A med and tech backer lauds Philly's potential, even as he heads for Texas

Christopher Laing, the Australia-born endocrinologist who spent the last decade growing medical and information technology firms at the University City Science Center, is heading south by southwest to Austin.

He’s the new head of Capital City Innovation – a joint effort of the University of Texas’ new Dell Medical School and the city’s main hospitals to set up a “health care-focused innovation zone” in the Southwest’s hippest town.

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Christopher Laing

The Texans said in a statement they expect Laing to “draw upon his experiences in Philadelphia” persuading “diverse stakeholders” among government, business, scholars and the community to back health-care and tech company founders so they hire more skilled people and make Austin richer. Among Laing’s science center projects were Port Business Incubator, Digital Health Accelerator, QED Proof-of-Concept program, and Phase 1 Ventures.

“Philadelphia’s loss is Austin’s gain,” said Laing’s Philly boss, Science Center Chief Stephen Tang.

Is Philly really a model? I thought of the recent corporate-backed Brookings Institution study, which claims that Philly has all the brain and financial elements to rank with the Boston area as a top tech business center — but also that we have never yet matched this brainpower with “industry presence,” a “sense of urgency,” or a bold, united “innovation leadership.”

With all its recent high-rise growth, the Science Center – with a 50-year history as a landlord to offices and labs related to Penn, Drexel, and CHOP  – has yet to spawn a name-brand big tech company. CBRE, the giant office rental and investment agency, last week sent me a study highlighting how Philadelphia – still the sixth-largest U.S. town and seventh-largest metro areas – ranks just 22nd among 50 North American cities for its “ability to attract and grow tech talent.”

I asked Laing: Are you leaving for the opportunity, or in frustration? It’s great to be able to build something new, Laing said. But “I’ll still be a Philadelphian,” a spiritual native of his adoptive city, which he says is much farther along than Austin or many other places in getting academics, scholars, and business to work together in useful ways.

“It’s healthy to do self-examination,” he told me. “Philadelphia does a fair amount of that. But I don’t think we in Philadelphia should be afraid that we have competitive organizations here.

“We’re a big city. Competition is healthy. And there’s plenty of evidence of collaboration here, too,” said Laing.

“I’m not sure I’d agree with anybody’s contention that the Boston-Cambridge area was successful because they all got in the same boat and rolled to the same drum. Don’t be afraid of diversity.”

Laing says Philly’s tech future is secure. He pointed to four big real estate projects pitched to medical or tech employers, three of them backed by universities, as a sign of growth ahead: the Science Center’s own University City Square; the sprawling Drexel Unversity-Brandywine Real Estate Trust Schuylkill Yards proposal; Penn’s Pennovation, with its corporate and start-up projects aided by Penn engineers at the ex-DuPont paint works on Grays Ferry Avenue; and the rising Comcast Innovation Center in Center City. “We are really on the edge of a very exciting time here in Philly,” Laing concluded. “I love being able to tell people, ‘Come to Philadelphia, you will be able to find the exact place to fit into the ecosystem.’ ”

If you build it, will they come? Some of the people most important to tech acceleration have been moving or working here well in advance of those properties, says Roy Rosin, the former Intuit executive who is now Penn’s chief innovation officer. He cited, for example:

  • Paul Martino, who moved back here from Silicon Valley to run Bullpen Capital from Doylestown.
  • Noah Shanok, Stitcher (podcasts) founder, who spent last year as Comcast “entrepreneur-in-residence” before taking a job as Amazon startup chief.
  • Sarah Noderer, the former Box executive who went on to serve as entrepreneur-in-residence at Philly Startup Leaders.
  • Bill Harrington, who left a big Silicon Valley firm to serve as managing partner at Osage University Partners.
  • Jim Young (Hotornot.com) and Cheyenne Erlich, who left the West Coast to start Perceptual Networks.
  • Mohan Balachandran, like Rosin, a Silicon Valley expatriate, now working with emerging firms for Penn.
  • Gil Beyda, who built games for Apple, started online advertising with Real Media, then founded Comcast-backed investor Genacast.
  • Gary Kurtzman, the gene therapy veteran (Avigen, Genovo) who now heads Safeguard Scientifics’ medical investments.
  • Ryan Limaye, the Goldman Sachs technology group head who moved from San Francisco to the Main Line.

“I’ve gotten quite a few more resumes lately of folks, several of them are entrepreneurs, looking to move here, either for family reasons or because quality of life is better here,” Rosin concluded. He’s working to get them “plugged into our portfolio companies right now.”