Economy League of Greater Philadelphia: Leadership Exchange

Keynote address by President John A. Fry

Thank you, Rob. I want to recognize you and Rick Altman and the board, as well as Steve Wray and the entire professional staff, for the outstanding work of the Economy League.

Here in Greater Philadelphia, we’re sitting on a unique nexus of location, talent, resources, history and creativity. There’s incredible potential to be one of the most important cities and regions of the 21st century. And when I look at the organizations represented on the board of the Economy League, I’m confident you have the vision to unlock that potential.

I spend a lot of time trying to get across the same messages that you’re communicating so well through the World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative. I believe we can grow the business base in the region significantly.  I believe that smart infrastructure investments will pay for themselves many times over in the long run. And I’m on the front lines, so to speak, of making sure that Greater Philadelphia stays a world class center for education and talent development.

I work with many of the Economy League’s leaders on these issues, and I look forward to partnering even more closely going forward.

It’s an honor to be asked to participate in today’s Leadership Exchange. And it’s a great opportunity for me to meet and speak to so many of the region’s developing leaders.

I want to commend you for committing your time to the Leadership Exchange. The lessons you learn and share today, and the connections you make, will serve you very well. And they’ll help you to serve and strengthen the civic fabric of the region.

Drexel’s success depends on our partnerships with the citizens of Greater Philadelphia. That’s why I’m grateful for any chance to meet with and talk to leaders like you, and try to make the case for our University as a force for change and growth.

So I’d like to speak to you informally now about some of our thinking and our goals and activities.
And then I’m hopeful that you’ll have some questions and comments and I can get some feedback from all of you.

Philadelphia of course has a whole host of outstanding universities. But I sincerely believe Drexel is the one best positioned to grow the economy and make our neighborhoods stronger.

That vision is most clearly defined in the Strategic Plan we launched a year and a half ago. We called it “Transforming the Modern Urban University,” and we developed it in a year-long collaborative process.

The centerpiece of the plan is six strategic initiatives that leverage our strengths to help us reach the next level: Invest in Academic Excellence; Intensify and Improve the Student Experience; Enhance Drexel’s Global Impact; Create an Innovation Nexus for Research, Technology Transfer, and Economic Development; Develop the Nation’s Most Dynamic Transportation Hub-Based University District; Continue to Grow Drexel’s Enrollment.

The plan also includes a set of transformational themes designed to help us unlock Drexel’s full potential. One is to truly transform Drexel into One University, after a decade of growth, acquisitions and new ventures.

Second, we want to continue to better leverage our signature co-operative education program, where we place most of our undergraduates in extended, full-time, paid professional experience. This is a time where co-op can provide answers to some of the critical questions facing higher education, so we have to make sure the Drexel Co-op is as relevant as ever.

Our third transformative theme is to extend our leadership in online and hybrid education. New modes of delivery won’t replace what we do on campus. But they’re part of the increased responsiveness and flexibility that universities need to develop. And they’re definitely a vehicle for the growth that Drexel needs to foster to stay competitive.

Finally, we want to transform our very surroundings in University City, and create what we’re calling the Innovation Neighborhood. I’ll talk more about that in a few minutes, because this is the perfect audience to understand what we’re trying to do.

Our strategic plan is going to supply the framework for everything we do in the next five years, and also has a vision for 10 and even 25 years out. But in terms of how Drexel can impact the economic health and quality of life in this region, there are several key areas I can discuss right now. These are the best ways we can help grow the job and tax bases.

I’d like to start by focusing on one important concept that informs just about everything we’re doing at Drexel today. I’m talking about entrepreneurship.

Our mandate in higher ed is to come up with new ideas about how the world works, and how it could work, and to test those ideas. We’re pretty good at that.

But there’s a critical next step where our track record is mixed. To benefit the economy and society in general, an idea has to be made into a product, or a tool, or a test—something that has a real-world impact. I see that as a moral responsibility for today’s university, to add value both economically and in terms of quality of life. 

That’s where the skills of entrepreneurship come into play. Our faculty and students need to be able to recognize and evaluate opportunities, to be nimble in thought and thoughtful in action. They need to know how financial planning, human capital development and negotiation fit into the story of how an idea becomes a product.

At Drexel, we want to structure our academic enterprise so that every student understands that entrepreneurship can, and in many cases should, be a part of what he or she does, whether they see themselves starting and running their own businesses; or going to work in a large organization, where cultures are evolving to value “change agents,” which is really just another word for entrepreneur; or entering a professional field, or public service or any other career.

All those paths are best traveled with a skill set that includes starting new ventures, managing them, assessing them honestly and engaging others in their ultimate success.

So that brings us, at Drexel, to the establishment this fall of the Close School of Entrepreneurship. This is a freestanding school dedicated to serving our most venture-oriented students, and to putting entrepreneurship studies and programming at the fingertips of every Drexel student in every discipline. By creating the Close School, we can ensure that the values, behaviors and processes we teach are infused with entrepreneurship as a way to think, learn and succeed, no matter what a student’s major.

We want to have a coordinated approach to entrepreneurship education throughout Drexel. We want that education to complement and enhance outcomes for all of our students. We can do that by developing entrepreneurial thinking in the curriculum, and by creating opportunities for entrepreneurial practice.

We also want to provide students with a range of ways to engage and live entrepreneurship, depending on their personal level of interest and career ambitions. We expect the Close School to develop joint undergraduate degrees with other colleges, aimed specifically at creating, for example, entrepreneurial engineers or graphic designers or information scientists.

Finally, we want to create a supportive academic and physical environment that encourages the pursuit of student and faculty passions, and the realization of big ideas.

The initial programs through the Close School include an Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community. That’s a residential setting that brings together students who are studying in a variety of fields, but are connected by the drive to innovate and start new ventures.

We’re also developing a class we’re calling “Launch It,” which will be open to students who demonstrate fairly well-developed ideas for new businesses. We’ll help them “de-risk” their business models during the course of an entire term, including providing a small amount of seed money.

The Close School will also allow us to ramp up an offering we’ve been slowly building in recent years—the entrepreneurship co-op. In the classic Drexel Co-op, undergrads alternate time in the classroom with six-month periods of full-time, paid employment in their fields. It’s an incredible head start, and one of the main reasons students choose Drexel.

But for those students who already suspect that their career path will include entrepreneurial activity, we want to use co-op to help them on that path. The entrepreneurship co-op will basically subsidize them for six months while they focus on growing their own business. In addition to a paycheck, we’ll offer academic guidance that will help them connect their experience to what they’re learning in the classroom, just as any co-op student is expected to do. I think the entrepreneurship co-op will make us the leader right out of the gate in recruiting the most outstanding young future entrepreneurs in the nation.

There’s another expression of Drexel’s entrepreneurial spirit that greatly enhances our impact on Philadelphia—our commitment to translational research.

Translational research means projects that move basic science into commercially viable technologies. In 2011 we were recognized by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation with a major $10 million grant, which we matched to create a $20 million endowment.

The Coulter endowment supports moving promising biomedical discoveries into clinical practice. Beginning with our initial partnership in 2006, more than 20 projects have already received funding. More than 40 patent applications have been generated. We’ve raised at least $18 million in follow-on funding. And at least half a dozen licensed technologies have been developed.

The Coulter Foundation partnership has shown that commercial technologies with real life-saving and economic potential can come out of Drexel.

Building on that momentum, we established an initiative called Drexel Ventures this year. It’s designed to support start-ups built around Drexel ideas, foster partnerships with local investors and entrepreneurs and attract more corporate and federal R&D funds to the region.

The services provided by Drexel Ventures to our faculty and students and their partners include expediting technology licensing, providing R&D infrastructure and offering business development consulting. Drexel Ventures will also manage a new Innovation Fund that will run proof-of-concept competitions, help move faculty and student inventions towards market and provide seed capital to take start-ups to next stage of commercialization.

Drexel’s in a great position to help Philadelphia become a national hotbed of medical device development, and many other types of commercial technology as well. And we believe the center of that hotbed will be the new Drexel Innovation Neighborhood.

Drexel research expertise and our network of partnerships are complemented wonderfully by a once-in-a-lifetime collection of real estate advantages we’ve acquired. Taken together, those factors are the genesis for the Innovation Neighborhood. This is a transformative idea that I hope you’ll become very familiar with over the next several years, and several decades.

Here in the heart of one of the world’s great cities, Drexel has assembled approximately 12 acres of undeveloped or underdeveloped property. These parcels seamlessly link our campus to the regional and national highway systems, as well as to America’s second-busiest train station, 30th Street Station.
And Amtrak’s been looking at the possibilities around developing the air rights over the Penn Coach yards behind the station, which means that our Innovation Neighborhood may be the vanguard of yet another incredible new pulse point for Philadelphia.

This is an unprecedented growth opportunity for University City, the incredible intellectual ecosystem that includes Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of the Sciences, the University City Science Center and more. We can build an innovation cluster as well located as any in the world.

To do this, we’re bringing together Drexel researchers, other universities in the region, national and global research partners, established technology companies and entrepreneurs and every other piece of the technology development and commercialization puzzle.

We’ll work on a series of mixed-use projects built in partnership with private developers, which I believe is the future of major university development.

The Innovation Neighborhood can be the sort of project that transforms a city. We see it as a place where people live, learn and work. And its bedrock will be interdisciplinary translational research, tech transfer, and economic development.

The trip from the laboratory to the small business incubator will be a short walk. Students, faculty members and entrepreneurs will work together closely, shifting from role to role.

For regional, national and global partners, the Innovation Neighborhood will be a great place to put down roots, and to tap into the incredible energy and resources of a great academic and research institution.

I’ve been involved in university planning and development for more than 20 years, and I’ve never seen such potential to consolidate a worldwide community of researchers who are focused on real-world challenges.

So that’s my digression into our plans here at Drexel. If you have any comments or are interested in learning more, feel free to get in touch with me. And thank you once again for inviting me to be a part of this important day.

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