Q&A with Stephen Tang, PhD, President & CEO of the University City Science CenterBy Felicia D'Ambrosio |
As President and CEO of the University City Science Center, Dr. Stephen Tang is bridging the gap between innovations in Life Sciences emerging from universities, medical centers and research institutions, and the capital and mechanisms to bring these new technologies to market.
With state-of-the-art facilities spanning Market Street from 34th to 39th, the Center provides lab and office space for start-up and growing companies; business incubation is covered in a variety of programs like Quorum, an “entrepreneur’s clubhouse,” and QED, “a proof of concept program working with early, risky Life Science technologies to make them more attractive to investment,” says Tang.
In addition to linking companies homegrown and from outside the U.S., the Science Center keeps their feet on the ground in the West Philly community with programming for everyday citizens. “School children, veterans, artists, disadvantaged members of the community – once people have access to this tech, they can do great things.” He pauses for a minute. “Bill Gates is brilliant. But, he had access to technology no one else had.”
Why is the Science Center a nonprofit, when there is so much money to be made in medical technology, pharmaceuticals and life sciences? Why leave a big company like Olympus America or Millennium Cell, which you guided through their IPO, to do this work?
The Science Center was chartered in 1963 as a nonprofit; we are unlike any other nonprofit in the Philadelphia area in that we are shareholder-owned. Our shareholders are fellow nonprofits, primarily universities and medical research centers in the region.
What the science center does is act as a sort of “innovation intermediary,” which requires leadership and a staff that understands all sides of the project of commercializing technology. You have to know how scientists think, how venture capitalists think, how industry people think. I’ve done all of these things in my career. On a personal level, this is my way of giving back to the community. It’s a public service I find very satisfying.
Is Philadelphia poised to become a hub of science innovation, the way Silicon Valley is a center of tech innovation?
The answer is yes, but we are frustrated by the pace. The Philadelphia region of Southeastern PA, New Jersey, and Delaware. has the highest concentration of universities of anywhere in the country – and there is a tremendous amount of research that goes on in our region, both funded and by companies in Philadelphia. We certainly have the intelligence and technology to do so, but the task at hand is working better together to create the circumstances for productive innovation.
What do you see as the main obstacle to this sort of productive collaboration?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the book The Rainforest [by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt]. It’s about creating the next Silicon Valley; the authors are submitting that there are some attributes, or rules, if you will, in creating a rainforest [a metaphor for the conditions that produced Silicon Valley]. To create high innovation, you have to create a rainforest, not a plantation – you can’t industrialize innovation. You can create circumstances where innovative people will get together and combine resources. Let me share the “rules,” they are all very short.
1. Break rules and dream
2. Open doors and listen
3. Trust and be trusted
4. Experiment and iterate together
5. Seek fairness, not advantage
6. Error, fail, and persist
7. Pay it forward
Those are all very nonprofit-y ideals.
Yet, they are talking about creating an economic powerhouse like Silicon Valley. For many years, the Science Center has been promoting business entrepreneurs. These days, we spend just as much time with civic and social entrepreneurs. I’m predicting the lines will be blurred between these three constituencies. Those Rainforest rules are really saying, it doesn’t matter what your cause, if you want a robust ecosystem, all those rules apply.
We have several large pharmaceutical companies in the Philadelphia region. How to they contribute to the broader growth, in economics and innovation, to this idea of an ecosystem?
Life Sciences is the broader industry label – device and diagnostics, research tools as well as pharma. The current challenge is that the pharma industry is consolidating rapidly, and lots of people are displaced, which is an issue for greater Philadelphia. We’re repositioning these people as entrepreneurs or in entrepreneurial ventures, so as to keep the brains in town.
What we need to do is work between the government, nonprofit, and private sector to create scalable innovation. It’s just not sufficient to have lots of startups and hope they do well – we need a local ecosystem that keeps them in the region. Other industries in other regions have failed to do that; the most glaring example is Detroit. Through consolidation, the Big Four automakers swallowed all the medium and small companies – so when those companies go bankrupt, there is no community to support and absorb them. A robust ecosystem includes small and medium companies, as well as innovation from universities. We all have to get along and provide opportunities for one another.
Do you feel that collaboration and cooperation between competitors in a field is something that can be taught in school or early in one’s career, to plant this seed early?
I think to a certain degree you can teach it, but you really have to experience it more. Philadelphia is a unique city and region, because we are big enough to matter but small enough to be nimble. With our strategic location between New York City and D.C. and the affordability of living here, you have the circumstances for better cooperation and community building. We’re not entirely there yet, but the circumstances are there.
Recent college grads have a fairly bleak outlook for employment. What would you suggest to those who are having difficulty finding a job?
This is near and dear to me, since my daughter graduated from University of Delaware this year. I graduated college in 1982, which was the end of the last recession. Inflation, gas prices – it was just a mess. What would I have done then, now that I know what I know now… First of all, there is so much technology and social media available to students today – you used to build your network in your 30s and 40s; today you should be building your network as a freshman in college on Facebook and LinkedIn. Young people would be amazed by the desire of people further along in their careers to mentor them and help them. Success comes to those who are best prepared, to the extent that they can participate in networking opportunities with those who are already working.
We host Quorum, a entrepreneur’s clubhouse that has no attendance restrictions – anyone can come. I would encourage [job-seekers] to meet as many people as possible, to build their database of contacts early on. You never know when you’d need to be one or two degrees of separation from someone who can help you.
That’s a different way of working than say, my parents, in your early career. Pay it forward – be conscious of happy accidents where someone is helping you, and pay it forward to someone else. That sense of generosity – pun intended – makes everyone’s experiences better.
Partnerships between nonprofit and commercial ventures are increasingly common. How do you see these types of ventures going forward?
They are so inherent to who we are – we are a proponent of meaningful collaboration. I believe these public-private partnerships are the key to sustainability. If you’re a nonprofit and you aren’t exploring a private partnership, you’re probably doomed. You can no longer rely on government funding or corporate largess; you have to find a model to sustain you. What I’m trying to do personally is take that to the next level…two weeks ago, I was appointed to the Team Penn foundation, chaired by the governor of Pennsylvania. It’s a policy advising group to industry and legislature to promote stronger, more sustainable business in the state. I’m one of the few nonprofit CEOs on the board, so I hope to take this [public-private partnership] message to Harrisburg, and Washington.
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