Pennsylvania innovation needs to overcome ‘valley of death’

(The Center Square) — For economic growth in Pennsylvania, legislators want to figure out ways to keep young people from fleeing for greener pastures elsewhere.

“Our young people grow up, we educate them well, and then they go where the opportunities are,” Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, said during a Senate Republican Policy Committee on Thursday. 

Republicans this week have focused on the theme. On Wednesday, they announced a higher ed proposal that would award $5,000 scholarships to college students who committed to staying in the commonwealth — and give in-state tuition to any out-of-state students who do the same.

But breaking that well-worn drive down the interstate will take time.

“We’re losing our young folks to other states because they’re finding their greatest opportunities elsewhere,” said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York. “I am tired of losing constituents and businesses to North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere.”

The growth of life sciences and tech in the Philadelphia area has been a bright spot, but area leaders warn that creating growth has been a hard slog.

“In spite of success, the path from academic research to commercial success and society impact continues to be fraught with significant hurdles and challenges,” said John Swartley, chief innovation officer at the University of Pennsylvania.

He referred to a “valley of death” that entrepreneurs and businesses face.

“The gap between early and promising research findings, and the many different steps and investments required to ensure their full development to market ready projects — that continues to be a significant barrier to establishing academic-industrial partnerships,” Swartley said.

New startups in the commonwealth, he said, lack a skilled and unskilled workforce to do the job, along with enough contract manufacturers to get the job done.

“We graduate about 20 students a year — the industry needs 100,” Jamie Bretz, dean of STEM at Montgomery County Community College, said. “It’s really getting people interested in getting into the field.”

To develop the commonwealth, other testifiers argued more taxpayer money needs to go to life science, tech, and other fields. Scott Nissenbaum, president of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, pitched legislators to support an $80 million tech hub proposal.

“The brain drain can stop in a critical situation, which is health care and life sciences and precision medicine. Philadelphia can become the region the same way that Silicon Valley is for entrepreneurs,” Nissenbaum said. “Science fiction is colliding with real science out of Penn and Drexel and Jefferson.”

The hub would require $5 million from the commonwealth and $1 million from Philadelphia and Delaware each, which he argued would lead to 20,000 jobs created over five years.

“For Pennsylvania to make an impact, we need investment, we need incentives, workforce development, and all of us will grow our biotech corridor,” Louis Kassa, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Biotech Center, said. “Massachusetts, Texas, New York have made billion-dollar investments and provided many incentive programs to attract companies and retain them … It’s time for Pennsylvania to leverage the life sciences industry.”

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