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PA’s innovation economy is not ‘flat’ in the ‘burbs. Here’s where it’s growing — and why

Chester County exec Patrick Hayakawa says innovation can flourish outside large metro areas in the Commonwealth when local business, government and economic development leaders collaborate.

U.S. Route 1 in Chester County. (Photo by Flickr user Adam Moss, used via a Creative Commons license)
This is a guest post by Patrick Hayakawa, a VP at the Chester County Economic Development Council.

report recently released by Brookings says Pennsylvania’s innovation economy has gone stagnant, especially outside of hubs like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The report blames a few factors, such as diminished investment by state government in early-stage companies and below-average R&D expenditures by Pennsylvania-based companies, and goes on to argue that to boost its innovation sector performance, Pennsylvania should borrow economic development strategies from competing states.

But in Chester County, we have found that being innovative in our action and policies, and not simply replicating what goes on elsewhere, is critical for supporting tech and entrepreneurial growth from our busiest suburbs to our most rural enclaves.

We do this by teaming up with our community’s business, economic development and government leaders to create resources that are both impactful and sustainable. For example:

  • Last year, Chester County granted $100,000 to the Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC) and its Ideas x Innovation Network (i2n), a private-public partnership founded in 2012 to support tech-driven ventures started locally. i2n has grown to assist more than 100 companies per year with accessing funding, workspace, mentorship and key connections. The county grant builds on the investment made by the state in the Keystone Innovation Zone tax credit program, which i2n administers for the region. The grant is matched 100% by contributions from the private sector.
  • That same year saw the creation of VentureChesco, a $4 million fund in partnership with the Chester County Retirement Board and the state-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania to provide early-stage funding to tech and life sciences companies operating in the county.
  • In 2019, with public and private support, the CCEDC established the Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable, a peer group where startup company founders and first-time entrepreneurs come together to address the critical needs of their businesses, such as accessing startup funding and professional development resources.
  • When formulating innovation strategy, we draw on the input and expertise of local tech industry leaders like Evolve IP’s Guy Fardone and iPipeline’s Tim Wallace, who also serve as mentors to the next generation of tech innovators. Their companies, and many others like them in Chester County, began as startups and have become anchors for the region, employing hundreds in well-paying jobs. Their expansion draws new waves of tech talent, and their successes (like iPipeline’s $1.6 billion acquisition last month) turn the attention of investors worldwide to Southeastern Pennsylvania.
  • We know that more people must have an opportunity to lead our tech economy and share in its fruits, regardless of their gender, race or economic background. That’s why we’re focused on educating, expanding and diversifying our future tech workforce through youth programs that helped more than 4,500 students explore STEM careers last year.

Partly due to this strategy of long-term planning, coordination across the private sector and multiple levels of government, and creative problem-solving based on local challenges and resources, Chester County excels in several indicators of innovation success. They include number of invention patents per capita, numbers of tech and life sciences companies, and award levels of KIZ and R&D tax credits.

There is more work to be done, both here and across the state. And we agree with the Brookings report’s call for a refreshed statewide innovation strategy, as well deploying more private and public resources to improve Pennsylvania’s competitive edge.

But before we look to our out-of-state neighbors for policies that may or may not suit our local communities, or reflexively recreate the strategies of 20 years past, let’s take a shot at building on our local strengths, enhancing existing collaborations and advancing new ideas to bolster the innovation economy.

Companies: Brookings Institution / Chester County Economic Development Council / State of Pennsylvania

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