Hi-energy hi-tech

The city of brotherly love, home the liberty bell, Franklins Court and the Independance hall, goes hi-tech.

Liberty Hall Philidelphia (photo credit: Courtesy)
Liberty Hall Philidelphia
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While Philadelphia may be known for the Liberty Bell and cheese steaks, it’s also gaining a name as a player in the hi-tech and smart energy field.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Navy Yard Clean Energy Campus, run by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy Efficient Buildings.
In a visually jarring juxtaposition of old and new, more than 1,200 acres spread over seven miles of waterfront, decommissioned US Navy battleships lie anchored next to 100 young companies on refurbished energy-efficient Navy buildings, most focusing on energy-related technologies.
“There are 233 historic buildings here, and we’ve been careful about preserving them as they begin their new life as a technology center,” said PIDC’s Will Agates about the Navy Yard. “At peak time in the 1940s, some 40,000 people worked there; but in the post-Cold War era, the Navy cut back on its budget and 10 years ago transferred the land to the city,” he said.
Today, non-tech companies like Tasty Kakes, the Philly trademark dessert snack company, and Urban Outfitters house their headquarters in the Yard. But most of the businesses are along the lines of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, an economic development group focusing on commercializing technology-driven companies, especially those involved in cleantech.
“We’ve provided $50 million in early-stage capital and created 7,000 jobs,” said the company’s CEO, Jim Gambino. “We look for the next wave of technology. In the 1980s in was biotech, and five years ago we did research and found that energy would be the next major technology area of focus to meet a critical national and global need.”
Israel is playing a role in the story, according to Debbie Buchwald of the Philadelphia office of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, who works closely with the Philadelphia business community in locating spheres of cooperation with Israel. She cited the Eilat-Eilot Group, which hosts the annual Eilat Eilot Renewable Energy Conference, as being on the radar of the Franklin group.
“There’s this recognition that there are valuable ways that Israel can communicate its expertise in cleantech,” she said.
Across town from the Navy Yard on the University of Pennsylvania campus, the University City Science Center, one of the largest urban research parks in the US, has helped more than 350 hi-tech companies to get on their feet, including Centocor and 3-D Pharmaceuticals.
At MentorTech Ventures, a venture capital fund housed at the center, president Michael Aronson provides early-stage funding to a plethora of companies, some of them Israeli. They include the Detect-Ready molecular diagnostics firm, which is developing and commercializing a series of Sample-to-Answer rt-PCR test kits for the diagnosis of infectious diseases.
“The company has a better mousetrap for detecting infectious diseases,” explained Aronson.
“Their technology was developed by a Hebrew University professor, and their founder made aliya a few years ago. When he was looking to establish a US presence, he was looking at Boston and New York, and I said to him, ‘You should be in Philadelphia; for life sciences, it’s unrivaled.’” Another company in their portfolio is DietTV.com, a Beit Shemesh-based website that enables people to find a diet that suits their needs, track their progress and interact with other dieters to find support and encouragement.
According to the AICC’s Buchwald, there are between 30 and 40 Israeli companies that are using Philadelphia as their US base. They’re helped to set up their US shop by the folks at Select Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization funded by businesses in the area to market Greater Philly as a business base.
“Our goal is to get companies to move into the area, and we provide all kinds of support for them once they’re here,” said Select Philadelphia’s Jim Shannon.
With such welcoming arms, it’s sure to be a smooth landing.