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Inventing the Future: The Science Center turns 50

Stephen Tang

In 2013, the University City Science Center will celebrate 50 years of encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the Greater Philadelphia region. Flying Kite Media will be celebrating right along with them. We are thrilled to announce a year-long partnership with the Science Center. It's a wonderful opportunity to highlight both the history of this seminal regional institution and raise awareness about the cutting-edge technologies and inspiring companies coming out of their West Philly campus.

Founded in 1963, the Science Center is the oldest and largest urban research park in the country. They boast 31 nonprofit shareholders: universities, hospitals,and research institutions from throughout the tri-state area. By providing space, support, programming and business incubation for growing companies, the Science Center helps move technology into the marketplace.

The force behind the contemporary incarnation of the Science Center is CEO Stephen S. Tang, PhD, MBA. Tang grew up in Wilmington, DE, the son of Chinese immigrants—his father was an inventor and his mother, an academic. After a long career in the private sector, he took the top spot at the Science Center five years ago this February. Having sat on both sides of the table—the business side and now on the nonprofit side—Tang is perfectly positioned to advance the Science Center's mission as an interchange between entrepreneurship, scholarship and policy. 

"What this challenges you to do is to see the world as a system, rather than discreet parts," says Tang. "What we try to do at the Science Center is create an environment for all the ingredients of innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive. There's a book that was written last year called The Rainforest [subtitle: "The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley"].. It explains in easy-to-understand ecological terms that the goal is not to create plantations where you're mass-producing one crop; it's to optimize the ecosystem, so you have a great biodiversity of players. And you even encourage the weeds to grow. This involves public policy, private industry, private investment dollars, public investment dollars, the whole cadre of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs, and a community that really embraces them."

A lot of that work happens in the Science Center's Port business incubators, an ever-evolving system of support for high-tech startup companies. While Tang and his team continue to offer space and resources for their original target audience, they—like the ideas they cultivate—inevitably grow and change.

"Over the 50 years of the Science Center, our mission has evolved," explains Tang. "For much of our existence we've been known for our physical infrastructure. People are always surprised by how large the campus is: 17 acres, 16 buildings (the sixteenth building is under construction). But beyond that, it's really the programs and services we've focused on over the last five years."

Those services include the QED Proof-of-Concept Program, an initiative providing business development support for academic researchers generating life science and healthcare IT technologies with high commercial potential (QED announced its fifth round of awardees in December); Quorum, a gathering place for the region’s entrepreneurship and innovation communities; and Breadboard, a program exploring the intersection of art, design and technology.

You'll be hearing more about all those concepts in the coming year, as we help tell the story of the Science Center, and the companies and innovators it's fostered. They share Flying Kite's vision of the modern city: integrated, diverse, tech-savvy, entrepreneur-driven and thriving.

"We've ebbed and flowed, if you will, with the need to build community versus a strength of technology," says Tang. "The answer is, of course, both. Technology today enables fast accumulation of knowledge and connections, but you really do need to look somebody in the eye occasionally and develop trusting relationships with them. You really do have to have a community."

Keep an eye out for stories tagged "Inventing the Future" to stay up-to-date on all Flying Kite's Science Center coverage.

LEE STABERT is the managing editor of Flying Kite.
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