• Josh Sevin
Categorized As:
Business Growth

Innovation Center Investments Adding Up in University City

Is the dream of University City becoming an elite urban innovation center on a par with Cambridge on the verge of becoming a reality? An announcement last week regarding a new university-nonprofit and business incubator partnership in West Philadelphia is one in a growing list of recent developments indicating that University City may be on the fast track toward growth as a tech-based startup hub.


The recent news was that the University City Science Center and Drexel University will jointly develop the second floor of a Science Center building at 3401 Market Street into an innovation hub. The space will also include the new worldwide headquarters for DreamIt Ventures, a tech startup accelerator program that launched in Philadelphia in 2008 at the Science Center and has expanded to New York, Baltimore, Austin, and Israel. The ground floor of the building is already home to Drexel’s innovative ExCITe Center focused on the intersection of interactive communication technologies and the arts.


With all of Greater Philadelphia’s considerable innovation economy assets, the 2.4 square-mile area that makes up University City stands apart within our region for its density and potential as an entrepreneurship and startup engine. Yet despite being home to six major academic and medical research institutions and more than $1.2 billion in annual research spending, a 2012 Economy League analysis conducted for the Science Center, University City District, and Wexford Science + Technology found that the area has been falling short of its considerable potential with respect to startup activity. Based on a detailed Economy League review of local conditions, case studies looking at other leading urban innovation centers, and interviews and extensive dialogue with key University City stakeholders, a set of priorities for advancing University City as an innovation center emerged. These include supporting a climate of innovation in University City, promoting growth of key innovation clusters, strengthening quality of place and amenities, and marketing UCity’s assets as an innovation hub. (Click here to see the complete analysis from the University City Innovation project.)


Within the past year alone, an impressive number of new developments have come out of University City aligned with this urban innovation center vision – in particular from the two principals for last week’s announcement. In conjunction with the Science Center’s 50th anniversary celebration this year as the oldest and largest urban research park in the United States, it has unveiled several new initiatives to boost University City’s position as a hub for tech company formation. Its latest building under construction, a 13-story 332,500-square-foot tower at 3737 Market Street to be known as the Penn Center for Specialty Care, will include outpatient medical facilities and office space as well as additional space to support tech-based innovation startups. Street-level activity along what had been a relatively sterile and nondescript office corridor along Market has improved with a new Han Dynasty outpost and the new Creative Café @ Replica, and will receive a significant boost when the Science Center’s first residential development is completed at 36th & Market, adding 363 units and 24-hour activity.


The Science Center has also invested in telling the story of the Greater Philadelphia region’s underappreciated innovation legacy by announcing the inaugural inductees for an Innovators Walk of Fame on its campus and partnering with Mural Arts and the Bridgette Meyer Gallery to unveil a new mural at 3701 Market Street. These efforts are in addition to the expansion of successful ongoing Science Center programs to support and connect area entrepreneurs, technologists, and investors, including the QED proof of concept program and the Quorum clubhouse space.


Meanwhile, the Science Center’s immediate neighbor to the east, Drexel, has made innovation and entrepreneurship a cornerstone of its strategic plan. While rhetoric around innovation and entrepreneurship is plentiful these days, Drexel is demonstrating through its investments that it means business. During 2013 alone, it established the region’s first stand-alone school of entrepreneurship, opened a new building for its LeBow School of Business, and created a new Drexel Ventures subsidiary to boost tech transfer and entrepreneurship supports on campus. The location of Drexel’s new ExCITe Center and the growing Westphal College of Media Arts and Design on the easternmost edge of the Science Center’s campus are providing a crucial opportunity for University City to expand beyond its historical life sciences strength and build a more diversified base of startup activity based on Drexel’s IT and communications strengths. The university’s most ambitious entrepreneurship-fueled vision will take several years to unfold, as President John Fry leads the charge to create an entire new “innovation neighborhood” on properties adjacent to – and possibly over the railroad tracks at – 30th Street Station. Regional guru Bruce Katz of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program has hailed the innovation neighborhood concept as a potential “game changer” for Greater Philadelphia.


Beyond the Science Center and Drexel’s leading roles, Penn has stepped up its game around spurring entrepreneurship through its new UPStart program and development of the former Dupont campus in the nearby Grays Ferry neighborhood. And the University City District continues to take the lead on place-making and quality of life improvements that make the area more attractive as a startup destination with projects like The Porch at 30th Street and creative events and programming.


By any number of measures, Greater Philadelphia still has a ways to go to reach a tipping point to become broadly recognized as a world class tech startup center. But last week’s 3401 Market announcement and other recent University City developments are signs of collaborative, place-based efforts that are pointed in the right direction and may yield significant dividends in the not-too-distant future.


Next month’s Regional Direction newsletter will feature an in-depth look at Greater Philadelphia’s evolving tech scene. For a recent Economy League overview of community development efforts in another corner of University City, click here.