Twenty Years of Supporting University City's Innovation Ecosystem

In the first of a three-part Regional Direction series looking back at his two decades at the Economy League, Steve Wray reflects on ongoing efforts to spur growth in University City’s innovation ecosystem.


The University City Science Center and their development partners, Wexford Science and Technology, last month hosted a groundbreaking for the newest UCity Square building, 3675 Market, and introduced one of their anchor tenants, Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC). In an exciting development for the city and the region, CIC will operate their branded accelerator program in Philadelphia for the first time. CIC has built a reputation in Cambridge for being a centerpiece in that region’s dynamic innovation ecosystem – something we saw first-hand during the 2014 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange to Boston – and is now taking its model national with new locations in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Miami.


Between the speeches, food and networking at the groundbreaking event, I began thinking about how the conversation about innovation in University City and Philadelphia has evolved over the 22 years that I have been with the Economy League – and the Economy League’s role in that evolution. The Economy League’s involvement in the innovation economy and University City provides a model for how we use research and analysis to define challenges and bring regional leaders together to identify opportunities and catalyze action.


Defining the Challenge


Two decades ago, the Economy League began to shift its emphasis from a long history of government-focused research to more of an emphasis on economic competitiveness for the region. As we made that shift, it became clear that despite an impressive array of research and innovation assets driven by our colleges and universities, Greater Philadelphia was not being mentioned alongside the leading innovation economy regions in the country. This emerged from benchmarking and data analysis on the region’s competitiveness and economic development infrastructure that the Economy League carried out for the CEO-led Greater Philadelphia First (GPF was a precursor to the CEO Council and Select Greater Philadelphia) and the Strategy 21 economic development partnership (led by GPF, PIDC, and Ben Franklin Tech Partners of SE PA, among others) in the late 1990s.


This benchmarking work allowed the Economy League to identify specific areas that either needed improvement or could be major opportunities to build on past success. A key takeaway was that Greater Philadelphia was having difficulty connecting the great ideas being developed in its colleges and universities to new and existing companies. Another glaring issue was that, compared to our peer regions, we seemed to be lacking a world-renowned center of innovation and economic activity.  


With seed funding from local foundations, economic development partners, and the Economy League board, the Economy League then undertook a series of white papers that examined the region’s performance in starting and growing new businesses, with a particular focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. White papers on venture capital, technology transfer, the “brain drain,” and the status of minority and female entrepreneurs were developed, providing the Economy League with a strong knowledge base and understanding of the emerging innovation economy.


Identifying Opportunities


The benchmarking and foundational research engaged the region’s economic development leadership community in thinking about the steps needed to improve the region’s innovation economy performance and established the Economy League as a trusted partner in the work. This led to new opportunities to delve deeper on these issues with partners ready to act on Economy League analysis and recommendations.


The first key effort was a 1999 Economy League evaluation and strategy project sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania to examine Penn’s economic development and community building initiatives. Coupled with the Economy League’s 2000 Knowledge Industry report which benchmarked the region’s 101 colleges and universities and examined their role in promoting economic growth and competitiveness, the reports led to a renewed focus on making University City a centerpiece of the city and region’s innovation economy, fueled by its anchor institutions and civic partners like the University City Science Center and the University City District.


The Penn strategy and Knowledge Industry analysis are great examples of two different ways that the Economy League works with civic partners. With Penn, the Economy League was a trusted partner working with University officials to identify economic development goals and objectives to maximize returns to the University, its University City neighborhood, and the region, comparing Penn’s approach with those of peer institutions, and developing actionable recommendations that guided Penn investments under then EVP John Fry.


With the Knowledge Industry regional analysis, the Economy League assembled a coalition of funders – the Pew Charitable Trusts, the University City Science Center, Greater Philadelphia First, Penn and others – and an advisory task force of key stakeholders to oversee analysis and recommendations. Members of that team visited Baltimore, Boston and the Bay Area to see and experience first-hand the ways those regions were leveraging their higher education assets to develop innovation centers, serving as a precursor to the development of the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange.


Catalyzing Action


These foundational reports positioned the Economy League to undertake a number of research and strategy initiatives that have helped to spur key innovation investments and activities in University City over the last 15 years, including:


  • University City Working Group (2000) – Convened by Penn and UCD and staffed by the Economy League, this group brought together University City and Philadelphia stakeholders to begin strategizing on steps to make University City a premiere center of innovation activity. It produced the initial State of University City report and developed strategies focused on physical assets and infrastructure to increase University City’s attractiveness and prominence as an innovation-focused business community.

  • Accelerating Technology Transfer in Greater Philadelphia – In 2007, the CEO Council for Growth commissioned the Economy League to lead an analysis and strategy development initiative focused on technology transfer in the region. The analysis recommended, among other things, the creation of an entrepreneur’s clubhouse and additional proof of concept funding. These recommendations were adopted by University City Science Center CEO Steve Tang and became today’s Quorum meeting space and QED proof of concept funding program.

  • A 2012 partnership with the University City District, Science Center and Wexford Scientific resulted in Making University City a World Class Innovation Center, a strategic analysis of University City’s assets and opportunities that has been instrumental in the development of key new amenities, UCity Square, and other University City innovation strategies.

These coordinated and sustained innovation investments are already yielding dividends in University City and around the region. Last year, the Economy League worked with the Science Center to understand the reach and impact of both its incubation efforts and its QED proof-of-concept program. The findings of this work demonstrate that innovation activity in the region is robust: between 2009 and 2016, the QED program alone has screened 475 submissions from 379 researchers at 20 participating institutions. And the economic influence of the Science Center’s incubator is impressive – on an annual basis, firms incubated at UCSC generate $13B in economic activity – more than 2% of the region’s total economic output. 


A lot has changed since we first started working on this set of issues, but it is clear that events like the 3675 Market launch and the attraction of engines like CIC are only the tip of the iceberg for the future of University City.


Lessons Learned


Finding ways to strengthen our innovation economy is exactly the type of challenge that the Economy League is built to take on. Because it doesn’t run programs, the Economy League has the ability to independently analyze the situation, understand our unique ecosystem and the issues we deal with, look for models we can learn from in other regions, and work across organizations to help them develop new solutions and approaches.


Looking back on these two decades of work around improving our innovation economy in University City and beyond, I see three lessons for the Economy League’s ongoing work with civic partners.


  • Seemingly small projects can lead to big results - The foundational research that led to the Economy League’s involvement in transformational change in University City were not big projects by themselves. But they allowed the Economy League to establish its credibility in the innovation space, and to develop relationships that led to long-term partnerships.

  • Don’t assume we know all the answers - On the ground benchmarking in other regions helps you in a variety of ways. You get a sense for how others have looked at similar issues, and what they have done well and also what they could do better. You also get a better sense for your own context, as comparisons can often result in learning that you are on the right path. And finally, you enlist fellow travelers in your work by sharing that experience and brainstorming on how to do it better.

  • Leadership and institutions open to new ideas, change and collaboration make a huge difference - Philadelphia is fortunate. Key institutions have put in place a set of forward thinking leaders committed to making their institutions and University City one of the best places in the world to start a company, do research, go to school or live, work or play. Institutions built intentionally to foster collaboration – the Science Center, University City District and Ben Franklin Tech Partners – have found ways to work together and with others to create an innovation and growth engine that is truly exciting and powerful. The willingness of these leaders and institutions to look critically at themselves and be open to new ideas has been key to success.