A different idea to spark a hub for Philly startups

MICHAEL HINKELMAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Arcweb founder Chris Cera wants Philly to be a hub for startups. A supporting entity like the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation could help it become one.

BACK IN the day, when I was covering the dot-com boom, then-U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon had an idea dubbed HUBS - to link the region's hospitals, universities, businesses and schools. He told me that it could turn the Delaware Valley into "the next Silicon Valley."

Nothing ever came of it. Over the years, similar big ideas never panned out. Anybody remember "Innovation Philadelphia"?

I bring this up because last month Drexel University, the University City Science Center and DreamIt Ventures announced a strategic partnership to create an innovation hub for startups.

It's an encouraging development - but what will the impact be?

I have another idea.

What Philly really needs is a Kauffman Foundation. With assets of almost $2 billion, the Kansas City, Mo.-based private, nonpartisan foundation - established by the late entrepreneur Ewing Marion Kauffman - works to advance educational achievement and entrepreneurial success.

From 2008 to 2012, Kauffman invested $280 million in Kansas City.

It hosts a town square for geeks every Wednesday morning. Startups pitch businesses to 250 potential partners, mentors and investors.

It produces reams of insightful research. A recent Kauffman study illuminated how hubs develop by looking at U.S. cities with the highest density of startups between 1990 and 2010. A key finding: Nothing attracts new high-tech companies like old high-tech companies to spin them off.

Where are our old high-tech companies? Well, some were sold before the dot-com boom went bust. Others were acquired, liquidated or survived much smaller.

"I feel like there was an opportunity squandered in the 1990s because we had a lot of activity here and then when the dot-com bubble burst almost all of those people just kind of disappeared," said Chris Cera, co-founder and until last month chairman of Philly Startup Leaders, a group of entrepreneurs trying to foster a startup ecosystem here.

Cera, who founded Arcweb, said Philly needs entrepreneurs with a new mind-set. "We need people who won't sell out and are in for the long haul," he told me.

Of course, it also helps to have a megaphone - which brings us back to Kauffman.

If not for Kauffman, it's doubtful that Kansas City would have been the first city to get on the ultrafast Google Fiber broadband network, which brought a flood of startups to the Kansas City area.

That's not to say we don't have a committed entrepreneurial community in Philly, but the current scene is too decentralized and fragmented to have a Kauffman-like impact.


On Twitter: @MHinkelman

Online: ph.ly/YourBusiness