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Microsoft as Philly’s Google? Its uCity Innovation Center could be huge

Picture this: A 12-year-old girl from West Philly is walking home from school when a storefront with a giant screen showing an Xbox game catches her eye. She opens the door and heads inside, where she finds other cool tech toys and finds out she’s allowed to fiddle with them for free. As she’s playing around, a couple of software developers take a break from a meeting to chat with her about what they do for a living. Inspired, she decides that sounds like a fun career, and heads home to her mom to proudly announce, “I’m going to create my own Xbox games someday!”

If the story strikes you as unlikely, maybe you haven’t heard the news. A Microsoft Innovation Center is opening at the University City Science Center in late June or early July.

The above scenario is Wayne Kimmel’s dream, anyway. And it just so happens Wayne Kimmel is especially good at turning dreams into reality.

As founder and managing partner of Philly-based VC firm SeventySix Capital, Kimmel has funded more than 40 healthcare and consumer tech companies, including Indiegogo, Seamless, NutriSystem and ReverbNation. He’s also on the board of dozens of organizations across the region, from the Kimmel Center (no relation) to the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia to the Einstein Healthcare Network. This is a guy with his hands in many, many projects.

But over the course of the last 18 months or so, Kimmel’s big-picture brain was focused on one major goal: Convincing Microsoft to pick Philadelphia for its third U.S.-based Innovation Center.

No fee, no swipe

What is a Microsoft Innovation Center? According to a Microsoft spokesperson, MICs “help bridge the current gaps for start-ups on their journey to success: such as the lack of access to funding, knowledge and expertise, access to affordable technology, business planning and exposure to potential markets and customers.”

Sure, that description is a well-crafted stream of buzzwords that’ll help make the MIC appealing to entrepreneurs — or those actively looking to get into the tech/start-up sector. And that’s certainly one of the main target audiences for the centers, two of which are already up and running in the U.S. (Miami launched in May 2014 and Atlanta followed in Dec. 2015). But it’s not the only one.

What makes MICs different from other “technology hubs” or coworking spaces — other than being filled with Microsoft’s latest (HoloLenses, yes!) — is that they’re built expressly to serve the surrounding community. The tools and services inside are available to anyone who stops in. There’s no fee, no membership structure, no swipe to get through the door. And that is what hooked Wayne Kimmel.

‘Philly’s always behind’

For several years, Kimmel had harbored the idea of creating a place that showed off “all the great and amazing innovations that are out there in the world” while being open and accessible to everyone — people of all ages, all backgrounds, all levels of income. But he hadn’t found the right partners to make it happen, until one day in late 2014 when he mentioned the idea to Jeff Friedman.

Kimmel knew Friedman from his various civic innovation roles over the course of six years in the Nutter administration. He’d recently left City Hall to take a position as the director of modern government in Microsoft’s State and Local Government Solutions Group, and he let Kimmel in on a secret.

“Jeff told me Microsoft was thinking about opening a third MIC in the United States,” Kimmel remembers. “I didn’t even know there were any in the U.S. — but I had visited the one in Tel Aviv.” (There are more than 100 MICs around the globe.) At the time, Philadelphia was on the list of possibles for the next stateside MIC location, but, as Kimmel puts it, “We were behind all the other major cities — Philly’s always behind.”

He did not find the ranking acceptable. “It became my personal quest to make sure, and do everything and anything we could do, to be the third city.”

Rolling out the red carpet

Along with his business partner Jon Powell and their team at SeventySix Capital, Kimmel launched an all-out campaign to woo Microsoft.

They gathered studies and statistics and research and news reports. They put together presentation after presentation that showed off everything great happening in Philadelphia — the building boom, the influx of young residents, the cultural diversity, the restaurants. They made passionate pitches on conference calls with Microsoft execs in offices across the country. They brought Microsoft principal partner Bradley Jensen to town at least five times, and “rolled out the red carpet” for him, making sure he had a good time and saw what Philly had to offer.

That’s not to say they kept him in a glass box. According to Kimmel, Bradley spent a whole day on a walking tour of the entire city, and also met with key figures in city government to hear about their goals and concerns, struggles and triumphs.

In essence, Kimmel says, “we helped Bradley fall in love with Philadelphia.”

The call came in late August, right before Labor Day weekend. Philly had won the nod. To Kimmel, it was an utter thrill.

“I cannot remember another Fortune 50 company coming to Philadelphia like this,” he says. “We’ve all tried to get Google or Facebook or Twitter to open an office here — it’s been part of the conversation for so long.” Microsoft might not immediately seem as sexy as those younger tech giants, but it’s still a huge company that’s relatively cutting edge, he argues, pointing to the continued popularity of Xbox and its role in facilitating America’s No. 1 sport (Surface tablets power communication on the sidelines of every NFL game).

A home in uCity Square

The next step was to find a home for the MIC, which ended up being easy. When Kimmel approached Steve Tang, president and CEO of the 53-year-old University City Science Center, the search was over almost as soon as it started.

“When I shared the story of our 18-month quest with Steve and his team, he basically stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘We’re in,’ ” Kimmel says. “He totally bought into our goal — making sure it was a first-floor location that was open and accessible.”

“What makes the MIC different from the Science Center’s existing coworking/events space, Quorum, is that it’ll have really cool toys to play with,” Tang says, “but also that we’ll be able to link it with not only our legacy community of innovators and entrepreneurs, but also the broader community.”

For example, Tang and the person hired to run the MIC will develop programs that link to the Science Center’s existing STEAM-based education outreach (that’s Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Math). Additionally, the goal is to get people in the area to view the MIC as a place that they can simply drop by on a whim — something that will become much more appealing as the Science Center reconfigures its campus into a more-neighborhood friendly design called uCity Square.

Before the end of the year, that imposing two-block stretch of behemoth buildings along Market Street will be broken up, and 37th Street will be rebuilt, connecting Market to Lancaster Ave. Other streets criss-crossing the campus will be reconstructed and opened to traffic, so the MIC will become part of an actively walked block, right next to Han Dynasty and Replica Creative Cafe.

“That will allow us to touch the neighborhoods of Mantua and Powelton Village, and connect portions of the community together — both those that have been served and those that have been underserved,” Tang says.

Just the beginning

While Microsoft is the catalyst for the center, both Kimmel and Tang see its involvement as just the beginning.

“We hope it’s the first step of several to attract companies as prominent as Microsoft to Philadelphia,” says Tang.

“This is the tip of the iceberg of the things we think will happen because of the fact that Microsoft is entering Philadelphia,” Kimmel says. He’s planning to work on stocking the MIC with technology from other companies — “all the major tech companies in the world work with Microsoft; we’re going to be talking to everybody.”

Plans call for the MIC to be open by the time the Democratic National Convention hits town — Microsoft is a tech sponsor for both the DNC and RNC — and Kimmel and Tang expect many out-of-towners to stop by and check out innovative programming there (exactly what it will be is still in the works).

“The MIC will be the place to expose all the great things that are happening in and around our city,” Kimmel says. “If you’re in the tech scene or want to get into it, this is the place to come.

“It’s like the Independence Visitors Center, but for technology.”

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Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing