveries to market for both institutional impact and profit.

The University of Pennsylvania is housing its retooled tech transfer effort under the new Penn Center for Innovation, which features a business incubator on the South Bank campus the school is developing near Grays Ferry, said Penn’s Vice Provost of Research Dawn Bonnell.

“We will be transforming the way we do commercialization,” she said. “We’ll be making a larger impact locally, nationally and globally as our research is able to get into the marketplace and make a difference.”

Penn’s adjacent collegiate neighbor, Drexel University, is following its own urban curve, riding a generational wave of pro-city sentiment.

In the last decade at least, however, Drexel has been hampered by a series of rankings calling it one of the country’s ugliest college campuses, due in part to a spine that stretches down a long-blighted Market Street corridor. But now, buoyed by a slew of glassy new research buildings, Drexel President John Fry is summoning the audacity to plan for an ‘Innovation Neighborhood,’ covering (literally) the 30th Street rail yard and along the Schuylkill River.

“This is changing the university and the city,” said Deb Crawford, the university’s Scottish-bred, outgoing vice provost of research.

The common theme across all of these projects is a very real pursuit of collaboration and creativity, the kind of goals that are today neatly and regularly summed up under the tidy canopy of the word “innovation.”

To be sure, innovation is fast becoming a dangerous word — too vaguely conscripted by politicians and economic development as a fashionable novelty — but the use here seems close to the traditional definition: old methods being updated with better processes. It’s something that universities and big corporations are hungry for.

“This is a reflection of the marketplace,” said Alan Greenberger, the City of Philadelphia’s Commerce director, who has been excitedly agitating for a focus on these kinds of innovation businesses, in the technology and creative fields, in addition to young startup businesses more generally.

The trend of suburban IT businesses opening Center City gateway offices to capture talent wanting to live in the city is “a sign of something,” Greenberger said.

This isn’t just a city conversation, though, said Comcast’s Siry. It makes sense that the efforts discussed are city-based, given that density is core to the tenet of clustering, but all of these institutions and the broader Philadelphia business and innovation economy are dependent on a connected, cohesive and collaborative region.

“No city is succeeding without a supportive region,” he said. That might help calm the nerves of a largely suburban-bound business community that has long been skeptical of Philadelphia as another in a long line of tax-heavy boondoggles.

But like other big, old cities, Philadelphia has other problems. Both Siry and IBX’s Lobley said that the perception of Philly public schools do enter into the recruiting process.

“That’s something we all need to be thinking about,” Siry said. But it won’t change the steadfastness in his belief that the city is where future talent recruiting will have to take place, he added.

This idea of clustering businesses around people — all panelists testified to their belief that Millennial urbanism is a cultural shift, not a fad — is not one created by institutions. The coworking movement of the last decade, which first put independent software programmers and creative-class members at desks in shared work environments often in trendy urban neighborhoods, has influenced mightily these efforts from bigger organizations.

“We look to them as models to learn from and take the best of what they do for what can work for what we do,” said Penn’s Bonnell, when asked about the influence of places like Indy Hall or Benjamin’s Desk.

It’s the learning and experimentation among smaller, organic efforts shaping multi-billion-dollar, generations-old institutions.

That sounds like what innovation is supposed to mean.

After the luncheon was finished, PACT’s director Dean Miller told this reporter that someone in the audience asked him why there wasn’t an entrepreneur on the panel, considering PACT’s traditional focus on connecting capital with investment-ready business.

“This is different and something bigger that is changing everything” that impacts those young tech businesses, Miller said. “This was about the future of our region.”

PACT donates a portion of the proceeds from its annual luncheon ($175 a seat for non-members) to a charity. This year, the money was given to TechGirlz, the startup software programming nonprofit.

Here’s a list of most of the questions asked during the roundtable discussion.

Companies: Comcast / Drexel University / Independence Blue Cross / PACT / University of Pennsylvania

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