Inside Philadelphia’s New Innovation Festival

Will the days-long fall event convince future business owners and biotech entrepreneurs to relocate to the region?

Celebrating the announcement of B.PHL, Philadelphia’s first city-wide Innovation Festival, are, L to R: Daniel J. Hilferty, CEO of Independence Health Group and chairman of the board of directors of The Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia; Michelle Histand, director of Innovation at Independence Blue Cross; Marques Colston, former NFL player, founder and managing partner of Dynasty Innovation, and managing director of the Center for Innovation at Virtua Health; Sheila Hess, city representative for the City of Philadelphia; Rui Jing Jiang, co-founder and CEO of Avisi Technologies; and Rob Wonderling, president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. | Photo courtesy of Independence Blue Cross

Philadelphia is getting a new citywide special — spoiler: it does not include a PBR.

This week, city leaders announced B.PHL, Philadelphia’s first citywide innovation festival. The three-day event, which will take place October 15-17, is designed to further Philly’s reputation as the most innovative city on the East Coast, though, as Independence Blue Cross CEO Dan Hilferty noted, groundbreaking discoveries in the life sciences are already helping the city make its mark.

“This was definitely inspired by everything that’s going on in the life sciences and biotech areas,” Hilferty told Philly Mag. “But if you take a step back and look at Philadelphia, you know in our education in the sciences, and our business community, innovation is a key part of everything we do. The innovative things that are happening in the region are a testament to that.”

Hilferty noted that the recent BIO Convention, which brought more than 17,000 people from as many as 67 countries to the Pennsylvania Convention Center in early June, serves as a natural boon for B.PHL to be a success.

The festival’s name pays homage to Benjamin Franklin, a beloved innovator from the region who was known to sign his name B. Franklin.

“A long time ago, Ben Franklin, Philadelphia, and our fledgling nation vaulted onto the world stage by advancing the simplest notion of innovation known to humanity – freedom of conscience. And from that freedom came the never-ending capacity for all of us to think, dream, create, and prosper,” Rob Wonderling, president, and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia said in a statement. “We believe that now, more than ever, Philadelphia will once again be the leader of innovation in what is now a complex and modern global stage. Our business and civic community is working to propel new enterprises of innovation so that this time period will be remembered as a ‘Philadelphia moment.’ We intend to trumpet this fact at the B. PHL festival this October.”

Planning for the festival has been in the works for roughly six months, and some aspects, like exactly how proceeds from the event will “support innovation education in Philadelphia public schools,” are still in progress.

Festival organizers (or BFFs) include Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and the University City Science Center, among others. At least 13 festival events, including panel discussions and workshops, are scheduled to take place in a variety of venues across the city. Hilferty says event planners made a special effort to ensure festival events would not be “limited to large businesses in Center City and University City.”

Among the sessions that have been announced so far, there is a panel discussion with Philadelphia-area companies and universities that have made efforts to address the unemployment rate among people on the autism spectrum; another panel that will explore how growing tech startups and established health insurers meet at the intersection of healthcare and business/entrepreneurship to maximize the use of data analytics; and a conversation with the artists and survivors behind Twist Out Cancer’s Brushes With Cancer program, a six-month program that matches those touched by cancer with artists who create a visual representation of an individual’s journey with cancer.

Twist Out Cancer founder, Jenna Benn Shersher, relocated her non-profit organization from Chicago to Philadelphia three years ago because she found so many of the resources she needed for her business here in the region. Shersher said she’s glad the festival is highlighting a broader picture of innovation and is hopeful that it will help her connect with people across disciplines and interests.

“Sometimes we think about innovation as being inextricably linked to technology, but it’s not just about that,” she said. “It’s about using your skillset and your unique perspective to create something new. The idea that there’s going to be all of these people from all of these different nonprofits and sectors coming together to brainstorm, to make connections; I’m super excited about the opportunity.”

For Hilferty, if the festival convinces just one start-up company, budding entrepreneur or medical student to stay and build their businesses in the region, he would consider it a success.

“Anyone questioning whether they should stay or go elsewhere, I want them to realize they can get everything they need here in Philadelphia,” he said. “We will become the mecca of not only healthcare innovation but innovation in general in the country and beyond.”