Global Conversations with: Dr. Stephen S. Tang, President and CEO of the University City Science Center

Kait Lavinder, for GPA -- Dr. Stephen S. Tang is the President and CEO of the University City Science Center. Founded in 1963, the Science Center is the oldest and largest urban research park in the United States. Tang is an expert in life sciences, energy technology, and management consulting and has resided in Greater Philadelphia for most of his life. Executive Director of GPA Zabeth Teelucksingh and I sat down with Tang to ask him about the Science Center and his thoughts on how to expand Philadelphia’s international reach.

Why have you chosen to live in Greater Philadelphia for most of your life?

I think it’s the center of the world. We are equidistant between the earth’s governmental and financial capitals, and it’s an incredibly affordable place to live. Philadelphia’s image is a combination of intellectual hub mixed with historical underdog. Our origins as the workshop to the globe define us.

How does the University City Science Center position Philadelphia as an intellectual city?

We were founded 50 years ago by the communities of higher education and medicine. That tradition has defined our mission to look for the collective good and the connections between those institutions. As a result of the innovative force behind education and medicine, the life sciences industry emerged. The Science Center works to develop new technologies and applications for products within the life sciences and emerging technologies.

Has it always been important to you to promote Philadelphia as an international city?

Not explicitly. I’m the son of Chinese immigrants so I think I’ve always been more aware of the need for the U.S. to make better connections with other countries.

The Science Center launched the Global Soft Landing Program for international businesses in 2006 to help global companies establish a foothold in Greater Philadelphia’s life sciences and technology markets. In 2012, your Port business incubator was designated as a Soft Landings International Incubator by the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA).

Can you elaborate?

We received a designation as an international soft landing site because we believe that incubation should not only be part of homegrown companies, but should also be part of countries outside the U.S. Within our Port, there is an incubation function for bringing companies into the U.S. and helping them find markets in order to thrive in Greater Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s location between New York, the financial capital, and Washington, the governmental capital, makes it ideal for international companies.

How many international countries do you currently work with?

There are about 10 to 12 different countries represented in our incubator right now.

What are they developing?

Our incubator residents represent everything from bioinformatics firms, which are companies that utilize information from research to better commercialize technology for human health, to the United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Chemistry. There is a component of technology and a component of intellectual property that’s included in each of the companies, but there’s a wide diversity in the technology they are commercializing and the types of markets that each one targets.

One of the Science Center’s programs is Quorum, a gathering space for Greater Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Do you invite many international speakers to your events and Quorum talks?

It happens naturally. Many of our speakers either have some international experience or are transplanted into our region from somewhere else. I don’t think you can be viewed as an innovator without some global view. Especially in today’s economy, you can’t live only in your own small world because you need to look broadly to see where opportunities reside. That’s what I like about our incubator and Quorum: you have homegrown ideas and talent naturally mixed with people who have global perspectives. That’s the recipe for success in our global age.

What is the most important thing Philadelphia can do to show its internationality?

Events like the visit from the Swedish king and queen last weekend certainly help. At the Science Center we follow management guru Tom Peters’ advice to “celebrate what you want to see more of.” So if you want to see more presence from countries outside of the U.S. in Philadelphia, you have to celebrate them. We must focus on connections at the business level, at the arts and cultural level, and through sports. Philadelphia needs to work on building those cross-cultural bridges with the rest of the world. A major component to successful bridge building is at the leadership level. Our current mayor and governor are very comfortable in international settings and are trying to build trade partnerships with other countries. This kind of leadership and emphasis on the global economy makes it easier for the general public to understand why international connectivity is so important.

Has Philadelphia been building more of these bridges over the years?

Yes. It is requisite. Our economy is languishing and economies elsewhere are thriving. Building relationships with the BRIC countries is natural. So creating connections stems from a combination of the disposition of leaders and the disposition of the economy.

You recently moved to Center City. What is your favorite part about living there?

There’s nothing bad about the city. I love biking along the river, and the restaurant culture is thriving. The more that others see you’re excited about living in Philadelphia, the more likely they are to want to experience it for themselves.

Many people see Center City as the city of Philadelphia? What can be done to change that?

We’re a city of neighborhoods, and I don’t think we’ll ever get past that -- nor should we. But one of the things we are currently doing at the Science Center is trying to create a community, instead of just a set of office buildings. To compete with major metropolitan areas like New York and Washington, Philadelphia needs to be a very cosmopolitan environment. Targeting young professionals with disposable income is one way to bring people, money, and culture into the city. Embracing diversity is also key. Philadelphia is gaining in population. But we need to work on becoming more immigrant friendly. It’s great to see the city transform into an attractive place for suburbanites to move to. If you begin to replace the city center with people who are more cosmopolitan and who have a more global outlook, then you naturally attract the people you want to, not the least of which are immigrants.

What do you see for Philadelphia in the next 10 years?

Overall, cities are currently enjoying a renaissance and becoming more fashionable. Recent college graduates and young adults who are trying to establish themselves are willing to live in cities. These individuals will demand better services, more from the culture and the arts, more from their sports teams, and a more attractive environment overall. That puts us on the pathway to recreate the city -- and it brings in tax dollars to be able to do so. Because the city is becoming a nicer place to live, it will start attracting smart and innovative people who can help Philadelphia compete with other global leading centers of the world.

Zabeth Teelucksingh was with Dr. Tang last year in Toronto, where they got to visit MaRS. MaRS is an organization that advocates innovation in Canada’s science, technology, and social industries. Teelucksingh asked Dr. Tang about American-Canadian relations since their MaRS trip and about the Science Center’s upcoming events.

Have there been any developments with regards to Canada’s innovation sector during the past year?

We are partnering with the Canadian Consulate General to establish an accelerator program at the Science Center for Canadian companies working in healthcare IT. Visiting MaRS confirmed the need for the U.S. to have a link to the very innovative culture in Canada, but of course you don’t make those links overnight. You have to have some sort of abiding principle that makes you receptive to a global view. I think that was the key to this new partnership: visiting MaRS allowed us to see ourselves as part of a global community. If you hold a worldview, international opportunities are more likely to arise.

This fall and as part of GlobalPhilly2013, the Science Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary and hosting a conference for international university research parks. Can you expand on these two events?

The main part of our 50th anniversary celebration is going to be the announcement of the inaugural “class” of a new Innovators Walk of Fame. If you walk down South Broad Street, you’ll see little bronze placards in the sidewalk celebrating this region’s recording, performing, and visual artists. We don’t yet have the same concept for celebrating innovation. Recognizing innovation in science, technology, engineering, art, and math, provides an opportunity for us to celebrate Greater Philadelphia’s strength and history as an innovation hub in those areas. The winners will be announced at our 50th anniversary celebration in October.

At the end of September we will host the Association of University Research Parks International Conference, bringing together our peers from the U.S., Canada, and across the world. It’s a time to share learnings, perspectives, and programs; and it’s also a chance to show off Philadelphia. Our collective enthusiasm, and my personal enthusiasm, for the region will hopefully be on display for all in attendance to see.

This interview with Dr. Stephen S. Tang has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Kait Lavinder for GPA.