The concept of the startup may feel like a modern one, but pioneers in science and technology have been paving the path for innovation since long before the dotcom era.
In fact, the same can be said about the startup incubator.
Case in point: Philly’s own University City Science Center. The nonprofit innovation hub — and one of Philly Tech Week’s first and longest-running sponsors — has been helping the region’s innovators and entrepreneurs build businesses across the commercialization continuum since 1963.
Recognizing the roadblocks that entrepreneurs face throughout the process of building a company, such as access to affordable office and lab space, lack of mentorship to build out a proof of concept or apply for grants, and limited opportunities to connect with potential corporate partners, the Science Center has simplified and streamlined standardized paths to startup success in a resource-fueled community environment. Its comprehensive programming covers every stage of innovation, from idea generation and research to raising capital and commercializing technology.
Since its origin, the Science Center has made a tangible impact on Philly’s economic development.
“We’re working with about 70 companies at any given time and over 400 companies have been supported by the Science Center,” said Eamon Gallagher, program director of the ic@3401 software incubator.
This has led to the employment of more than 12,000 people in the Greater Philadelphia region, and $13 billion in annual economic output generated by Science Center-supported organizations.
Beyond the numbers, the Science Center’s reach and reputation has created an ecosystem effect that has added incalculable value for entrepreneurs across the region.
By convening academic and research institutions, commercial organizations invested in identifying promising tech talent, corporate partners and mentors with professional expertise across biotech and software technology sectors, participating entrepreneurs are granted access to a network full of professional opportunity.
Although the companies engaged with the Science Center credit it with setting them up for success, Gallagher turns the credit back on the founders.
“It’s not the Field of Dreams. You don’t ‘build it and they will come,’” said Gallagher. “It’s because of the founders that what we do works. They are willing to collaborate and connect. They’re willing to talk about processes, hurdles and clients. That type of information is only available if people are willing to work together and share knowledge.”
To paint a clearer picture of how the Science Center has supported growth and innovation here in the Philadelphia region and beyond, we spoke to four founders at different stages of the startup process to hear their stories.
Anup Singh, founder of InnaMed
Singh was introduced to the Science Center in 2017 while looking for space to build out his early-stage concept and prototype for a smart, at-home blood testing device for monitoring patients with chronic conditions.
Having gone to the University of Pennsylvania for bioengineering, Singh asked the university for recommendations and felt the Science Center was the best fit.
“The Science Center was able to provide us with resources, which was essential for us because our research required the use of expensive equipment,” said Singh. “It also offered affordable lab space. In Silicon Valley, comparable space was about three or four times the price. Affordable space is crucial for an early-stage company, so that was really valuable for us.”
What Singh hadn’t anticipated was the value of networking opportunities that would be made available to him. After the Science Center selected InnaMed as one of eight companies to meet with BARDA, the biomedical advanced research and development authority, InnaMed got its first round of funding from the government entity in just 31 days.
In regard to networking, Singh added, “Through the Science Center’s technology ecosystem, we were able to meet with pharmaceutical companies about our product and how it could potentially enter the market. Since then we’ve actually signed deals with some big pharma companies based on those discussions.”
Mihir Shah, founder and CEO of UE LifeSciences
Some companies that begin early-stage work with the Science Center never feel compelled to officially graduate, so to speak, and continue to find meaningful ways to work together.
“Over the years, our relationship has evolved,” said Shah. “The Science Center has enabled our growth, innovation, and ability to get R&D funding in a number of ways. We’ve worked with them on two grant programs, the QED and the Digital Health Accelerator, and both programs were immensely helpful in pushing the envelope of technology and commercialization.”
Shah’s company, UE LifeSciences, is focused on bringing the early detection of breast cancer to disadvantaged women in the developing world. Through a $100,000 grant from the Science Center for the Drexel-developed technology, Shah was able to create the first prototype of iBreastExam, a portable, radiation-free detection device.
Utilizing the Science Center for everything from conference room space, lab work and administrative support to connection-building and grant writing, Shah’s company was able to acquire funding from two additional grants, one of which was worth almost $900,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Today, UE LifeSciences has seven offices across three continents, and has been able to reach 200,000 women in 12 countries. The iBreastExam is sold commercially in 10 countries and has earned US FDA and CE Mark (the European FDA) approval. To date, Shah and his team have raised $4.2 million in equity and $1.3 million in non-dilutive grant funding.
Outside of Philadelphia, in the EU, India and NYC for instance, UE LifeSciences is on its way to becoming a household name, since winning a prominent grant award from Bayer, multiple high profile op-eds, and a nationally televised TED Talk in India.
Amy Cowperthwait, CEO of Avkin
Mentorship is often an essential component for building a successful startup, and something Cowperthwait took full advantage of throughout her relationship with the Science Center.
“If you’ve never done it before, it’s difficult to know what it takes to build and run a startup,” said Cowperthwait. “The Science Center offers a generous outpouring of well connected, knowledgeable people. We felt very supported when making big decisions, looking for the right resources or asking for help with financials. It connected us to people with the answers we didn’t even know we needed. There’s somebody walking with you and holding your hand through the process.”
Based on research that showed that 80% of patient communication is made non-verbally, Cowperthwait’s company Avkin works to improve the quality of healthcare by better educating providers on best practices in patient care with a product line that enhances patient simulations.
Beyond the $500,000+ the company received through the Science Center, and with the help of business mentors and grant writers, Cowperthwait was able to turn her academic idea into a company with five products currently on the market and one more in the works.
The Avkin team continues to use what it’s learned to refine their product development, test designs and shorten their sales cycle.
Priya Bhutani, founder and CEO of RegDesk
Bhutani’s company RegDesk was on the brink of knocking on doors and cold-calling when it was offered a fateful timeslot to present at a Science Center event hosted by a large medtech company.
“It can be very difficult to get an initial meeting with a big company. The Science Center opens doors and gives you the opportunity to showcase your company to potential clients and investors,” said Bhutani.
RegDesk — a regulatory approval software platform — had been working with the Science Center since its ideation all the way through commercialization, and credits the center for access to its tech ecosystem and opportunities to network.
“Whenever there’s an opportunity for exposure at the Science Center, Eamon Gallagher finds a great way to include us so that we can showcase our company,” added Bhutani. “The team is always looking for ways for us to build relationships with or get in front of investors.”
For Bhutani, the University City location of the Science Center gives startups access to incredible talent from universities like Penn where she’s found a number of talented full-time employees.
“The pros of being in the Science Center space outweigh everything,” she said. “Being surrounded by a support system of entrepreneurs in the same industry who are also hustling is extremely valuable.”