A far-reaching transformation is under way on Drexel’s campus.
In spring 2023, Spark Therapeutics broke ground on land leased from Drexel to build a $575 million, more than 500,000-square-foot gene therapy innovation center that will enable the best and brightest minds in the industry to collaborate and advance the field of gene therapy.
Formed just 10 years ago — and acquired by pharma giant Roche in 2019 for $4.8 billion — Spark has experienced a meteoric rise from a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia spinoff to a standout in the field of life sciences and a leader in gene therapy.
The new facility will serve as Roche’s flagship center of excellence for gene therapy manufacturing globally. It will be just a short walk from Spark’s other offices and lab facilities, some of which are inside Drexel’s historic Bulletin Building at 3025 Market St. within Schuylkill Yards, a mixed-use neighborhood in development by Drexel and Brandywine Realty Trust.
Spark is one of several major organizations in University City that are helping to position Philadelphia as an increasingly popular ecosystem for companies in the field of life sciences, particularly in cell and gene therapy — one in which Drexel is playing a role as a go-to partner for land, talent and science.
1. ONE UCITY
Wexford’s commercial lab space for life sciences tenants is now open.
2. HEALTH SCIENCES BUILDING
Drexel recently consolidated health sciences departments in this new tower in uCity Square.
3. 3200 CUTHBERT ST.
Gattuso Development Partners has broken ground on a life sciences lab facility for startups.
4. 3205 JFK BOULEVARD
Brandywine’s 28-story “West Tower at Schuylkill Yards” is nearing completion, soon to be followed by a 34-story tower next door.
5. 3151 MARKET ST.
A new Brandywine building will soon go up on this parcel.
6. BULLETIN BUILDING
Drexel’s historic building was renovated into office and lab space for Spark Therapeutics in 2021.
7. SPARK THERAPEUTICS’ GENE THERAPY INNOVATION CENTER
Construction is already under way for the more than 500,000-square-foot global gene therapy manufacturing facility.
That ecosystem — flourishing across the region but notably concentrated in West Philadelphia — is years in the making but has blossomed of late. On the western end of campus, Drexel’s development partner Wexford Science & Technology recently completed a 1.3-million-square-foot phase of construction at uCity Square. Adjacent to the 30th Street Station, the first mixed-use high-rise of the Schuylkill Yards innovation district is nearing completion by Brandywine Realty Trust, with another tower built expressly for life sciences well under construction. In 2022, Drexel also signed an agreement with Gattuso Development Partners to build what is expected to be the city’s largest life sciences lab facility, designed for startups. The $400-million, 500,000-square-foot project has broken ground in the center of campus at the current site of the Buckley Recreational Field, which will be relocated to the grounds of Myers Hall after that dormitory is demolished. Demolition and reconstruction of the new recreational field is anticipated to be complete in summer 2024.
All of these office and lab clusters — uCity Square, Schuylkill Yards and now the Spark and Gattuso buildings — convert previously fallow land into lease revenue or endowment funds for Drexel. And crucially, they promise a classroom-to-workplace conduit worthy of an R-1 research institute.
“What Drexel is doing is quite remarkable,” says urban policy expert Bruce Katz, co-founder and inaugural director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel and formerly at the Brookings Institution. “It’s playing many roles, a real-estate–building role and a placemaking role. In some ways, it’s rebalancing the geography of the city’s economy, making 30th Street a new center. It’s changing the geography of innovation.”
West Philadelphia’s life sciences pedigree traces back to the ’80s and ’90s. After false starts in the field, a fresh explosion of science and investment by research teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia bore fruits that built the nation’s epicenter of cell and gene therapies. Between 2013 and 2018, the Philadelphia region became the top locale for National Institutes of Health grants for cell and gene therapy, according to Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions Inc.
A string of FDA approvals for cancer, a genetic form of blindness, rare diseases and mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 — beginning with the first U.S. approvals for cell and gene therapies in 2017 — have laid the path for transformative changes in fields once thought impossible to crack.
That history makes the Philadelphia area one of the top three cell and gene therapy hubs in the country, according to ESI.
The economic development organization predicts that if universities and private industry collaborate successfully in the coming years, the region’s workforce in gene and cell therapy could skyrocket from 4,900 in 2019 to more than 11,200 by 2030.
“If you think of economic growth as a funnel, the top of the funnel is research being done that can yield commercial activity out of the bottom,” says Claire Greenwood, an executive director and senior vice president of economic competitiveness at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. “In the past several years, we’ve seen that research investment yield companies, spinoffs, licenses.”
Drexel’s piece revolves around its strengths in gene editing and immune engineering, among other areas, says Aleister Saunders, executive vice provost for research and innovation. The University also has its share of spinoffs, particularly in the area of medical devices.
No other regional university supplies more graduates to the life sciences than Drexel, Saunders says.
Saunders cites a recent McKinsey & Co. study that found the highest number of tech workers in the Philadelphia metro area — about 8% of the total — are Dragons. In addition, a 2021 Jones Lang LaSalle analysis ranked Drexel as the leader in preparing students for careers in the life sciences among more than 100 regional colleges and universities. Since 2015, the University has conferred more than 7,800 degrees in programs that prepare students for careers in the life sciences.
“We are helping to drive this revolution,” he says.
And Philadelphia has a lot of momentum.
In the past three years, cell and gene therapy companies in the region increased to 45 from 30, says the Chamber’s Greenwood. More than half are based within the city limits, including in University City, she estimates.
“The total dollars in the life sciences market are extraordinary, relative to our history,” she adds. More than $12 billion was invested across the region in 2021 — an astonishing 250% increase from 2020 that makes the Philadelphia area a leading life sciences market, according to a Big4Bio report. Of that investment, $3.2 billion pinpointed the cell and gene therapy sector. “It’s a sign,” she says, “of the continued growth and demand to come.”
Drexel President John Fry is determined that University researchers and graduates catch this wave.
“Unless we move fast, we’re going to miss it,” he says. “Groundbreaking cell and gene therapy work is happening all around us. CHOP and Penn’s health system are set up to do that…but once the fundamental work is done, those discoveries are made, where do you set yourselves up? Who do you hire?”
If Fry has his way, Drexel will be the answer.
“We’re translational,” he says. “Our whole job as a university is to figure out how you take great ideas and actually make stuff happen.”
Certainly John Gattuso, CEO of his eponymous firm, sees the potential. His Drexel campus building project came about when a major player already in Boston and in the San Francisco Bay area approached him about expansion.
“There was a clear choice of focusing on Philadelphia… in terms of where this company thinks the next most important growth will be,” he says. “It speaks to the quality of sciences being done in Philadelphia. It speaks to the talent in Philadelphia.”
His optimism is shared by Drexel’s other development partners. Brandywine Realty Trust intends to more than double the size of its successful B+labs, a science incubator inside Cira Centre. The incubator, which provides “plug and play” lab space to researchers, will be a resource to the future tenants of Schuylkill Yards buildings that Brandywine is building near 30th Street Station. At completion, the total Schuylkill Yards project could bring approximately 3 million square feet of new construction to the eastern edge of University City.
“What Drexel is doing is quite remarkable. In some ways, it’s rebalancing the geography of the city’s economy, making 30th Street a new center. It’s changing the geography of innovation.”
Bruce Katz, co-founder and inaugural director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel
On the west end of campus at 36th Street, Wexford Science & Technology has completed more than 4.5 million square feet in its latest phase of uCity Square, a community of educational, medical, lifestyle and commercial space that includes a neighborhood public school and a 460-unit apartment building called ANOVA at uCity. Last fall was the opening of Drexel’s high-rise academic building for programs in nursing, health professions and medicine and this spring saw the completion of One uCity Square, commercial lab space for life sciences tenants including Century Therapeutics, Exponent and Integral Molecular.
Tenant appetites are strong, says Wexford. One uCity Square was built on spec, rare in the city, and was 90% committed before opening in December of last year, says Pete Cramer, Wexford’s vice president of development and local market executive.
“We want to be an even better Kendall Square,” Cramer says, referring to the tech cradle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of University City — of Philadelphia, really. And Drexel is at the forefront of that growth.”
Float All Boats
The success of any innovation district depends on an array of players coming together: developers (Brandywine, Wexford, Gattuso), research communities (Schuylkill Yards, uCity Square), institutional investors (Ventas), nonprofits (Science Center, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative), research institutions (Drexel, Penn) and organizations like Spark.
The community is a central character, too. Every stage of this transformation has included dialogue with resident groups to ensure sensitive, beneficial construction and commitments from developers to hire minority-owned firms. Years before any shovel hit the ground, Drexel administrators were successfully pursuing public and private funds such as PECO grants and a federal Promise Zone designation to support libraries, playgrounds and educational programming at neighborhood schools and to spur economic development in West Philadelphia.
In the past three years, cell and gene therapy companies in the region increased to 45 from 30. More than half are based within the city limits, including in University City.
A big reason why these projects have come so far in a little over a decade, many say, is Fry’s leadership. In May 2022, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia awarded Fry, who was chairman from 2016 to 2018, its William Penn Award, given to a business executive who has contributed to the betterment of the region.
“Drexel is essential,” Cramer says. “When we think of partnerships across the country, President Fry, and the University, is the poster child of who we want to work with. He gets the vision.”
In nearly 12 years at Drexel’s helm, Fry has unlocked the power of the University’s prime real-estate location through the magic of third-party development. At their own expense, developers erect buildings on Drexel-owned land. The University collects ground rents and commitments for civic engagement, as well as options to occupy the space on favorable terms for classrooms, labs and faculty offices. At the end of the long-term leases, ownership of the buildings reverts to Drexel. Some third-party developers have constructed apartments that provide campus housing for students, too.
But the University doesn’t want to attract just any tenant.
More than $12 billion was invested across the Philadelphia region in 2021 — a 250% increase from 2020 that makes the area a leading life sciences market.
“If it was only about the real-estate deal,” says Alan Greenberger, vice president for real estate and facilities, “we wouldn’t worry about it being research or science or technology. We wouldn’t be thinking about the who part. But we do think about the who part.”
As Drexel curates its campus, it also has looked to shape the city. The University was among the stakeholders that proposed a Brookings Institution audit of the Market Street corridor to assess entrepreneurship outcomes, industry strengths and research expertise. Based on the recommendations of the 2017 “Connect to Compete” report and at Fry’s behest, the chamber launched in 2019 its Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative to accelerate growth in precision medicines and position the region as a top 25 metro.
Such a designation would be transformative for the entire region. The new spaces being built on Drexel’s campus will be available to Drexel researchers, alumni and spinoffs, obviously — but other institutions are welcome, too.
“It’s another playbook,” Fry says. “The playbook is not just flying the Drexel flag and doing all those things that translate Drexel expertise into practical solutions. I’m going to fly the Penn flag, the CHOP flag, the Spark flag. I’m going to fly any flag that’s about innovation. The idea is that you have a campus that in and of itself is an innovation district.”
This approach, says Paul E. Jensen, executive vice president and Nina Henderson provost, complements Drexel’s 2030 Strategic Plan “perfectly, because so much of the plan is about expanding our partnership model to drive innovation in our research and academic programs.” He points out that in the fast-moving tech world, staying current can be a challenge. “The great advantage that Drexel has is that we’ve always been so connected externally. It enables us to build this dynamic aspect of the world into the curriculum.”
_A DRAGON PRESENCE
The University has conferred more than 7,800 degrees in programs that prepare students for careers in the life sciences. Additionally, the highest number of tech workers in the Philadelphia metro area — about 8% of the total — are Dragons.
The University’s support network for tech commercialization and industry collaboration — the Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, Drexel Applied Innovation, Drexel Solutions Institute — also bolsters its appeal as a partner. And with development, workforce growth will follow.
“We’re also thinking about the incumbent workforce, apprenticeship training programs that build off our experiential learning approach to train and reskill individuals, including local residents, to ensure that our local community thrives as Market Street is developed,” says Anna Koulas, vice president of Drexel Solutions Institute.
That means curricula focused on industry skills; certification programs for lab techs and other non-degree positions that build off Drexel’s long history of designing custom executive education degrees and certificate programs and, of course, its world-renowned co-op program. It also means new approaches for Drexel, Koulas says, whether co-designed courses with industry partners; experiential, project-based learning opportunities that enable partners to collaborate with Drexel faculty and students; or designing new certificate and degree programs.
Fry has long championed University City as an economic powerhouse for the city and for the residents of West Philadelphia. “The whole goal here in the end,” he says, “is how do you connect innovation and inclusion?”
There is also the felicity of vicinity, so to speak… those serendipitous encounters that foster a new relationship or spark an idea. It’s what you hope for when brilliant people mingle.
That vibe is what drew Associate Professor Kara L. Spiller (PhD biomedical engineering ’10) to Drexel in 2013.
“I didn’t do cell or gene therapy at all; that wasn’t on my radar,” the immunology engineering scientist says. “But being in this environment and culture, where that is what a lot of people are doing, made me start to think I should incorporate some of those aspects into my own research. I view it as very important to actually impact human health, rather than just writing grants and publishing papers.”
Since then, Spiller has collaborated with Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, with operations in Hampton, New Jersey, to investigate the immune response to an engineered skin tissue construct used for burns.
Fry’s bet is that bringing all these pieces together will yield a whole that’s greater than its parts, with the University at its nucleus.
“In my mind, all of these pieces — people, place, partners — are absolutely necessary for carrying out our mission,” he says. “We’re building an innovation ecosystem that will help to propel our region to global leadership in the life sciences, and we’re laying the path for our researchers, co-op students, graduates and neighbors to participate. Drexel wins when our community and city thrive, too.”
Modified from an article that previously appeared in Drexel Magazine in summer 2022.