Drexel venture seeks to keep entrepreneurs in Philly

Drexel's John Fry: "We're trying to . . . extend the runway for would-be entrepreneurs."
Drexel's John Fry: "We're trying to . . . extend the runway for would-be entrepreneurs."
Posted: July 03, 2013

Drexel University is taking a crack at the age-old Philadelphia problem of losing too many start-up companies to other regions where more rigorous infrastructure exists to shepherd companies from idea to reality.

"Too much talent has fled from the greater Philadelphia region for Boston and San Francisco. It's sort of heartbreaking," Drexel president John Fry said Monday.

Drexel's answer to the loss of its graduates' businesses to other parts of the country is Drexel Ventures, a new subsidiary that will operate as an umbrella for multiple efforts to foster entrepreneurship and translate Drexel innovations into commercial enterprise.

Drexel Ventures will provide seed funding for business ideas developed by Drexel faculty and students, technology transfer services, and business-incubation services as part of a three-pronged strategy to foster economic development in University City and the region.

The two other components are the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, which will open this fall, and the "innovation neighborhood" around Drexel's campus, where Fry hopes to attract companies that want to work in partnership with Drexel researchers.

While many colleges and universities are trying some of the same things, few have taken such a holistic approach, Fry said.

"We think that triangle is what distinguishes Drexel," Fry said.

Drexel is not getting into the venture-capital business, Fry said. The innovation fund is likely to be geared more toward making grants at the very earliest stages of developing a business, rather than investments, though details are still being worked out, officials said.

"We're trying to figure out how do we extend the runway for would-be entrepreneurs and other innovators who have a good idea that they've germinated here at Drexel," but need a lot of support to take it further, Fry said.

"This is a complicated and elusive thing to do. Many universities have tried this, I think, in a kind of piecemeal basis and have maybe some things to show for it," he said.

In bioengineering, Deborah L. Crawford, Drexel's vice provost for research, is overseeing a version of what Drexel Ventures will eventually do in terms of supporting new business ideas.

Drexel faculty and students from numerous university divisions submitted 30 ideas to Crawford's program in a competition to receive grants of $50,000 to $100,000 to further develop the potential businesses.

The group has been narrowed to 10, with five winners to be announced later this month.Fry said the university provided $600,000 to get that program started.

Fry said the the goal was to foster a critical mass of entrepreneurial activity, creating a virtuous cycle of businesses attracting more businesses.

That happened naturally in Cambridge, Mass.; and Palo Alto, Calif., Fry said.

"We think here in Philadelphia the institutions probably have to play a more deliberate role," Fry said.

Contact Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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