Feature: Is West Philly the Next Center City?

It’s the age of brains, Philly, which means the real action in town is happening west of the Schuylkill, where new Drexel president John Fry and a host of other bold thinkers are building what could be the city of the future. (Amazing what a guy can do when he only sleeps four hours a night)

“We have looked with some envy at the development in Boston and San Francisco,” says the friendly and fast-talking chemical engineering Ph.D. with a Wharton MBA, who left a job in private industry to take over the Science Center in 2008. “They are two cities that have similar types of Eds and Meds assets. They get the lion’s share of research dollars, and we see that they have created much more robust entrepreneurial communities. Why?”

To start to answer that question, Tang recently enlisted John Fry and a passel of other institutional leaders to form a group called the University City Innovation Collaborative, which commissioned the Pennsylvania Economy League to study why Boston and San Francisco have gained a competitive advantage in commercial spin-offs from Eds and Meds — and how University City can play catch-up.


Eds and Meds is a cute-sounding- nickname for a huge and ominously important economic behemoth. Put broadly and bluntly, if it weren’t for Philadelphia’s universities and hospitals and the often-symbiotic industries lumped under the rubric “life sciences” — biotech, pharmaceuticals, etc. — the only decent jobs with a future in Philly would be with the city government and the school district. (Okay, throw in a few thousand at Comcast.) With about 35,000 workers, Penn, including its medical center, has long been Philly’s largest single private employer. Add the 4,000 full-time jobs at Drexel, about 9,000 at CHOP, and 8,000
aggregated in small, fledgling companies occupying Tang’s Science Center, and University City already has 10 percent of all jobs in the city. More broadly, the life-sciences sector, according to a much-cited 2009 study by the Milken Institute, was responsible for generating 380,800 jobs in Greater Philadelphia in 2007. The Milken researchers estimated that one out of every six jobs in the region could be traced back to the life-sciences sector, making it second in the nation only to Cambridge, Massachusetts. But beyond sheer numbers, it’s the nature of those jobs that makes them especially important to Philadelphia’s future.

Eds and Meds workers are highly educated. In University City, nearly 25 percent of workers have master’s degrees or higher, and almost 43 percent are college graduates, far above the city’s overall rate. A standard economic formula shows that a region’s income is directly proportional to the level of education of its residents. Perhaps more importantly, Eds and Meds jobs are grounded. Universities and hospitals don’t move their corporate headquarters, looking for a sunnier climate and the lowest taxes — mostly, they don’t pay taxes. And despite the specter of increased online learning, those jobs can’t easily be outsourced, either.
It’s now common to call the Eds and Meds complexes the new factories for urban America. The university bell tower has replaced the smokestack as the symbol of ensured prosperity. And at least in this current recession, these industries seem recession-proof.

In that respect, University City has a firm footing. But one deficit that many observers point to is the relative lack of entrepreneurial activity around the city’s premier research institutions. What Steve Tang wants to do is fill in the gaps with new companies that commercialize the research of all those professors, and give jobs to some of those graduates.