The ribbon’s been cut, the mayor’s spoken and the new Microsoft Reactor is officially open for business in the University City Science Center.
As the fanfare surrounding Microsoft’s new home transitions into its day-to-day operations, stakeholders in the project say the space could have a significant impact on the city’s innovation ecosystem — especially when it comes to the ever-pressing need to increase diversity and inclusion in tech.
“I think they’re really putting their money where their mouth is in terms of bringing the community together and having a space that is accessible and really open,” said Brigitte Daniel, executive vice president of Fort Washington-based Wilco Electronic Systems and an advocate for the inclusion of women of color in tech.
Inviting the surrounding West Philadelphia community in the Microsoft Reactor — a combination event space, incubator, accelerator, community hub, and access point for tech tools — has been a focus since its inception, said Microsoft’s general manager of Developer Evangelism Matt Thompson.
“You can’t forecast innovation. You can’t predict innovation, you can’t even designate where it’s going to happen,” said Thompson. Sparking the next generation of that innovation isn’t accomplished through just funding startups, he said, it’s done through increasing the digital literacy of students at a young age when they’re focused more on the process of creation than the product on the other side.
“We’re looking at all types of people who want to essentially learn how to build,” he said.
Through a digital alliance with the Science Center, the Reactor intends to link middle and high school students in the surrounding neighborhoods. It’ll host hackathons, meetups, training sessions, and Digi Camps, and welcome two Microsoft tech evangelists two days a week to provide guidance and skill-building opportunities to the community and developing startups. Anyone can walk in and experience Microsoft’s mixed-reality hologram technology HoloLens.
“We are very well aware this is a precious, precious commodity,” said Science Center CEO Stephen Tang. He pointed to the background of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the access he had to a computer as a kid that allowed him to build a foundation of coding experience, as proof of what an entry point into tech can ignite.
“Your imagination could run wild about the possibility of creating economic opportunities in the city,” said Tang, adding its community efforts will also rely on the groundwork already laid by community organizations. The Science Center’s project of building roads into adjacent neighborhoods are literal as well, as they’re rebuilding the street grid, including 37th Street between Market Street and Lancaster Avenue, and will make getting directly to the Reactor and nearby Penn and Drexel easier.
“It’s more than symbolic what we mean by access,” said Tang.
Gauging potential impact based on the two other reactors in San Francisco and New York is difficult, given the vast differences between each city, but Tang said their intent is to stand out among the pack. He sees the Reactor — drawn to Philadelphia through SeventySix Capital's advocacy of the city —as a way to fortify the existing entrepreneurial community, create a gathering space where experts can share knowledge and carve career paths for local students that they might not have had before.
“We take pride in what we have here,” said Tang. “We’re looking to do something in the Reactor world that hasn’t been done in New York or San Francisco.”
Daniel is ready to see Reactor’s impact in action.
“[Inclusion] is so critical,” said Daniel, who also runs Mogulettes, a program devoted to bringing young girls of color into tech. “It’s going to be the make-it-or-break it for Philadelphia.”
She was encouraged by the diversity at the ribbon cutting for the Reactor last week, Mayor Jim Kenney's remarks at the event and the fact that the Reactor's first startup-in-residence, Stimulus, is founded and run by a woman of color, Tiffanie Stanard. Daniel hopes to use the Reactor as a meeting space for her Mogulettes and other women of color to give them a place to both access entrepreneurial networks and hard tech skills. The ambition and focus for the Reactor’s intended impact is there, she said, if those goals are met — in tandem with the city’s progress toward establishing itself as a tech hub in the Northeast, all of Philadelphia will benefit.
“Diversity is not just a touchy feely topic,” she said. “It’s about opportunity and bottom-line growth. One thing Philadelphia is is communities of color that we are under-tapping.”
Tang said more announcements are coming soon about the Reactor, its place in the community and how “it all fits together." In the meantime, he had just a few words of advice: “Watch this space.”