University City Science Center Board Chairman Mike DiPiano draws a parallel between his organization and Motown.
Before the storied music label could start pumping out chart-topping hits, founder Berry Gordy had to build out a physical space to house offices and recording studios. Since its founding in 1963, the Science Center has worked to establish a similar foundation for excellence, building out the space it needs to help cultivate top health care companies.
The Science Center has developed more than 15 buildings in the University City neighborhood over the course of nearly 50 years. In the past year, it has sold two of those buildings — 3701 Market St. and 3440 Market St. — for a total of $124 million.
"Now, we're focusing on amplifying the music," DiPiano said in keeping with the analogy.
Once guided by a drive to expand its real estate portfolio, the University City Science Center has embarked on a new strategy that centers the intangible needs of startups: access to capital, space for collaboration and resources to commercialize products.
Although seizing on real estate has been central to the nonprofit's operations for decades, DiPiano said it has always been looked at as a "means to an end." The end hasn't changed, DiPiano said, but the recent real estate deals have given the organization the capital to double down on its longtime mission "to power progress that advances health care innovation, uplifts communities and improves lives."
The Science Center is seemingly at an inflection point which started with a series of "what ifs" among board members over the years.
DiPiano can recall many of those questions: "What if we had programs where entrepreneurs could exchange ideas? What if we had more money? What if we had lab space that companies could use? What if we had inspirational people to lead this?"
In October 2020 the board handpicked Tiffany Wilson, who has no background in real estate, to lead its next chapter as CEO. Wilson said that her focus for the future of the Science Center includes bringing health care technologies to market, nurturing STEM talent, helping companies scale and being a presence in the West Philadelphia community.
The Science Center's real estate-focused strategy of years past was not only instrumental in turning University City into a burgeoning life sciences hub, but also allowed it to serve as a breeding ground for companies like SEI Investments, Centecor and Century, to name a few.
Now, the revenue generated by the two recent real estate sales will go toward resources that the Science Center hopes will help innovative startups grow into Philadelphia's next health care giants. More specifically, the shift is part of a "revenue diversification strategy" that Wilson thinks can breathe new life into existing programs to further develop local startups and health care innovators.