Jeff Hatfield

BIO Comes To Philadelphia, Birthplace Of U.S. Innovation

Posted June 10th, 2015 by Jeff Hatfield, in From The Trenches


This blog was written by Jeff Hatfield, CEO of Pennsylvania-based Vitae Pharmaceuticals, as part of the “From the Trenches” feature of LifeSciVC.

Next week, BIO returns to Philadelphia for its massive annual convention, bringing together from around the world more than 15,000 attendees. While here, I’m sure two themes that will be prominent in discussions will be innovation and collaboration. Innovation is what defines our industry; and collaboration – well, more than 30 thousand collaboration partnering meetings are expected to occur at the convention next week. As a Philly area biotech-er, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on this city’s historic legacy of innovation and collaboration, to highlight current area trends for those themes, and finally, to offer a couple of quick tips for enjoying your visit to Philly.

The historic importance of Philadelphia to innovation

Philadelphia was central to the formation of our country. It’s where our Founding Fathers met to discuss and debate principles, to form strategies and make tough decisions that were certainly full of risk and uncertainty. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both signed here. In fact, one of my recommendations for the week is to visit Independence National Historical Park with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

Philadelphia innovation also played a central role in the birth of our U.S. life sciences industry.   Philadelphia was the site of America’s first hospital (Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin and still operating today in downtown Philly), first medical library, first medical school (now the University of Pennsylvania), first pharmacy school (now part of the University of Sciences) and first children’s hospital (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP, which is the #1 ranked children’s hospital in the US). And, in another industry integral and essential to life science innovation, Philly is also the site of America’s first stock exchange, helping early on during the country’s formative years with capital formation critical to funding new ideas and driving growth.

Today, leadership in the life sciences industry continues, with about half of the top multi-national pharmaceutical companies having a primary residence in this area – more than in any other region in the world. GlaxoSmithKline’s SR One, one of the oldest venture arms in the life science industry, took its name from the Schuylkill River. And several big successes in biotech history sprang from the area – companies like, Cephalon, Endo and Viropharma, and several newly IPO’d companies are emerging, including my company, Vitae Pharmaceuticals.

Innovation and collaboration today

The Philadelphia area is currently undergoing an important transition across the full spectrum of life science entities, with the outcome quite uncertain. Slower growth in the industry is driving consolidation and contraction; a greater demand for true innovation is driving an imperative of getting closer to basic science (e.g. universities) intellectually and physically; and at the university level, increased competition for grant funding is stimulating many institutions to open the doors to more collaborative ventures with industry. Historically, the Philly area has been slow to react to and leverage these trends compared to other regions: universities have been less open to engaging with the private sector, and political support for economic incentives in the sector have been less robust than their counterparts in, for example, the Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and New York areas. Philly’s commitment seems to be changing:

  1. The University of Pennsylvania has recently re-launched its tech transfer operation, with a new mission and name – the Penn Center for Innovation, or PCI – to actively stimulate researchers there to consider collaboration opportunities, and to create a bridge to industry for the university’s technologies and discoveries.
  2. Drexel has created ‘Drexel Ventures’, a new tech transfer enterprise and proof of concept investment mechanism, that recently announced a partnership amongst Drexel, the University City Science Center and Dreamit Ventures for a new Innovation Center in the heart of University City.
  3. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia incubated and launched a cutting-edge gene therapy company, Spark Therapeutics, with a phase III program and the clinical/regulatory/manufacturing/commercial capabilities to bring it to market, demonstrating a novel way for well-capitalized research hospitals to monetize their inventions.
  4. Temple University has recently brought in new leadership to the tech transfer office, and is pursuing a business-friendly agenda for the academic tech transfer operation.
  5. And importantly, local and state government support for the new realities of the life science world seems to be on the upswing as well – come see the Pennsylvania booth at the convention for more on this.

While some scientists have chosen to leave the area due to the consolidation, many others are staying and creating. They have driven the formation of more than 400 new R&D based ventures since 2008, according to PA Bio, including biotech start-ups, CRO’s and other specialty and research-focused niche companies. The future of the area is, I believe, pointing in the right direction to be competitive and potentially on track for leadership once again in the fields of innovation and collaboration.

Tips for Philly’s guests

The patron of Philadelphia is Benjamin Franklin – one of the history’s foremost entrepreneurs, spanning science (electricity), government (the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution) and healthcare (founded some of the same institutions mentioned above).   The city is quite proud of the contributions of the man known as the “First American” so to this day his name is found everywhere: a bridge, a parkway, a science museum, a football stadium, a mall, parks, businesses, suburbs and more.

The BIO convention attracts participants from more than 60 countries around the globe – in fact, more than 1/3 of the attendees arrive from outside the US. Here are some tips to potentially enhance your visit here.   Philadelphia is a great walking city. Colonial-era neighborhoods jostle with restaurants serving the cuisines of the world. Since the mid-1800s, Philly’s downtown Chinatown area has been a popular and constantly evolving neighborhood. Pass through the famous Chinatown Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch Streets to find a core area of about seven blocks with lots of authentic Asian restaurants, bakeries, cafes, groceries and other stores (here).

Museum-goers can visit the Franklin Institute’s Science Museum while art lovers can visit the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or the Rodin museum, conveniently located near each other along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the city.

Finally, the most iconic food associated with Philly is the cheesesteak. No place else on earth makes cheesesteaks like you can get them in downtown Philly, at Pat’s or Gino’s. Even ordering a cheesesteak has its own tradition, and to let you in on the micro-culture of cheesesteaks, here’s how you should order: “one, whiz, wit”.   The first word connotes how many you want, the second- what kind of cheese. Cheese whiz is the classic ‘aficionados’ choice, though provolone, etc. are available, too. And the third word signifies whether or not you want fried onions on top, (yes, you do = ‘wit’, or with).   I urge you to try one, if you can. Bring friends, and you can collaborate while your palate innovates.

Jeff Hatfield

Jeff Hatfield

CEO of Vitae
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