We need to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem

Mike Bowman

Over the past few years our startup community has seen dramatic changes as it has blossomed into a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. This is no coincidence.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the seeds that helped it grow and coalesce. In 2007, when co-working wasn’t a household word, a forward-thinking entrepreneur named Alex Hillman opened a new space called Indy Hall in the Old City section of Philadelphia. It took some long, lonely nights, but his bold and community-supported endeavor continues to pump life into North Third Street, otherwise known as “N3rd Street.”

Around the same time Indy Hall launched, a small group of isolated entrepreneurs formed Philly Startup Leaders (PSL) with the goal of helping each other traverse the long and arduous path to success. Initially meeting in the back of a neighborhood bar, PSL has now coalesced more than 1,000 bright and talented members.

And Ben Franklin Technology Partners partnered to create a new base for entrepreneurship at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with the opening of the Building 100 Innovation Center.

The innovation community got an additional jumpstart in 2008 when DreamIt Ventures, seeded by Ben Franklin, the Science Center, and others, opened its tech accelerator program at the Science Center. Since then, expansion into New York City; Austin, Texas; Baltimore and Tel Aviv, Israel has elevated growth potential for 145 companies. DreamIt’s global headquarters opened in Philadelphia’s newest collaborative space, the Innovation Center @3401, this summer.

When the Science Center launched Quorum – the region’s first clubhouse for entrepreneurs – in 2011, its goal was to convene entrepreneurs along with the people and resources that help their ideas and companies grow from across the region. Delaware has similar goals for Start It Up Delaware, augmented by its new Leading Edge Ventures Fund. And in New Jersey, Rowan University’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and the Rohrer College of Business Incubator are educating and supporting the next generation of innovators.

Along the way, Technically Philly has been a facilitator of important developments and conversations, galvanizing the region’s tech community around Philly Tech Week, and expanding its tech coverage into Delaware – and up and down the Northeast Corridor. The online destination has become a community bulletin board for innovative people, places and ideas.

In response to these notable developments and the evolution of Greater Philadelphia’s startup community, the CEO Council for Growth is in the process of updating its 2007 Accelerating Tech Transfer study to accurately reflect the progress we’ve made and identify areas for further growth.

These highlights are just a sliver of what’s possible when creative individuals convene, connect and collaborate.

Last month, the Sixth Annual RAIN Conference brought together stakeholders from eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware to discuss an audacious goal: How to build upon this foundation and make Greater Philadelphia a top-five innovation hub within the next five years.

RAIN, or the Regional Affinity Incubation Network, is a regional network of 70-plus research parks, business incubators, co-working spaces, accelerators and support organizations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The goal is simple: to share information, capabilities and opportunities to support entrepreneurship.

Conference participants identified four key themes to address: retaining talent, attracting capital, navigating government and connecting large companies with small.

We agree. These topics are crucial to our region’s success as a thriving center of entrepreneurship and were reinforced by many of the speakers’ comments at the RAIN Conference.

We’re interested in your ideas for tackling these four issues. We must take a collaborative approach to this next phase of growth and find solutions to the issues that still bedevil us. This will strengthen our collective efforts as we work to make our region a top innovation hub. Send us your suggestions at RAIN@ScienceCenter.org

Maxine Ballen, RoseAnn Rosenthal, J. Michael Bowman, Thomas Morr and Stephen S. Tang