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With Steve Tang at the helm, the Science Center expands both its mission and its footprint

Stephen Tang

The University City Science Center

Science Center's Port Business Incubator expands

3737 Science Center

The University City Science Center campus is currently a maze of construction activity: looming cranes, chugging bulldozers and billowing signs advertise freshly-completed buildings.
For Science Center President Stephen S. Tang, the physical growth of the 52-year-old urban research park is elemental to the organization's mission. But there's more -- he is also steering the Center towards an expanded role in public policy, government relations and supporting promising new industries.
"Our role is explicitly economic development," summarizes Tang. "Full stop."
It all began with real estate -- in 1963 the City of Philadelphia gave the Science Center 17 acres on both sides of Market Street from 34th to 39th Streets. They were charged with reclaiming and repurposing the blighted area and creating the nation’s first urban research park, a place where researchers from any institution could establish labs and do independent work.
Today, the campus boasts 17 buildings and only three open parcels of the original land remain. With its development partner Wexford Science + Technology, the Science Center is also capitalizing on what Tang calls "a once in a lifetime opportunity" to develop an adjacent 14 acres that used to be home to University City High School. The new UCity Square project will ultimately feature 10 new buildings, creating a live/work/play environment modeled on urban research meccas such as Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco’s Mission Bay and the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.
"The business model is pretty simple," explains Tang. "The land that we were given by the city 52 years ago has risen in value enormously and we use that value as our contribution to the projects. The developer typically takes most or all of the development risk to put bricks in the ground and build the structure."
The subsequent funds go directly to support the Center’s expanding roster of programs: the Innovation Center @3401, the QED Proof-of-Concept Program and Quorum among them.
As president, Tang sees his role as that of a "civic entrepreneur," supporting policies and drawing attention to issues that impact entrepreneurs and innovators.

"If you think about it, we talk a lot about entrepreneurs being the force behind our growth as a nation, but as a political force they’re really disorganized," he muses. "The reason is because they’re all doing their own thing. They don’t collectively have a government relations department and they don’t collectively have a lobbyist. So they need representation in all these settings -- the city, the state and the federal government -- and to a certain extent we play that role.
"We see the circumstances that would attract more innovators and entrepreneurs and we see the gaps," he continues. "So it’s really incumbent on us to act more as an advocate. We’re not satisfied just being landlords here on Market Street. We see the bigger picture."
Tang works assiduously to build relationships at all levels of government (though as a nonprofit, the Center can play only a limited role in politics). He serves on Philadelphia Mayor-elect Jim Kenney’s transition team, co-chairs the Team Pennsylvania Foundation with Governor Tom Wolf and advises the U.S. Commerce Department as a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
"Thankfully, innovation and entrepreneurship are the most nonpartisan things I can think of," he argues. "Who could be against innovation? Who could be against better ways of doing things? Who could be against entrepreneurs?"
Tang is also expanding the Center’s role in identifying and supporting promising industries and technologies. These include sectors such as energy, media arts, wearable technology, the Internet of things and sustainability that go beyond the campus' traditional strengths in biotechnology and life sciences.

"We’ve had great success as a convener and a connector," says Tang. "We make it our business to connect businesses and universities, and be that intermediary to create circumstances for commercialization. We can do that with much more determination and deliberateness right now, so I think you can look for us to play a stronger role in that area."
Tang rejects the old meme of Philadelphia as a place that successful startups flee, arguing that many companies face the loss of their urban-oriented workforce if they move to the suburbs.

"If you were to go floor by floor in this building [3711 Market] what you’ll meet are companies that have graduated from our incubator -- Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, Invisible SentinelOptofluidics -- companies who chose to stay here in the Science Center in their own market-rate facilities rather than move to the suburbs. That’s been unprecedented in the history of the Science Center to have so many companies decide to stay here."
Still, drawing more venture capital and investment to the city remains a challenge.

"Philadelphia started off as a fairly old economy town, so we didn’t have that interplay between risk capital, venture capital and the big companies that started in the city and grew and evolved into leaders," he argues. "We’re going to have to evolve that over time."
The breadth of vision that Tang brings to his role at the Science Center springs from his own depth of experience.
The 55-year-old Wilmington native is the son of Chinese immigrants (his father was a DuPont research engineer, his mother a chemist and co-founder of the University of Delaware’s Allied Health College), a PhD. chemical engineer, a Wharton M.B.A. and a cancer survivor.
He is also the Science Center’s tenth president and the first to have led a company (Millennium Cell Inc., an energy technology firm) through venture funding and initial public offering. He also led U.S. operations for Olympus America's global life science businesses as it acquired and integrated smaller startups. 
Yet despite the private sector credentials, Tang was turned down the first time he applied for the Science Center job. He was finally hired in 2008. It’s a good lesson for entrepreneurs, he says, and the basis for an often-repeated mantra that failure can lead to success.
Meanwhile, his best career advice? 

"Learn how to simultaneously fit in, stand out, and uplift others. From there, surround yourself with people who do the same."
WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.
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