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)

“Cambridge is an urban center,” Tang says. “Yet they’ve been able to attract start-up biomedical companies and keep them there. But it’s also a place where the large companies like Merck and Johnson & Johnson feel they need to be present. There’s an ecosystem of small and large companies and the institutions that support them. I think we have as good or better assets here. And I’d like to see that dream and vision come to University City. Who needs to reside here for us to be a world-class innovation center?”

Tang points to a current Science Center resident as one of his favorite success stories. Ben Doranz came to Philadelphia in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and proceeded to become one of those hyper-educated University City denizens, earning a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at Penn. As if that weren’t enough, Doranz studied for an MBA at Wharton in health care and entrepreneurship while working part-time at Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer.

In 2001, with a license on biological technology (invented by a Penn medical professor) based on human proteins, Doranz started a company he called Integral Molecular with two employees, planning to manufacture these proteins and sell them to companies doing research in areas such as viruses. Tiny Integral Molecular moved into a business incubator space at the Science Center. Being in the midst of the city’s Eds and Meds neighborhood allowed Doranz to do what city people often do — bump into like-minded others.

“We’re a spin-out from Penn,” Doranz told me. “We could take advantage of some of the resources of some of our founders at Penn — facilities and services that are open to academic communities. The infrastructure that performs half a billion dollars in research is a few blocks from our office. It’s hard to get those facilities in the suburbs, when you’re isolated by yourself.”

Integral now has 30 employees, about half of whom are graduates of the University City universities. (Some are from Jefferson.) Doranz believes his recruiting is helped by everything from neighborhood nightlife — “There’s someplace to go for happy hour” — to the ability to walk over and hear a scientist lecture at Penn. “We can interact with a larger community that’s also involved in science,” he says. “It’s a dynamic exchange.” Late last year, Integral Molecular signed a 10-year lease in the newest Science Center building at 3711 Market Street, doubling its space.

WHILE PENN WAS SPENDING about half a billion dollars to accomplish its West Philadelphia Initiatives, its neighbor Drexel was engaged in a strange transformation: a frantic growth spurt brought on by the threat of death. Drexel is distinctly not an Ivy League school. It was founded in 1891 by Philadelphia banker Anthony Drexel, whose mission was to educate the working class. A hundred years later, there were barely enough working-class kids enrolled to sustain the university.

Then Taki Papadakis arrived as president with a plan to attract more students, which he did with unparalleled success.  “We were down to around 7,000 students when Taki came in,” John Fry reports, “and now we’re at 24,000. He saved the place, but it took all his time.”