Hey Philly, Stop Your Silicon Valley Penis Envy
Marvin Weinberger, who faces a funding shortfall at his Philly co-working space Venturef0rth, blasted the local tech community last week. He said he’s “continuing to lose a few thousand dollars a month” and has “quietly turned to some pillars of the community for assistance, but have been rebuffed (often rudely).”
There are two sides to every story but Weinberger’s struggle to find tenants at his startup space raises a more important issue about Philadelphia’s tech community. Is it for real? And, more importantly, do we care?
The first question is easy to answer. The Philly tech family is very much for real, with many organizations in the area doing great things. Philadelphia is home to cool, growing companies like Curalate, RJMetrics, Aclaris Therapeutics and Zonoff. There are great startup accelerators and venture-capital firms like DreamIt Ventures, First Round Capital and NewSpring Capital. There are excellent incubators and communities for startups like Indy Hall and Philly Startup Leaders. These people, and others, are all doing great things and have grown a substantial tech industry out of nothing in a relatively short amount of time.
Unfortunately, the second question is not as easy.
Of course we care about our local tech community. But can we not just admit the truth? Although growing and important, Philadelphia’s tech community is still in it’s adolescence. Compared to New York and San Francisco, we have a handful of startups, a few venture capital firms and only one giant company, Comcast, that rivals the tech giants of Silicon Valley. (Plus, it’s really more of a media company than “tech.”) For years, many in the Philly tech community wrung their hands over the question of how to attract more tech companies to the area. My answer? Stop with the Silicon Valley penis envy.
We are not San Francisco. We do not have countless venture capital firms investing billions in area companies. We have not been the home of a worldwide tech community for the past 50 years that has, within a hundred mile radius, invented the microprocessor, the PC, the iPad, the smartphone and the Internet. We are not located mid-way between the financial powerhouses of New York and Asia. We do not have Stanford, Caltech or Berkeley. We are not the Cyber District (Boston), Silicon Alley (New York), Silicon Bayou (New Orleans), Silicon Desert (Arizona), Silicon Hill (DC), Silicon Prairie (Dallas) or Silicon Snowfield (Rochester). We have no silicon. We have no valleys.
And good for us. We’re better than all those cities, and many more around the world who have, after investing hundreds of millions and banging their heads against the wall, all fallen way short of creating their own tech communities to rival Silicon Valley. Enough with the coveting, hankering and wishing to be something that we’re just not and will never be close to.
A better road: Let’s start following the money. OK, so we don’t have Apple, Cisco, eBay, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Intuit, Oracle, Symantec, Yahoo or other zillion-dollar tech companies in our backyard. We never will. But we do have Penn, Drexel, Temple and dozens of other leading universities in the region. We do have HUP, CHOP, Jefferson and other world-class hospitals in the area. And we have the infrastructure, location and capacity to become an enormous player in the processing and distribution of the energy riches flowing our way from the exploding oil fields of Western Pa., West Virginia and North Dakota. These industries are our future. The money is already flowing and more will come. So let’s follow it.
Yes, our tech community is for real and yes we do care. But instead of asking ourselves what more we could be doing to grow it, let’s instead focus on what we should be doing to grow and leverage our already strong education, healthcare and energy industries. Instead of diverting our city’s already meager resources to tech, let’s encourage more government involvement, educational programs, university degrees, scholarships, STEM grants, tax incentives and funding for those that want to join these already established and potentially booming, local industries.
Better yet, let’s pick one of those three growing industries and make ourselves one of the top headquarters for it. I like energy, for all the reasons I’ve previously discussed here. We have a much bigger head start in this industry alone than in trying to be the next Silicon Valley. Instead, let’s ask our city, community and corporate leaders if we are doing everything we can to make this are the best place for any startup or established company in the energy industry to drop anchor. If we focus our resources there, then I have no doubt that our smart tech leaders will continue to flourish and benefit as a result.
Gene Marks is a guest columnist for BizPhilly. He’s written for publications like the New York Times, Forbes and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter.