This week Engine is traveling with Steve Case on the Rise of the Rest road trip to celebrate entrepreneurship, in all its forms, across America. Every day we’ll post dispatches from the cities we’ve seen. For more updates follow #RiseofRest on Twitter.
The city of Philadelphia is steeped in American history. The first American flag was sewn here, the Constitution was written here, and Benjamin Franklin started some of the country’s most important institutions here, such as public libraries and universities. That history certainly isn’t lost on Philadelphia, but on our startup tour of this city, we saw a more modern side—a place where new technological innovations are emerging from the city’s many universities and where more young professionals than ever are calling it home.
Universities play a pivotal role in Philadelphia’s rise as a hub for startup development. We visited the ExCITe Center at Drexel University where students are actively building apps, robots, and wearable technologies. At the University of Pennsylvania, student entrepreneurs showcased a diverse range of ventures and the university’s business school, Wharton is considered one of the best in the nation. This student community—over 400,000 including area universities outside the city—also serves as a massive talent pool for area employers. We heard from Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, that nearly 50 percent of graduates from Philly area universities are now staying local after graduation, a significant increase from previous years.
Mayor Nutter joined the travelling crew around his hometown for most of the day, and he explained the ways in which local government has supported new startup activity. Startup PHL, for instance, leverages public and private funding to seed early-stage Philadelphia based companies. The city’s “gateway” program incentivizes companies with headquarters in Philadelphia suburbs to open a satellite office downtown. And the city has always been welcoming to immigrants, Mayor Nutter explained, acknowledging the important role immigrants play in starting new businesses.
Some of the city’s most promising young companies shared their business plans at the afternoon’s pitch competition held at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. One trend among the pitchers was clear: a commitment to social good, in addition to business opportunity. A number of health-oriented companies including Life.io and and SmartPlate combines technology, data and health sciences. Focus Food wants to bring urban aquaponics to the roofs of grocery stores in Philadelphia and across the country. The winning pitch, Scholly, helps students navigate and find scholarships to fund their educations.
We also witnessed how closely interconnected the entrepreneurial community is in Philadelphia. We met the support organizations bringing entrepreneurs together, such as Philly Startup Leaders, and the many local venture capitalists, such as Ben Franklin Technology Partners, dedicated to expanding early-stage funding in the region. Throughout the day we heard stories of how accessible the ecosystem is for mentorship and advice—perhaps that’s not so surprising in this city of Brotherly Love.