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How changing the culture of academia can drive Philly’s life sciences industry

Fifteen years ago, while he was at Penn getting his M.D., Cytovas CEO Todd Johnson said Penn academics didn't think highly of academics turned entrepreneurs. Business and commercialization was seen as "dirty" or "evil," Johnson said on a tech transfer panel last Friday. Even now, when he returns to Penn, he said academics joke that he's joined the dark side.

The way some professors see it, Todd Johnson left academia to join the dark side. Johnson is the president of Cytovas, a heart disease diagnostics company that spun out of Penn.

Fifteen years ago, while he was at Penn getting his M.D., Johnson said Penn academics didn’t think highly of academics turned entrepreneurs. Business and commercialization was seen as “dirty” or “evil,” Johnson said on a tech transfer panel last Friday. Even now, when he returns to Penn, he said academics joke that he’s joined the dark side.

It’s one way that Philly’s tech transfer landscape is different from those in other cities, panelists said at the American Heart Association‘s Heart Science Forum at the Franklin Institute, over the din of children exploring the family-friendly science museum.

In Boston, there isn’t an “adversarial relationship” between academics and entrepreneurs. It’s “much more hand in hand,” Johnson said.

Reid Leonard, managing director of Merck’s Boston-based Research Laboratories Ventures, agreed: At MIT and Harvard’s teaching hospitals, it’s become ingrained in the culture that you have to start one company during your tenure, he said.

But the culture in the Philadelphia region is changing, Johnson said, pointing to programs like Penn’s Upstart, which helps professors launch companies. Drexel has also launched Drexel Ventures, an early-stage fund to back faculty ventures.

“It’s about getting people to see the possibility of being an entrepreneur,” Johnson said.

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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