Earlier this year, I worried in these pages that Philadelphia, like Cuba with its legendary cigars, was exporting our most valuable resource —brainpower—while leaving the intractable problems of poverty, political sclerosis and an uninviting investment landscape unsolved. I argued then that the possibility of winning Amazon’s HQ2 sweepstakes presented Philadelphia with a unique and long overdue chance to take stock of what, really, we had to offer the western hemisphere’s unrivaled commerce juggernaut. We were a city mired in the bygone phases of our history, with a bad habit of letting even our homegrown visionaries and big thinkers leave town for more verdant pastures.
But then I recently found myself at Penn Medicine, where a stable of great minds from across a range of disciplines are obliterating that stereotype. I was there to kick off the 2018 Germination Project Summer Boot Camp. The Germination Project is a catalytic leadership incubator that employs a rigorous application and interview process to grant a lifetime fellowship to an elite group of rising high school juniors from across Philadelphia and its suburbs to become student Fellows. In what I’ve characterized as a 50-year bet on the region, Germination Project Fellows are charged with cultivating a sustainable ecosystem of leadership to serve our city and the world beyond. That charge begins with an intensive week-long boot camp that embeds the Fellows in a civic or scientific institution at the vanguard of societal transformation. This year, we were hosted by Penn Medicine, where I encountered an institution that was not only two decades into that bet, but upping the ante each and every day.
Dr. Katherine Choi, Roy Rosin, Megan Mariotti, and Kevin Mahoney are designing and implementing revolutionary health care delivery services and infrastructure to maximize impact and optimize patient outcomes. Dr. Eve Higginbotham and Dr. Horace DeLisser are pushing the frontiers of inclusion and diversity in 21st century medical education. Dr. Robert Vonderheide, Dr. Carl June and Dr. Bruce Levine are breaking new ground in their cancer immunotherapy research, exploring new horizons for lifesaving interventions. And of course, Dr. Scott Levin, who led the team that performed the world’s first bilateral hand transplant at CHOP in 2015, is pushing the boundaries of the possible in the field of orthoplastic surgery.
These are just a handful of the boldface names who generously shared their insights with the Germination Project Fellows, enthralling not only the teenagers in attendance, but at least one of the grown-ups too. It would have been plenty remarkable if these individuals were simply toiling away in an underground lair, but it soon became clear that the rapidly expanding Penn Medicine neighborhood is poised to become a new global center of gravity in innovation and its application.
Penn Medicine has emerged as something of an overnight sensation 20 years in the making. Its buildings are no longer just housing state of the art labs, but what may prove to be the country’s next billion dollar blockbuster companies.
Dr. Levine confirmed that impression, referring to Philadelphia’s medical research community as a burgeoning “Cellicon Valley,” as pithy and apt a pun as I’ve ever heard. The phrase evoked the origin story of America’s original technology Eden, where 50 years ago a physicist named Robert Noyce leveled the peach orchards of the southern San Francisco Bay area to make way for a little microprocessor start-up called intel. From that perspective, it’s easy to surmise that Penn Medicine may be cultivating the next Steve Jobs, or the next dozen Steve Jobses, for that matter.
After a couple of decades of nose to the grindstone research, trials and more research, Penn Medicine has emerged as something of an overnight sensation 20 years in the making. Its buildings are no longer just housing state of the art labs, but what may prove to be the country’s next billion dollar blockbuster companies. If biotherapeutics firms like Tmunity, founded by Drs. June, Levine and Vonderheide, or Spark Therapeutics, a public clinical-stage gene therapy company commercializing hemophilia treatments developed by Dr. Katherine High at CHOP, reach critical momentum, they’ll become magnets for acolytes, new sources of financing, and a revitalized identity for Philadelphia—an identity of relevance, power and leadership.
In the coming years, cities will supplant nation-states as the dominant drivers of international policy. A handful will generate the majority of global wealth, and still a smaller handful will dictate how the world deals with the most pressing issues of our time. The last time Philadelphia played a role of that magnitude was 240 years ago.
In the two and a half centuries since we last hosted a revolution, our municipal history has been one of missed opportunities and self-defeating fatalism. We missed the internet revolution that took root in Silicon Valley; we missed the advanced manufacturing revolution that found a home in Austin, Texas; we missed the fintech and trading revolution that launched Singapore to first world status in a single generation. The list goes on, but it’s too maddening to recite.
In the coming years, cities will supplant nation-states as the dominant drivers of international policy. The last time Philadelphia played a role of that magnitude was 240 years ago. The amazing projects underway at Penn Medicine may change that.
What’s most infuriating about Philadelphia’s chronic tendency to miss the boat is that it didn’t need to be so. Ours wasn’t the only city to lose a step during the deindustrialization wave of the past 40 years; what’s baffling is that we’ve been so slow to gain our footing. With our abundance of universities, proximity to nerve centers of finance and politics to our north and south, as well as our relatively low cost of living, there’s no good reason that we should be driving talent away rather than drawing it in.
But the amazing projects underway at Penn Medicine may prove to be the switch that finally reverses that polarity. If enterprises like Tmunity and Sparks Therapeutics succeed in a big way, and if radical treatments and procedures like Dr. June’s continue to make headlines, there’s no reason to doubt that a groundswell of interest, talent, development and investment will make its way into that orbit.
I’ve been subjecting Germination Project Fellows to the old “50-year bet” saw for years now, but never fully appreciated that young minds may not respond to abstractions that deal in time spans that exceed their own lives by a factor of three. But at Penn Medicine, the Fellows saw revolution in action; they saw what it takes to commit to an enterprise with a delayed payoff, and they saw the beginnings of that payoff in a very real way.
Most encouraging about the week I spent at Penn Medicine was sensing the impression made by the visionary leaders of today on the visionary leaders of tomorrow. In Penn Medicine’s ambitious work, the Fellows saw the path to re-establishing Philadelphia’s place in an elite cohort of global cities, and recognized that forging that path is just a matter of clearing the peach trees.
Ajay Raju, an attorney and philanthropist, is chairman of DilworthPaxson and a founder/board member of The Citizen.