Innovation in Philadelphia: A Conversation Between Ajay Raju and Christopher Wink

Philadelphia Skyscrapers

On Friday, May 15, Ajay Raju (TEMPLE ’92; LAW ’96), Executive Chairman and CEO of Dilworth Paxson, LLP, and Christopher Wink (CLA ’08), co-founder of Technical.ly, met for a wide-ranging conversation about technology and innovation in Philadelphia. Jonathan Lipson, the Harold E. Kohn Chair and Professor of Law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, facilitated the discussion. The participant’s comments and opinions have been edited for clarity and organized under topics or themes of conversation.

Editor’s Note: The below conversation is part one of two. You can read part two of this conversation here

Jonathan Lipson (JL): How would you characterize the current state of Philadelphia’s tech scene?

Christopher Wink (CW): The Philly tech scene’s story is representative of a broader national narrative about the future of urban technology communities. Technical.ly is publishing in five markets throughout the mid-Atlantic corridor (Baltimore, Brooklyn, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.). Across these markets, there is a broader conversation occurring about how old, industrial cities can find their niche in the new knowledge-based economy. All businesses, regardless of the core product or service they produce, will need technologists. Philadelphia is preparing for what is happening by focusing on what it means to be “the best version of itself.” Philadelphia’s educational institutions provide an excellent competitive advantage, but they are not enough.

Ajay Raju (AR): There are two conversations happening in Philadelphia right now. The first conversation is a lament over the decline of the industrial revolution, a chorus of complaints that the end of our manufacturing economy some four decades ago has left Philadelphia moribund. This is not a productive conversation. Yes; that era is over, it has been over, and it’s simply not going to come back.

The second conversation, which many of us are hollering to make audible over the drone of the first, is about Philadelphia’s future. It’s a conversation about how to make Philadelphia a new hotbed of the knowledge revolution. This is a revolution that began in – and literally reshaped – Silicon Valley in the 1960’s, and there’s now a growing chorus of voices in Philadelphia asking, “Why not? Why can’t we plant those same seeds of revolution here, and reshape our region?” As revolutions go, this certainly wouldn’t be our first, but we don’t even have to look as far back as 1776 for proof that this city is capable of economic and cultural upheavals.

In the 1980’s, after more than twenty years of deindustrialization, white flight, and poor economic indicators by every metric, Bill Rouse came along and quite literally reconfigured Philadelphia’s very landscape. When Rouse broke the gentleman’s agreement against buildings taller than the William Pen Statue atop City Hall and constructed Liberty Place, he ushered in a new era of development and revitalization in Center City. His audacity created an environment where players in the legal, finance and real estate sectors could find common ground and thrive. Arguably, the culmination of Rouse’s vision for Philadelphia manifested in the Comcast Center, which now serves as the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s skyline, and the nexus of our region’s knowledge revolution. With the investment, the talent, the attention, and the energy that Comcast’s presence has attracted, it’s as if we’re in the midst of a supercharged energy field right now, and the only question is how do we best harness and direct that energy.

JL: Something you both touched on in different ways is the role educational institutions can play in urban wealth creation. Philadelphia has one of the highest concentrations of college students in the country, so why are we not Boston or Palo Alto? After all, the first computer was developed in Philadelphia.

AR: Colleges and universities in Philadelphia grant more degrees than Boston. If this is a surprising fact, it’s only because we’re not deploying those degrees here in our own region, so there’s no evidence of it. We have historically failed to sow and cultivate these powerful seeds of knowledge because we have not yet built an ecosystem where they can thrive. Instead, the best and brightest educated right here in Philadelphia head off for the greener, more fertile territories of Silicon Valley, New York and those few other regions where their chances to thrive are most promising. What we must do is build that ecosystem. We need to fertilize Philadelphia with capital, with expertise, with civic and governmental support. This is the only way to ensure that our best minds put down roots here in our backyard.

CW: When we talk about the missing pieces of Philadelphia’s ecosystem, access to capital gets a lot of attention, but I don’t think that is the whole story. The innovations of the past 20 years have dramatically reduced the barriers to founding a company. This means that nascent businesses and potential founders are looking at where talent wants to live when deciding where to locate. Capital is much more mobile than the cultural institutions that give Philadelphia a competitive advantage, but addressing access to capital alone will not fill all of the holes in our ecosystem.

AR: I agree. If by “capital” we’re referring only to money, that won’t get us to a sustainable ecosystem. Granted, we won’t get anywhere at all without money, but capital alone isn’t enough. We need capital that’s tied to expertise, that’s bound up with influence, and above all, accompanied by a desire to spark a revolution in Philadelphia.

CW: Unfortunately, we have a fairly short local bench of seasoned entrepreneurial mentors. It’s great that Josh Kopelman is in Philadelphia, but he is an exception. In full disclosure, Technical.ly works out of his fund, First Round Capital’s, space in University City. Some of the people who worked at And 1, which was based in Paoli for much of the 1990’s, have also stuck around. There are plenty of questions about whether there are ways to speed up the development of an ecosystem, but most of them go back to questions about how to make Philadelphia an attractive and economically viable place for this group of people to live.

Read part two of this conversation here