Why Philly Trails Other Cities in Tech Transfer — and How We Can Fix It

On the heels of a new report, a Science Center leader says Philly’s academic tech scene is still largely “underfished.”
Photo courtesy of University City Science Center

Photo courtesy of University City Science Center

There’s a big push in Philadelphia to help researchers and entrepreneurs move their tech to the marketplace. Tech transfer isn’t a new concept, but with the amount of innovation spaces popping up around universities and companies, the energy around the concept feels urgent now.

While Philly may have gotten a late start, initiatives like the University City Science Center’s QED Proof-of-Concept program, which helps academic researchers from 21 local institutions move their technology ideas from the “discovery” phase to development, prove that there’s an opportunity to keep growing.

The Science Center recently released a report on the program, which is now in its seventh year. The report says that since 2009, QED has:

  • Screened 475 technologies
  • Accepted 94 projects into the program
  • Awarded a total of $4.85 million to 28 projects mostly in the therapeutic/biologic, device/diagnostic and digital health sectors

The report also found that 29 percent of projects that have received QED funding have been licensed and five startups have spun out from the program. Ninety percent of QED researchers surveyed report that participating in QED was a valuable experience.

While the QED program has managed to do all of this in just seven years, the report itself acknowledges that the program has some catching up to do, as other institutions across the country established similar programs as early as 2001. The report lists MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, for example, which launched in 2002 and has formed 32 startups since its founding and awarded a total of $16.5 million in funding.

“QED is a newer program than those benchmarked below, and many of the technologies it has funded to date have long horizons,” says the report. “Consequently, most QED projects have yet to reach a stage of development where they can attract significant follow-on venture capital investment.”

We can take this as bad news that Philadelphia is behind other regions, or we can recognize this as an opportunity to push for more commercialization and programs that bolster tech transfer.

Granted, QED is not the only commercialization program in the region. Drexel’s University‘s Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership, for example, has awarded a total of $6.5 million in funding and spun out five startups since its founding in 2006, according to the report. But other studies have found that the Greater Philadelphia region as a whole produces a lot of research but not enough tech to attract investment.

“One of the key takeaways about QED and commercialization here is that there really is opportunity for us to do more,” said Chris Laing, the Science Center’s vice president of Science & Technology.

According to Laing, Philly is still “underfished waters,” with more potential for researchers and entrepreneurs to be supported and more opportunities to help companies scale. He says the region could take three steps to further commercialization:

  1. Move outside of healthcare
    According to Laing, there is great potential for Philadelphia outside of the healthcare space. There are opportunities to expand to other tech sectors, because Philly isn’t a one-horse town.
  2. Think expansively about the region 
    QED is working with universities as far flung as Rutgers and Penn State. The more universities across all parts of the region collaborate, the stronger the region’s output. It’s important to recognize that the region has far more than just one or two standout institutions. And according to Laing, what’s unique about about QED is that 21 institutions are represented, a coalition that is unparalleled in any other part of the country.
  3. Connect proof-of-concept programs like QED with the private sector 
    Programs like QED create an opportunity for organizations in the private sector to to be more attuned to what’s being developed in the region. QED can become a tool for private-sector partners to get a sense of the regions talent and prototypes. “This could greatly increase the scale and scope of what we are doing,” Laing said.

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