Land, Talent and Science
West Philadelphia has the history and momentum to lead the region in a life sciences renaissance, and Drexel is building a home for it all.
West Philadelphia has the history and momentum to lead the region in a life sciences renaissance, and Drexel is building a home for it all.
On this rainy late afternoon, fog envelops much of University City. But from his 10th floor offices in the FMC Building, Spark Therapeutics co-founder Jeff Marrazzo peers west through the gene therapy company’s floor-to-ceiling windows and clearly discerns the future.
“The first thing I see is a vision being realized,” he says. Marrazzo’s bird’s-eye view takes in a parking lot at 30th and Chestnut streets belonging to Drexel, known as F Lot. By the end of 2022, under an agreement with Drexel announced in December, Spark intends to break ground there on a $575 million, 500,000-square-foot gene therapy innovation center, eventually creating hundreds of genetic medicine manufacturing jobs on the University’s campus. The new center will be a short walk from Spark’s other office and lab facility, in the historic Bulletin Building at 3025 Market St. located within Schuylkill Yards, a mixed-use neighborhood in development by Drexel and Brandywine Realty Trust.
The “vision” Marrazzo refers to is the expanding footprint of Spark, a young company that has experienced a meteoric rise from a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia spinoff to a standout in the field of life sciences. In 2019, global pharma giant Roche snapped up the company for $4.8 billion.
But he just as easily could be talking about a far-reaching transformation underway — one that’s positioning Philadelphia as an increasingly popular destination for companies in the thriving field of life sciences, particularly in cell and gene therapy, and which has made Drexel a go-to partner for land, talent and science.
“It’s a really exciting time,” says Marrazzo, who after nine years leading Spark announced in February that he is passing the CEO baton to Chief Operating Officer Ron Philip ’96 and moving on to other adventures. “It’s a promising next five to 10 years for the life sciences ecosystem.”
That ecosystem — flourishing across the region but notably concentrated in West Philadelphia — is years in the making but has blossomed of late. On the western end of campus, Drexel’s development partner Wexford Science & Technology is wrapping up on 1.3-million-square-foot phase of construction for uCity Square. Adjacent to the 30th Street Station, steel framing for the first mixed-use highrise of the Schuylkill Yards innovation district is under construction by Brandywine Realty Trust, with plans to break ground on another tower built expressly for life sciences nearby. Most recently, Drexel also signed an agreement with Gattuso Development Partners to build what is expected to be the city’s largest life sciences lab facility, designed for startups. The $400-million, 500,000-squarefoot project will go up in the center of campus at the current site of the Buckley Recreational Field, which will be relocated to the grounds of Myers Hall after that dormitory is demolished.
All of these office and lab clusters — uCity Square, Schuylkill Yards and now the Spark and Gattuso buildings — convert previously fallow land into lease revenue or endowment funds for Drexel. And crucially, they promise a classroom-to-workplace conduit worthy of an R-1 research institute. “What Drexel is doing is quite remarkable,” says urban policy expert Bruce Katz, co-founder and inaugural director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel and formerly at the Brookings Institution. “It’s playing many roles, a real-estate–building role and a placemaking role. In some ways, it’s rebalancing the geography of the city’s economy, making 30th Street a new center. It’s changing the geography of innovation.”
West Philadelphia’s life sciences pedigree traces back to the ’80s and ’90s. After false starts in the field, a fresh explosion of science and investment by research teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia bore fruits that built the nation’s epicenter of cell and gene therapies. Between 2013 and 2018, the Philadelphia region became the top locale for National Institutes of Health grants for cell and gene therapy, according to Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions Inc.
A string of FDA approvals for cancer, a genetic form of blindness, rare diseases, and mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 — beginning with the first U.S. approvals for cell and gene therapies in 2017 — have laid the path for transformative changes in fields once thought impossible to crack.
That history makes the Philadelphia area one of the top three cell and gene therapy hubs in the country, according to ESI. The economic development organization predicts that if universities and private industry collaborate successfully in coming years, the region’s workforce in gene and cell therapy could skyrocket from 4,900 in 2019 to more than 11,200 by 2030.
“If you think of economic growth as a funnel, the top of the funnel is research being done that can yield commercial activity out of the bottom,” says Claire Greenwood, an executive director and senior vice president of economic competitiveness at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. “In the past several years, we’ve seen that research investment yield companies, spinoffs, licenses.”
Drexel’s piece revolves around its strengths in gene editing and immune engineering, among other areas, says Aleister Saunders, executive vice provost for research and innovation. The University also has its share of spinoffs, particularly in the area of medical devices.
Plus, no other regional university supplies more graduates to the life sciences than Drexel, Saunders says.
Saunders cites a recent McKinsey & Co. study that found the highest number of tech workers in the Philadelphia metro area — about 8 percent of the total — are Dragons. In addition, a 2021 Jones Lang LaSalle analysis ranked Drexel as the leader in preparing students for careers in the life sciences among more than 100 regional colleges and universities. Since 2015, the University has conferred more than 7,800 degrees in programs that prepare students for careers in the life sciences.
“We are helping to drive this revolution,” he says. And Philadelphia has a lot of momentum. In the past three years, cell and gene therapy companies in the region increased to 45 from 30, says the Chamber’s Greenwood. More than half are based within the city limits, including in University City, she estimates.
“The total dollars in the life sciences market are extraordinary relative to our history,” she adds. More than $12 billion was invested across the region in 2021 — an astonishing 250 percent increase from 2020 that makes the Philadelphia area a leading life sciences market, according to a Big4Bio report. Of that investment, $3.2 billion pinpointed the cell and gene therapy sector. “It’s a sign,” she says, “of the continued growth and demand to come.”
“We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of University City — of Philadelphia, really.”
— Pete Cramer, Wexford
Drexel President John Fry is determined that University researchers and graduates catch this wave. “Unless we move fast, we’re going to miss it,” he says. “Groundbreaking cell and gene therapy work is happening all around us. CHOP and Penn’s health system are set up to do that…but once the fundamental work is done, those discoveries are made, where do you set yourselves up? Who do you hire?” If Fry has his way, Drexel will be the answer.
“We’re translational,” he says. “Our whole job as a university is to figure out how you take great ideas and actually make stuff happen.”
Certainly John Gattuso, CEO of his eponymous firm, sees the potential. His Drexel campus building project came about when a major player already in Boston and the San Francisco Bay area approached him about expansion. “There was a clear choice of focusing on Philadelphia … in terms of where this company thinks the next most important growth will be,” he says. “It speaks to the quality of sciences being done in Philadelphia. It speaks to the talent in Philadelphia.”
His optimism is shared by Drexel’s other development partners. Brandywine Realty Trust intends to more than double the size of its successful B.Labs, a science incubator inside Cira Centre. The incubator, which provides “plug and play” lab space to researchers, will be a resource to the future tenants of Schuylkill Yards buildings that Brandywine is building near 30th Street Station. At completion, the total Schuylkill Yards project could bring approximately 3 million square feet of new construction to the eastern edge of University City.
On the west end of campus at 36th Street, Wexford Science and Technology has completed more than 4.5 million square feet in its latest phase of uCity Square, a cluster of educational, medical, lifestyle and commercial space that includes a neighborhood public school and a 460-unit apartment building called Anova at uCity. This fall will see the opening of Drexel’s high-rise academic building for programs in nursing, health professions and medicine and the completion of One uCity Square, commercial lab space for life sciences tenants such as Century Therapeutics, Exponent and Integral Molecular.
Tenant appetites are strong, says Wexford. One uCity Square was built on spec, rare in the city, and is already 80 percent committed with six months of construction remaining, says Pete Cramer, Wexford’s senior director of development and local market lead.
“We want to be an even better Kendall Square,” Cramer says, referring to the tech cradle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of University City — of Philadelphia, really. And Drexel is at the forefront of that growth.”
The success of any innovation district depends on an array of players coming together: Developers (Brandywine, Wexford, Gattuso), research parks (Schuylkill Yards, uCity Square), real estate investment trusts (Ventas), nonprofits (Science Center, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative) and research institutions (Drexel, Penn).
The community is a central character, too. Every stage of this transformation has included dialogue with resident groups to ensure sensitive, beneficial construction and commitments from developers to hire minority-owned firms. Years before any shovel hit the ground, Drexel administrators were successfully pursuing public and private funds such as PECO grants and a federal Promise Zone designation to support libraries, playgrounds and educational programming at neighborhood schools and to spur economic development in West Philadelphia.
A big reason why these projects have come so far in a little over a decade, many say, is Fry’s leadership. In May, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia awarded Fry, who was chairman from 2016 to 2018, its William Penn Award, given to a business executive who has contributed to the betterment of the region.
“Drexel is essential,” Cramer says. “When we think of partnerships across the country, President Fry, and the University, is the poster child of who we want to work with. He gets the vision.”
In nearly 12 years at Drexel’s helm, Fry has unlocked the power of the University’s prime real-estate location through the magic of third-party development. At their own expense, developers erect buildings on Drexel-owned land. The University collects ground rents and commitments for civic engagement, as well as options to occupy the space on favorable terms for classrooms, labs, and faculty offices. At the end of the long-term leases, ownership of the buildings reverts to Drexel. Some third-party developers have constructed apartments that provide campus housing for students, too.
But the University doesn’t want to attract just any tenant. “If it was only about the real-estate deal,” says Alan Greenberger, vice president for real estate and facilities, “we wouldn’t worry about it being research or science or technology. We wouldn’t be thinking about the who part. But we do think about the who part.”
As Drexel smartly curates its campus, it also has looked to shape the city. The University was among the stakeholders that proposed a Brookings Institution audit of the Market Street corridor to assess entrepreneurship outcomes, industry strengths and research expertise. Based on the recommendations of the 2017 “Connect to Compete” report and at Fry’s behest, the chamber launched in 2019 its Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative to accelerate growth in precision medicines and position the region as a top 25 metro in the world.
Such a designation would be transformative for the entire region. The new spaces being built on Drexel’s campus will be available to Drexel researchers, alumni and spinoffs, obviously — but other institutions are welcome, too.
“It’s another playbook,” Fry says. “The playbook is not just flying the Drexel flag and doing all those things that translate Drexel expertise into practical solutions. I’m going to fly the Penn flag, the CHOP flag, the Spark flag. I’m going to fly any flag that’s about innovation. The idea is that you have a campus that in and of itself is an innovation district.”
This approach, says Paul E. Jensen, executive vice president and Nina Henderson provost, complements Drexel’s 2030 Strategic Plan “perfectly, because so much of the plan is about expanding our partnership model to drive innovation in our research and academic programs.” He points out that in the fast-moving tech world, staying current can be a challenge. “The great advantage that Drexel has is that we’ve always been so connected externally. It enables us to build this dynamic aspect of the world into the curriculum.”
Hands down, the biggest success story — the prototype — is Spark. The state-of-the-art manufacturing facility would house over 1,000 colleagues, expanding Spark’s footprint to approximately 1 million square feet, the company says.
“It’s a monster-sized commitment,” says Greenberger. “I don’t think Philadelphia has seen the likes of this since Comcast bought NBC Universal in 2013. It’s that big.”
From Spark’s perspective, deepening ties with an institution in the business of applied higher education made sense as it looks to future workforce needs. In addition, the University’s support network for tech commercialization and industry collaboration — the Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, Drexel Applied Innovation, Drexel Solutions Institute — bolsters its appeal. A memorandum of understanding between Spark and Drexel describes research collaboration, job opportunities for graduates and community engagement, an unusual step but one that enshrines shared goals and values.
“I think John anticipated these developments,” says Spark’s new CEO Philip, an information systems alumnus who joined Spark in 2017. “He built a really nice strategy that allowed him to be the partner of choice for us from multiple angles.”
“I don’t think Philadelphia has seen the likes of this since Comcast bought NBC Universal in 2013. It’s that big.”
— Alan Greenberger, Drexel
Already, Drexel is in talks with Spark about its future workforce needs — not just for traditional degree holders, but for the broader population. “We’re also thinking about the incumbent workforce, apprenticeship training programs that build off our experiential learning approach to train and reskill individuals, including local residents, to ensure that our local community thrives as Market Street is developed,” says Anna Koulas, vice president of Drexel Solutions Institute.
That means curricula focused on industry skills; certification programs for lab techs and other non-degree positions; bespoke executive education degrees similar to the Vanguard-Drexel MBA; and, of course, co-op programs. It also means new approaches for Drexel, Koulas says, whether co-designed courses with industry partners; experiential, project-based learning at firms; or new certificate and degree programs and jobs still to be imagined.
“This is a new frontier in terms of research, in terms of career paths,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to create models in manufacturing and production that don’t exist currently.”
Fry has long championed University City as an economic powerhouse for the city and for the residents of West Philadelphia. “The whole goal here in the end,” he says, “is how do you connect innovation and inclusion?”
There is also the felicity of vicinity, so to speak… those serendipitous encounters that foster a new relationship or spark an idea. It’s what you hope for when brilliant people mingle.
“We wanted…the aha-moments,” Marrazzo says of Spark’s decision to locate in West Philadelphia. “Just the idea of people walking down the same street, going into different buildings — one into a classroom, the other one into Spark. It creates a level of vibrancy around an organization and around an ecosystem.”
That vibe is what drew Associate Professor Kara L. Spiller (PhD biomedical engineering ’10) to Drexel in 2013 — and eventually into conversations with Spark.
“I didn’t do cell or gene therapy at all; that wasn’t on my radar,” the immunology engineering scientist says. “But being in this environment and culture, where that is what a lot of people are doing, made me start to think I should incorporate some of those aspects into my own research. I view it as very important to actually impact human health, rather than just writing grants and publishing papers.”
Since then, Spiller has collaborated with Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, with operations in Hampton, New Jersey, to investigate the immune response to an engineered skin tissue construct used for burns.
More recently, Spiller invited Spark’s head of immunology for a stroll. She mentioned that she works across the street and is studying ways to control the immune response to gene therapy vectors such as those developed in West Philadelphia.
“We liked each other,” she says.
Now, they’re discussing possible collaboration. Fry’s bet is that bringing all these pieces together will yield a whole that’s greater than its parts, with the University at its nucleus.
“In my mind, all of these pieces — people, place, partners — are absolutely necessary for carrying out our mission,” he says. “We’re building an innovation ecosystem that will help to propel our region to global leadership in the life sciences, and we’re laying the path for our researchers, co-op students, graduates and neighbors to participate. Drexel wins when our community and city thrive, too.”