What We Learned at Philly Tech Week’s Cell and Gene Therapy Night

From why Philly is a great place to start a life sciences company to the ways the industry can be more inclusive, here’s what the experts had to say during this year’s virtual Philly Tech Week.

philly tech week cell gene therapy

Amber Wynne, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Spark Therapeutics, Inc., spoke during Philly Tech Week Cell and Gene Therapy Night. Image via YouTube

Last week, the 11th annual Philly Tech Week took place — a series that showcases innovative technologies emerging throughout the Greater Philadelphia region. The tech fest, which is presented by Comcast, dedicated an entire evening to the city’s rapidly-growing cell and gene therapy sector, highlighting the ways in which the industry is impacting and will continue to impact job creation, education, and life sciences advancement.

We tuned into two of the virtual cell and gene therapy sessions — “Why Philly? Why Now?” and “Job Creation and Inclusion in Cell and Gene Therapy” — to see what the experts have to say about why Philadelphia has become such a hub for cell and gene therapy and how the industry can be more inclusive, diverse, and equitable. Below, a look at what we learned.

Why Philly? The Wealth of Expertise and Talent Here

Panelists Veenu Aishwarya (chief executive officer of AUM LifeTech and AUM Biotech), Jeffrey Castelli (chief development officer of Amicus Therapeutics), and Matthew Handel (co-founder and chief executive officer of ExpressCells) discussed what makes Philly the perfect place to establish a cell and gene therapy company. They should know — each of their companies is currently based in the city.

When asked what makes Philly an attractive location for starting a life sciences business, Handel said the expertise. “There are scientists here who know how to develop therapeutics, are involved in regulatory affairs, and work in translational medicine,” he said. “Philadelphia is a really good base for turning lab findings into clinical programs.” Additionally, Aishwarya has found value in the close-knit ecosystem, which offers opportunities for collaboration, as well as the motivation from competitors to advance technological innovations quickly. This, Castelli agreed, is what drove his company to relocate. “When we [Amicus Therapeutics] were looking to move out of the Princeton area, we considered talent, location, the availability and cost of real estate, and Philadelphia stacked up on all of those really well,” he said. “There’s real drug development knowledge here, plus cutting-edge academic research and proactive tech transfer groups at area universities, which make for a great environment to start or grow a company.”

Philly Fosters Networking and Collaboration

All the panelists agreed that Philly’s density and hyperlocality enhances both progress and networking in the field. “When you’re a startup, having incubator-type space where you can share equipment and interact is important,” Handel said. “You want to be in a space where scientists can meet other scientists and have face-to-face conversations.” For Castelli’s company, being co-located to the University of Pennsylvania (with whom Amicus Therapeutics collaborates) has been valuable and efficient, as he noted they can simply walk samples back and forth between labs, rather than ship them.

Philly Isn’t Afraid of Big Risks — and That’s a Good Thing

Aishwarya said the biggest factor in the city becoming a hub for the field is the significant amount of capital that is being invested in the region itself and the companies it is home to — funding that is keeping talent here, rather than transferring to other big life sciences hubs like Boston or San Francisco. Another major change is the willingness to accept risk, according to Handel. “I once heard big pharma described as a ‘very risky business run by risk-averse people,’” he said. “There’s something that has happened in the last five or so years where Philadelphia has gone from a conservative community to a place where everyone is looking to take risks.”

Getting the Industry to Prioritize Diversity Is Still a Struggle

In the “Job Creation and Inclusion in Cell and Gene Therapy” session, panelists Amber Wynne (head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Spark Therapeutics), Kristy Shuda-McGuire (associate dean of biomedical studies at the Wistar Institute), and Lamont Terrell (inclusion and diversity lead of pharmaceutical research and development at GSK) explored the various ways Philly-area companies are working to create more jobs and promote diversity, equity, and inclusivity in cell and gene therapy. Those terms, as defined by Wynne, look like “a world where we all feel empowered to ask for what we need, but also go into spaces where our needs are being centered, regardless of where we come from.”

But doing so doesn’t come without challenges, especially since there isn’t a cookie cutter checklist for solving issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion, even in an industry that is so centered on testing hypotheses and finding solutions, Wynne said. For one, getting people in the industry to prioritize diversity in similar ways they prioritize technology turnaround and quality science has been a challenge, Terrell noted. And, according to Shuda-McGuire, there are issues on the other end of the spectrum. She said students don’t often view cell and gene therapy — or life sciences in general — as a viable career path due to lack of visibility and experience opportunities. “We have to remind young people that cell and gene therapy is a realistic path to pursue,” she said. “Then, those in the field need to support them every step of the way on their journey.”

Employers Need to Be Held Accountable to Create Real Change

For real change to happen in regards to diversity and inclusion in the industry, the three experts agreed that holding people in positions of power accountable is the first step. Wynne said companies need to adopt the mindset that diversity, equity, and inclusion are non-negotiables early in the pipeline. This, she said, could look like asking interview candidates, “How do you manage across difference?” and “How have you leveraged the diversity that exists within your team?” Additionally, she said leadership must be intentional about creating and following through with intentional strategic plans, as well as enacting sponsorship programs, so that senior leaders can advocate for underrepresented talent in situations regarding promotions or upward mobility.

Additionally, the panelists said companies should be intentionally extending their reach into more diverse populations. “If a university or company is going to fund a postdoc or some type of study, that’s a great opportunity to increase diverse research candidates,” Terrell said. Once a candidate lands a position, employers must be deliberate in making that talent feel connected and part of the culture — which is, Terrell said, at the heart of inclusion.