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Success in life sciences begets more success: What Philly leaders say about the industry’s growth

The reputation of successful companies brings in more talented workers, according to experts from Penn, Spark Therapeutics and beyond.

Dawn Bonnell (left) and Katherine High speak to The Atlantic's Derek Thompson. (Photo by Paige Gross)

Folks in Philadelphia’s startup and business community have known for years that the life sciences industry, which employs more than 50,000 people in the Philly metro area, is on the rise in our region.

But last week, leaders in the local industry got to show off some of that growth to the nation during a traveling event series by The Atlantic, which is currently featuring science communities across the country.

Thursday night at Power Plant Productions in Old City, industry leaders outlined Philadelphia’s trajectory in the new-ish field and mused about its future.

Panelists Dawn Bonnell, vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania; Katherine High, president and head of R&D at Spark Therapeutics; Joan Lau, CEO of Spirovant Sciences, Inc.; and Chris Molineaux, president and CEO of LifeSciences PA talked with Atlantic writer Derek Thompson about how the city attracts top talent to its institutions and companies.

Penn’s Bonnell called the city a nexus where rapid discovery is able to take place.

“We’re in a nice place where we can have discoveries happening, we can translate them and move them — in the case of healthcare — into patients,” she said. “That’s been a dramatic trajectory in last seven or eight years in the evolution of ecosystem.”

And students are aware of this: There’s a lot of attention around cell and gene therapy from students, who are searching for programs to get their life sciences research and companies funded. Across industries, she said. Penn spins out about 60 companies a year.

Thompson asked High to explain the origin of Spark Therapeutics, calling the company “a juggernaut.”

High said she started working with a gene therapy company in Northern California the 1990s, but support for the industry fell, and eventually the group on the project approached the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In 2013, Spark was born with support from the hospital.

Spark’s acquisition deal with Roche, worth $4.8 billion, will be the city’s largest-ever venture capital-backed exit when it’s complete.

High said that the companies starting in the 1990s had the right idea, but the tech to support it hadn’t caught up yet. Now, the industry can thrive in Philadelphia because it has a “critical mass” of investigators working in the space. As the region grows more successful life sciences companies, their reputation brings in more talented workers.

“There’s a great advantage to being in the midst of a place where there’s a lot of activity in the space,” High said, “And that simply wasn’t true for a number of large and prestigious academic and medical centers outside of Philadelphia.”

As the life sciences workers have come to Philadelphia, so has venture capital, Spirovant Sciences’ Lau said.

“It’s an area which has returned its fair share of investor dollars,” Lau said, added that she’s confident in the region’s reputation continuing to bring in investment money and top talent.

“Everyone knows what has occurred here,” Lau said. “With Spark and institutions like Penn, it really is our own Silicon Valley.”

And while Molineaux said lack of state funding can be a challenge for companies, he feels that Philly’s reputation, opportunity and overall lifestyle offerings also help bring in company leaders — top managers, executives and CEOs.

“We’re attracting CEO talent because of intangibles,” he said. “There’s so many advantages here, plus you have a foundation of technology here.”

Companies: Spark Therapeutics / University of Pennsylvania

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