Here Comes Big4Bio:Philadelphia
By Marie Daghlian
As the newest member of Big4Bio life sciences hubs, Philadelphia has a lot to offer. It has a long storied history as the birthplace of our country, diversity—a minority majority city, culture, stellar educational and research institutions, and a passion for discovery and innovation.
James Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), has dubbed the greater Philadelphia area, which includes surrounding counties, Delaware, and parts of New Jersey, as “Cellicon Valley”—the East Coast version of the West Coast’s Silicon Valley. It is the birthplace of discoveries that have sparked the resurgence of cell and gene therapies and is the origination point for the first gene therapy, Spark Therapeutics’ Luxturna, and the first cell therapy, Novartis’ Kymriah licensed from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), to have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These are the first of what many believe will be a slew of one-and-done treatments for curing some of the most intractable diseases, including cancer and rare genetic diseases.
Indeed, life sciences in the “Philly” region have grown exponentially, boasting seven medical schools, 22 nursing schools, two colleges of pharmacy, dental schools, veterinary school, and 100 hospitals. It also beats Boston for the retention rate of its college graduates, the raw material for innovation, at 54 percent compared to Boston’s 42 percent.
At a pep rally of sorts held at the Comcast Technology Center during BIO’s annual conference, which was also held in Philadelphia, Maria Fardis, president and CEO of adoptive T-cell therapeutics company Iovance, said her company’s decision to invest $75 million to build its manufacturing facility in Philly’s Naval Yards was by design, citing the city’s talent pool, infrastructure support by the city, friendliness, and the proximity to contractor WuXi’s facility as chief reasons for the decision.
At the same rally, Jeff Marazzo, CEO and co-founder of Spark Therapeutics and a Philly native, talked about how research at CHOP inspired the founding of the company. He also gave a shout out to why a biotech company might want to locate in the area: Philly was third in terms of NIH funding in 2017, one out of every six doctors is trained in Philadelphia, and 20 percent of the city’s workforce is employed in the healthcare sector.
“Philadelphia is the epicenter of where the future is going in genetic medicine,” Marazzo said.
Carl June speaking at Comcast Technology Center event
Philadelphia’s ecosystem for gene and cell therapy is unparalleled, says Carl June, University of Pennsylvania professor and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, Perelman School of Medicine, and perhaps the “father” of modern research in cell therapy. CAR-T cell therapy was invented in his lab and he said there are now more than 500 biotechs engaged in discovering new therapies based on CAR-Ts around the world.
Enabling smaller biotech companies and startups, The Discovery Labs, a platform company that offers co-working laboratory and office space for life sciences and healthcare companies, is developing 1.6 million square feet of space that was previously owned and used by GlaxoSmithKline located in the Philadelphia suburbs. It will be the first of what it hopes will be many one-of-a kind environments providing a creative and entrepreneurial workplace to stimulate synergistic collaboration between large and small companies.
At a session held at the Redefining Early Stage Investments (RESI) meeting, members of the Sino-American Pharmaceutical Professionals Association of Greater Philadelphia discussed the startup ecosystem in the greater Philadelphia region. Advantages mentioned by the panelists included the fact that Silicon Valley is saturated and the talent pool is very good and cheaper in Philly, housing in the area is more affordable, most major pharmaceutical companies are within a hundred mile radius, there are more than 100 universities and a better retention of graduates, lots of partnering opportunities, and the region is third in the U.S. in the number of incubators.
The panelists also mentioned things needing improvement including more state support, attracting more venture funding into the area, and better collaboration with neighboring state organizations—perhaps a regional organization for the northeast corridor. They also blamed the city and the University of Pennsylvania as risk-averse and said UPenn needs to do more to enable the biotech ecosystem. Basically they see the lack of access to capital as the biggest impediment.
All this is to say that the time is right for Big4Bio Philadelphia. There’s so much happening in the Philadelphia region and it needs to be told—news, events, discoveries, clinical trials-all of it, and that is what we aim to do.
Our launch party, during the BIO Convention, was well attended, and we are excited to bring life science professionals in the greater Philadelphia are all the news and events that can help them shape the course of their companies, their industry, and their future. Philadelphia, the city that invented modern democracy, is at the tipping point of becoming a major player in life sciences innovation and we aim to be part of its exciting future.