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How Philadelphia Became Cellicon Valley: BIO 2019 Sneak Peek

This article originally appeared on CIC's blog.

When BIO 2019, the BIO International Convention, comes to Philadelphia June 3 through 6, its 16,000 participants will be invited to explore the vibrant ecosystems of Philly’s thriving biotech community. CIC Philadelphia, BioLabs@CIC Philadelphia, and the University City Science Center, all located in 3675 Market Street at uCity Square, are stops on the Philadelphia’s “Cellicon Valley” ecosystem tour. Other stops on the tour include Pennovation and Schuylkill Yards.

CIC Philadelphia interviewed leaders from these tour stops about how the City of Brotherly Love earned its nickname “Cellicon Valley,” why the city was chosen for BIO 2019, and what tour guests can expect to see.

In our conversation below, you’ll hear from:

CIC: Why is Philadelphia the perfect location for this year’s BIO International Convention?

Kristen Fitch: It’s no secret that one of Philadelphia’s strengths is biotechnology and life sciences. Much of that is tied to the density of some of our country’s most respected research institutions. Globally renowned academic institutions are drawing smart and motivated students and faculty, and the healthcare systems here are consistently ranked among the top. Further, one in six doctors receives some sort of medical training in Philadelphia. While often left in the shadow of some its counterparts like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego, Philadelphia is, and has been, making its mark in the biotech sectors and is blazing new paths in areas that I think will be of particular interest to BIO attendees.

Melina Blees: Kristen’s right; there's so much to showcase here! Applicants for BioLabs space in our biotech hubs across the country undergo a rigorous selection committee process, and we've been highly impressed with the quality of the companies who apply for space here in Philly. It's both a wide and deep pool of experience, talent, and great science.

Abby Sherburne: And as our scientific and technological progress is just starting to be recognized on the national and international levels, Philadelphia still operates as an agile underdog. The companies at BioLabs@CIC Philadelphia are here seven days a week — and everyone, from the interns to the CEOs, has taken Saturday or Sunday shifts one time or another to check on the cells. Philadelphia is hungry for the next big breakthrough, and I think the scientific community is starting to have the appetite for it as well.

KF: You know, Philadelphia hosted the BIO conference in 2015. Since then, we’ve only gained momentum. Four years later, we have more activity, more companies, bigger exits — and we’re ready to showcase those successes to the world.

MB: Exactly. Folks who have left the city tell us they’re being asked by VCs as far away as California: "Why on earth did you leave Philly?"

CIC: Philly has been dubbed “Cellicon Valley.” What does that mean, what led to it, and how do you see it evolving?

KF: Philadelphia has emerged as a leader in the cell, gene, and immunotherapies, and we continue to attract both talent and investment — meaning we’ll continue to grow our capabilities and maintain a leadership position.

MB: Yes, it definitely comes from Philly's strengths in cell and gene therapy, but it’s important to understand that the innovation here is even broader than that. Companies that previously left Philadelphia are beginning to return, and there's a real sense of momentum to the ecosystem. We're seeing lots of interest from companies outside of the region.

KF: The numbers really speak for themselves:

  • Precision medicine is a $170B market with a projected annual growth rate of almost 20 percent. Industry reports show that our region boasts more than 60 relevant labs with an average of 13 researchers and funding of $1.9M per lab, per year.

  • 87 percent of US pharmaceutical and biotech companies have a presence in the region, according to Select Greater Philadelphia.

  • Life Sciences Pennsylvania boasts over 800 members, more than half with ten employees or fewer.

This combination of early-stage activity with enterprise presence is a catalyst. And strength attracts strength. Fifteen years ago the Science Center’s Port Incubator was among the few shared lab spaces in the region. Today the labs at Pennovation, BioLabs, and Spring House Innovation Park — with more on the way — are filled with promising young companies.

CIC: So what is so special about this area, University City?

KF: With its density of educational and medical institutions, University City is ground zero for this type of research. The collective role of the Science Center, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the Wistar Institute, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the University of the Sciences within such a concentrated area have propelled University City to the forefront of the region and among the nation’s top research and innovation districts.

AS: This concentration is what first drew CIC to Philadelphia and, specifically, to University City. We always look for areas with top-tier research universities with an orientation toward life science technology and then work to help concentrate business with technology innovators in that community. This area has the critical elements that we’ve seen lead to a booming ecosystem: easy access to public transit, multiple points of access, a sense of community, and proximity to a large city — and here you can walk to downtown Philadelphia and easily access a train to North Jersey, New York, Baltimore, or DC.

MB: Right, this location is ideal, which is part of why the neighborhood has seen some huge wins recently. Spark Therapeutics decided to stay in University City, and Amicus decided to locate its Center for Gene Therapy Excellence in our building. Companies know they can recruit and retain great talent, have access to the resources they need, and build a long-term home in University City. The Science Center, Penn, Wistar, and others in the area really deserve praise for their visionary thinking and years of planning and work to make this ecosystem what it is today.

KF: Thanks, Melina! The volume of work being done in just 2.4 square miles of the region is remarkable: $1.4B in R&D investment was reported in 2017, and 42 percent of Pennsylvania’s NIH funding was awarded to University City institutions. Some say University City is having “a moment,” but I think this activity and the impact it will have on patients have much more longevity.

CIC: Tell us something we might not know about R&D in Philly — a discovery, a statistic, anything.

KF: Two of the largest biotech exits came out of University City: Centocor and Spark Therapeutics.

MB: Companies taking lab space with us at BioLabs@CIC Philadelphia have raised almost $300M and created hundreds of jobs in Philadelphia — and that's just across two floors of a single building!

KF: One more: Upwards of $750M in capital has been raised over the last 15 years with a direct connection to the Science Center.

If you could see into the future, what would medical research in Philly look like in 20 years? What would people be working on and how would they be working together?

MB: I see Philly flourishing as companies of all sizes start, grow, and stay in Philadelphia and as companies from around the world select the city as an obvious first choice.

AS: I see our role as Cellicon Valley evolving as other technologies establish a foothold here. We see novel medical device development, drug discovery platforms, and companies creating SaaS platforms to make medical care more efficient and thorough all under this roof. With top tier programs like Drexel’s College of Computing and Informatics, Backstage Capital’s accelerator program, and Penn Vet constantly spitting out talent, these technologies don’t exist in isolation. Rather, we see these industries intersecting and coming together to form new and interesting ventures that go beyond cells. Philadelphia can provide that neutral ground for innovation and translate the talent that exists in the biotech sphere to the technology community at large.

KF: I agree. I envision Philly as among the largest cell and gene therapy clusters in the world with an increase in cross-university and cross-lab research. We’ll see more interdisciplinary activity between researchers, engineers, artists, designers, and beyond. These are areas that institutions like Drexel’s ExCITe Center and Jefferson — and even the Science Center’s BioArt Residency program — are spearheading, and I predict it becoming common practice.

MB: Yes! I foresee a vibrant ecosystem that draws on a pipeline of well-supported local talent so that biotech can create jobs in Philly instead of pushing lifelong residents out.

The Philadelphia’s “Cellicon Valley” Tour takes place on Monday, June 3, between 10am and 4pm.