Illustration by Muti.

Philadelphia – A Biopharma Hub on the Move

Philadelphia is not just the city of brotherly love. It is one of the nation’s top biopharma hubs and the birthplace of cell and gene therapy. Within the next few years, the role of life sciences companies and institutions that call the city home is expected to grow at an accelerated rate, further cementing the city’s place as a key biopharma ecosystem.

When the dust of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic settles, key industry leaders see a significant opportunity for Philadelphia to become a next-generation biopharma hub. During the Dec. 10 MedCity INVEST Precision Medicine conference, Audrey Greenberg, Executive Managing Director of The Discovery Labs, said many of the keys are already in place for Philadelphia to become a top-five biopharma hub, including innovative science in the cell and gene therapy space, top hospitals and strong education and training programs.

“All of those speak to the strength of the region,” Greenberg said. “The people, the academics, the training, NIH funding coupled with local manufacturing will change the future for Philadelphia.”

Greenberg also said the region requires “groundbreaking technological innovations” that will allow the area to “build up” rather than build out when it comes to manufacturing. Greenberg said spaces that can accommodate increased manufacturing capabilities, such as those with high-capacity fill tanks, will be critical to manufacturing for cell and gene therapies.

The Philadelphia region has clawed its way up multiple lists of the nation’s biopharma clusters over the past several years. The city and outlying region are ranked within the top 10 of most of these lists. In October, Philadelphia was ranked seventh out of 10 in the U.S. biopharma clusters list compiled by Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. In the overall rankings, the greater Philadelphia area took sixth in venture capital funding, secured the seventh-place spot in jobs and lab space, and eighth-place in funding from the National Institutes of Health. Over the past year, six Philadelphia-based companies help initial public offerings this year, raising about $650 million. The largest of those IPOs was the $227.5 million net raise by Passage Bio. That kind of capital will be crucial.

Earlier this year, Swiss pharma giant Roche completed its $4.8 billion acquisition of gene therapy company Spark Therapeutics. Not only did that provide a significant infusion of capital into Spark, but the Roche name also provides the strength of stability, Lisa Dalton, Chief People Officer of Spark Therapeutics said. Since Spark launched with five employees seven years ago, Dalton said the company was on the cutting edge of gene therapy. Today, with its approved gene therapy for a rare form of blindness, the company has cemented its place as a keystone for Philadelphia.

Spark’s success is a beacon to other companies such as Amicus Therapeutics, which opened a $25 million gene and cell therapy research center in Philadelphia this year. Achillion Pharma (recently acquired by Alexion), which moved its headquarters to the suburbs.  Now, there are more than 30 cell and gene therapy companies calling Philadelphia home, Dalton said.

In addition to strengthening local manufacturing capabilities, Greenberg said another key to bolstering the region is to “expand the funnel” for startup companies. That will mean the need for additional funding to support startups, as well as expanded lab space. She also reiterated the need for expanded manufacturing.

Tiffany Wilson, President and Chief Executive Officer of University City Science Center, echoed the need to “expand the funnel” for startup companies.

“There’s an opportunity to broaden the funnel to create a robust system around the needs of cell and gene therapy, such as boosting diagnostics,” Wilson said.

Wilson has only been in her role since October and can provide a fresh perspective on the potential opportunities for the city. She also pointed to opportunities in MedTech. Wilson said there is a robust Medtech sector in the Philadelphia region, but it is more spread out. She wants to convene with local sector leaders to understand where gaps are in that field and devise ways to address them.

 The availability of continuous capital will be crucial. Not only will investment from venture capitalists and government entities be significant to future growth, Greenberg said public funding and tax incentives from local government officials will also play a key role.

“We’re competing with other regions, courting international companies, and we can lose those businesses to other states because we’re not getting the incentives those other states can offer,” she said.

Such incentives will entice companies to take a long look at Philadelphia over top-tier hubs like Boston or San Francisco. Wilson pointed to the high costs of real estate in those hubs, which she said will “eat up” early capital for startups. More affordable real-estate and the availability of lab space will help raise the profile of Philadelphia.

As I look forward, I see an ecosystem with such rich infrastructure and research, with the proximity to New York, Boston, and Washington,” Wilson said.

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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.