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University City Science Center: half-century-old institution evolves as innovation pipeline

When you think about incubators, accelerators and coworking, you’re probably thinking about something new.

But the University City Science Center, which calls itself the largest urban research park in the country, is old and it’s been a part of pushing innovation forward for nearly 50 years.

“We’ve been incubating companies since we opened in 1963,” said spokeswoman Jeanne Mell. “The term ‘incubator’ didn’t really exist then.”

Mell says the Science Center is certainly not taking credit for the concept, but in many ways the Science Center has served as both an example and as a foundation to a regional technology community by providing physical and educational support to new and established tech companies across their lifespan.

“We have sought to create an environment, from the get go, where people could collaborate and make connections,” Mell said.

But just because the Science Center, as well as its 31 regional shareholders, has had nearly half a century of success promoting technology and entrepreneurship in the region doesn’t mean they’re stuck in their ways. The powerful hub, led by CEO Stephen Tang, has been a major part of real estate development in University City, particularly along the Market Street corridor, and that growth is driven by new interests.

In fact, in the last few years the Science Center has done a lot that’s new — this institution whose reputation was built on life sciences and still hosts its fair share of staid, biomedical operations, is increasingly bringing its power to bear onto the consumer spectrum of technology.

Indeed, if we’re drawing distinctions in the new infrastructure to house innovation here, this strip of shiny buildings on Market Street in University City may have versions of them all, which might help tell the story of the development of the latest layer of the Philadelphia entrepreneurial ecosystem.

First, there’s the community-focused coworking-like Quorum, the most public facing addition to the Science Center’s suite of work spaces for the nearly 8,000 technologists and Science Center staff who work on site.

The renovated 4,500 square-foot space opened under the Quorum brand in fall 2011 and so far it’s already played host to Dreamit Ventures class of startups, plenty of Science Center entrepreneur programming and a steady stream of other events driven by technology, networking and education.

When Technically Philly visited recently, just the coffee machine, the Wifi, and a few modern looking chairs were providing hospitality to crew of young people on computers.

“Quorum is so hard to describe because it’s a space, it’s programming that exists in the space, as well as a casual networking area,” Mell said. “It’s designed to be a neutral meeting ground for entrepreneur innovators investors researchers.”

Second, there is the more formal grouping of desks, meant to help grow fledgling businesses.

The Port Business Incubator — which houses 30 startups, half in the space across the elevator vestibule from Quorum and half across the street at 3624 Market Street, and includes lab space — has also morphed in recent years.

In fall 2011, the Science Center opened a small colocation space in the far corner of the Port that lives on the 8th floor at 3711 market.

The Bullpen and the conference room across the hall sport the clean, sterile look of fresh drywall. Mell says all nine desks are booked, though when Technically Philly stopped by just one person was working in sunlit space.

Mell says the typical startup consists of just one or two founders who can rent desk space for between $250-$450 per month.

“What the incubator offers is flexibility,” Mell said.”You can come in and get a desk in the bullpen, you can get an office, you can get a lab or any combination thereof.”

There’s little in the way of specific, formal criteria for securing in desk in either the Bullpen or the Port. Instead, acceptance to either coworking space is based on recommendations from others in the tech community, be it from DreamIt as is the case with quite a few Bullpen residents, professors at local universities like Penn and Drexel, or local institutions and agencies like Select Greater Philadelphia, Mell told Technically Philly.

In February 2012, the incubator was awarded the Soft Landings international incubator designation by the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA), as Technically Philly reported.

But Mell says the Science Center isn’t just focused on space.

It’s QED program (QED stands for “Quod Errat Demonstrondum” or proven as demonstrated) is a proof of concept funding program that selects ten researchers from a range of institutions with commercially viable business ideas to receive mentorship and to compete to be one of three to receive funding.

“If you’re a researcher and you have an idea and you think you can turn it into a company you can generally get research funding relatively easily,” Mell said. “Then there’s this big funding gap between research funding and the angel/seed funding called the the Valley of Death. QED was developed to help bridge that gap.”

So far, the program has run four rounds and awarded funding to 12 technologies.

The implementation of these programs are rooted in prepared logic.

Mell says both Quorum and the QED program were two of Science Center president and CEO Stephen Tang‘s first projects when he joined the Science Center in 2008. Inspired by a 2007 CEO Council for Growth report on accelerating technology transfer in the Philadelphia region, Tang set out to realize at least two of the recommendations made in the study.

Quorum was born out of a recommendation to establish a neutral meeting ground for entrepreneurs, Mell says, and the QED program was inspired by a recommendation for a regional proof-of-concept program.

“Part of our mission is to bring innovation to the art and science of supporting innovation,” Tang said.

“That means that we will continue to try new initiatives like the Bullpen and assess our market’s receptiveness to it and adapt and/or scale it to meet entrepreneurs’ needs.”

This summer, the Science Center has plans to take the popularity of coworking and its mission to connect entrepreneurs another step farther. In July, Mell says Quorum will host a conference for all the coworking leaders in the community and invite them to join the Regional Affinity Incubation Network (RAIN) the Center helped organize in 2009.

RAIN was originally designed to be a forum for leaders of research parks and business incubators to discuss common goals, but Mell says that with the explosion of coworking spaces and incubators, the Center wants to open RAIN up to a new community of leaders.

The conference is still in the planning stages, Mell told Technically Philly, but the focus will be discussing different models of incubation and coworking as well as best practices for the various kinds.

“We want to tie it all together with the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which has a business track in their Focus 2026 program,” Mell said. “We want to look at how can startups in this community support those overall goals.”

Technically Philly covered the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s Focus 2026 plan here.

Tang says that across all of these varied office spaces and programs, the Science Center is ultimately a pipeline to innovation in the regional economy.

“Today, one might consider us an ‘innovation intermediary,’ or a connector, convener — through Quorum and DreamIt Ventures — a funder and an adviser — through our QED proof-of-concept program — and a community-builder — through the Port — for entrepreneurs and their supporting stakeholders,” said Tang. “We help to create the market for those who sell, buy, and fund innovation.”

Both Mell and Tang say these fresh offerings and plans are not so much a part of some new Science Center strategy to keep up with the startup community in Philadelphia, but rather an evolution on the same innovation-focused strategy that has sustained the institution for so long.

“We will continue to work across the continuum of innovation from ideas to proof-of-concept, to concept, to venture, to growth. All phases are important to scaling innovation that uniquely benefits our city and region,” said Tang.

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Media Contact:

Kristen Fitch

Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing