B) Sahar Coston-Hardy

science center in the news

A look at the impact of University City Science Center's shift in focus, two years later

February 20, 2020  |  Philadelphia Business Journal

“I think one of the hallmarks of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the course of the year is the idea of bringing the right people together at the right place at the right time”

Tracy Brala, Vice President of Ecosystem Development

It’s been over two years since the University City Science Center decided to shake up its business model — and its new annual report out this week gives a look back on how the change has played out. 

 

The nonprofit first announced in December 2017 it would shift away from its longtime focus on managing the office and lab space it owns across 16 buildings in University City and instead double down on programming and community-building. The news came ahead of its move into a brand new, 345,000-square-foot headquarters at 3675 Market St. Its partner, global co-working operator Cambridge Innovation Center, has since taken on oversight of its landlord duties, and both organizations have been settled into the new building for more than a year. 

 

The Science Center’s annual impact report shows that the move has allowed it to expand its reach, both to the wider entrepreneurial community and to West Philadelphia students exploring careers in STEM fields.

“These are jobs that are family-sustaining, and there’s an opportunity to train and place West Philadelphia residents at these companies”

Kristin Fitch, Marketing Director

Quorum, the Science Center’s co-working and event space, saw more than 29,000 people come through in 2019. In prior years, that number came in at between 7,000 and 10,000. The space is on track to host even more people this year, as Quorum’s new drop-in lounge alone sees 80 to 100 people visit.

 

One of the main reasons Quorum has been able to expand as much as it has is because its new space in 3675 Market is 15,000 square feet — triple the size of its former location.

 

The additional square footage also made it possible for the Science Center to grow its FirstHand program, which exposes middle and high schools students from nearby neighborhoods in West Philadelphia to STEM careers through project-based, multi-week classes. 

 

The program served 307 students in 2017, prior to the Science Center's move to its new headquarters. In 2019, that number jumped to 377.

 

“I think one of the hallmarks of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the course of the year is the idea of bringing the right people together at the right place at the right time,” said Tracy Brala, vice president of ecosystem development at the Science Center. “It’s really about those connections we create everyday.” 

 

During 2019, the Science Center also invested $1.8 million in businesses and projects through its commercialization initiatives, which are designed to fuel real-world applications of university research and support growing startups. Those companies have since seen $57.3 million in follow-on funding and created 113 jobs.

 

In addition to supporting entrepreneurship, the Science Center has worked to make sure the founders that it supports reflect the Philadelphia community. Out of the 118 companies involved in its commercialization initiatives last year, 45% are led by minority founders and 39% are led by female founders. The numbers are better than the usual statistics in the overall entrepreneurship ecosystem but still have room to improve, said John Younger, the Science Center’s vice president for science and technology.

 

“We’re a majority-minority city so we’re not quite where we need to be but we are rapidly getting closer to that level, really by being intentional about the organizations we’re partnering with, how we are promoting [the program] to folks in the ecosystem who might not have had a voice before,” Younger said. 

 

So what’s ahead in 2020? The Science Center is getting ready to roll out a workforce development program designed to be a bridge between West Philadelphia residents and career opportunities in the neighborhood’s thriving life sciences industry. An initial cohort of 10 to 15 participants will begin a three-phase training course — designed in tandem with the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, local universities and life sciences companies — that will prepare them for biotech careers. 

 

“These are jobs that are family-sustaining, and there’s an opportunity to train and place West Philadelphia residents at these companies,” said Kristen Fitch, marketing director at the Science Center. The first cohort is expected to begin the program this spring.