Benjamin's Desk partners with 1776 to raise Philly's start-up profile, spark problem-solving

Mayor Jim Kenney, right, points over a projection screen during a news conference to announce the alliance between Benjamin's Desk and Washington-based 1776 in City Hall in Philadelphia on May 2, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

A partnership between a chain of local co-working spaces and a public-benefit corporation that empowers start-ups around the world to solve complex problems was launched Tuesday in Philadelphia. Its aims are to more globally connect the city’s early-stage companies, and to address an often-cited weakness in the market: insufficient interplay between corporations and governments and the start-up community.

The alliance between Benjamin's Desk and Washington-based 1776 was announced at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Mayor Kenney lauded the initiative as "another big win for Philadelphia," calling it a way to both "move our city away from poverty toward success" and elevate the local start-up community's profile.

"The presence of an established national incubator like 1776 is a great sign for Philadelphia and its place in the start-up community," Kenney said. "It shows the community's major players take us seriously."

The collaborative, to be known as “Benjamin’s Desk Challenge Center powered by 1776,” is "going to be regionally game-changing,” said Anthony Maher, co-chief executive of Benjamin’s Desk, which has seven co-working spaces in the area and more than 1,000 members.

“Not only will we shine a light on Philadelphia’s world-class business ecosystem, we can partner with peers in other cities whose problems our city’s businesses are uniquely positioned to help solve,” Maher said.

Another objective is to get the region's corporations, institutions, and government entities to think of start-ups as more than just "investment vehicles," said Peter Cherukuri, president and chief innovation officer of 1776.

"They are actually new R&D arms for corporations around the world," Cherukuri said.

Participating start-ups will have free access to Union, 1776’s digital start-up network. Benjamin’s Desk’s 1701 Walnut St. site will serve as a meeting spot for start-ups and those they will be helping.

Maher recruited 25 start-ups for the launch and about 15 mentors. His goal is to increase that to 100 start-ups and 50 mentors within a year.

“We are actively seeking corporate partners to be part of this initiative,” said Shelton Mercer, a serial entrepreneur and principal of Benjamin’s Desk who will direct the Challenge Center initiative. Anyone wanting to participate is encouraged to email info@benjaminsdesk.com.

Challenge Center principals said they were already in talks with Philadelphia's Commerce Department “to align with key civic priorities.” Archna Sahay, the department's director of entrepreneurial investment, said the city fits the profile of markets 1776 typically serves.

"Our established eds-and-meds community, along with our growing advanced manufacturing, fin-tech and gov-tech sectors, are poised to tackle the high-level challenges that 1776 seeks to solve," Sahay said.

Fees charged for the Challenge Center’s work will depend on the work done, Maher said.

In Benjamin's Desk, 1776 "found sort of a soul mate," Cherukuri said at the City Hall reveal. “Benjamin's Desk carries the same DNA that we have.”

Though both companies started within the last five years to serve the start-up community, they did so with different focuses: Benjamin’s Desk with physical work space and support programming; 1776 — the name is intended to draw a parallel between the disruption of the Revolution and the business disruption of start-ups — with a software platform to help early-stage businesses connect with one another, mentors, and investors globally.

Their agendas became more ambitious, leading them to each other.

"We are not just interested in opening more real estate," said Benjamin's Desk's Mercer. "This is part of our very purposeful mission to be a strategic partner and collaborator with the region."

For 1776, it was about looking beyond which challenges start-ups face to how; for instance, they can help corporations, governments, and institutions understand how new technologies affect workforce movements, manufacturing, and talent acquisition and retention.

“In Philadelphia, we see Benjamin’s Desk as the ideal partner to help unite that ecosystem to try to look at start-ups as an important economic element to drive success to the region,” Cherukuri said.

That will help satisfy one of two needs frequently cited by start-ups here: more pipelines to customers. The other is capital, said Benjamin’s Desk’s Mercer.