Report: University City’s tech scene can explode with growth and help nearby neighborhoods

Researchers suggest the Innovation District could be the key to Boston-like success.

Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

A new report from the nonprofit Brookings Institution examines Philly’s burgeoning tech scenes against those in other cities, and suggests the city should invest in education and medicine — particularly in University City’s Innovation District.

“Philadelphia is already strong on life sciences more broadly, but in this particular area of precision medicine is really where [Philly] could potentially be a global leader,” said Jennifer Vey, a co-author of the report out today. And the analysis says this industry could yield massive returns. “What’s important here, as you can well imagine, if we really crack this nut on precision medicine and more personalized healthcare, you can see this is a major game changer globally.”

Perhaps you’ve noticed that some recent scientific breakthroughs of note were locally researched: Baby sheep grown in artificial wombs at CHOP; gene-editing technology for excising HIV from DNA in labs at Temple. Philly is rich when it comes to academic institutions.

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Courtesy of Brookings

The report notes an Innovation District from Center City to University City, as the report describes it, is “a dense, dynamic engine of economic activity where research-oriented anchor institutions, high-growth firms, and tech and creative startups are embedded within a growing, amenity-rich residential and commercial environment.”

There is, of course, a “but” to all this. That “but” warns that this prosperity hasn’t crossed over to neighborhoods nearby.

“Economic growth alone isn’t enough,” Vey said. “There has to be aggressive and intentional efforts to connect low-income to opportunities.”

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Courtesy of Brookings

Fixing this is key to Philadelphia’s advancement, but what can the city do?

One challenge that Philly faces is that many of the region’s pharmaceutical manufacturing companies aren’t near University City, and are actually out in the ’burbs. The reason for this appears to be connected to the legacy of how America suburbanized. The Cliff Notes version: Post-war highway planning not only encouraged the growth of suburban residential areas, but also suburban work centers. The Delaware Valley has a strong rep for Big Pharma, but even companies based in Delaware and ChesCo have moved offices to places like Massachusetts. In 2014, a spokeswoman for Shire (the maker of Adderall) explained the company relocating a huge fraction of its operations from Chesterbrook to metro Boston in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer thusly: “Our strategy is to become a leading biotechnology company, and Boston is a biotech center.”

Consider this graphic. Cambridge has a wealth of pharmaceutical manufacturing. University City… does not.

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Courtesy of Brookings

Nationwide, it’s been a trend for corporations to move back towards cities, whether it’s to better attract a young talent base that prefers urban living and the conveniences it affords. But Philly’s anchor institutions haven’t had luck enticing companies that could be collaborators.

“There’s the physical distance, but also a lack of programmatic connections between the more anchor-based research and the private sector,” said Vey. This is a hurdle that Brookings expert say Philly will have to surmount.

The report recommends building connections between education and medical centers and neighborhoods around West Philly. The success of Philly’s academic institutions means there are job opportunities not solely for scholars, but for those with a myriad of experience and education levels.

Ergo, University City institutions should be incentivized to hire more from West Philly. For one, the labor force is already there:

“In fact, despite the discouraging statistics, more than a quarter of adults in these neighborhoods have some type of sub-baccalaureate training (whether an associate’s degree, postsecondary certification, or some college). Still, residents of these communities make up just 5 percent of the district’s workforce even as unemployment rates remain high, indicating that a good share might meet the basic qualifications for many middle-skill jobs but are having trouble connecting to them.”

Brookings experts argue that hiring more employees who could possibly walk to their jobs is a win-win: it could lower turnover for positions, as workers wouldn’t have longer commutes.

The report suggests leaning on existing diversity initiatives at anchor institutions and their workforce development programs, arguing these resources should be enhanced or scaled up. Something like educational disparity, for example, would naturally be a huge part of this conversation, Vey said; Brookings’ goal was to make the recommendations less broad and more directly actionable. Still, she said, “These are big hairy issues that need a multiplicity of actions and initiatives to focus on.”