Partly it was just bad timing. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when Apple and Microsoft and Oracle and Dell and the other tech behemoths were still babies, Philadelphia was dirty, overtaxed, and at that time clearly in decline. The city was the last place a young entrepreneur would choose to set up shop.
And so the region missed out almost entirely on the first wave of the tech boom. Other metropolises got a huge head start, and ever since, Philadelphia has been little more than a bit player in the most dynamic industry in America.
But the trouble is not just that the city lacks established tech titans of its own (excluding, of course, Comcast, which didn’t really start as a tech company so much as it evolved into one). Just as pressing a problem is the fact that there are still relatively few well-funded tech start-ups in the Philadelphia region. When analysts break down where the big venture-capital money is going, they look at California, New York, Massachusetts, Washington, and Texas. Pennsylvania? New Jersey? They get lumped into the “other” category.
But I’ve had a hard time squaring the objective reality that Philadelphia is still a tech “other” with the buoyancy and innovation on display at this year’s Philly Tech Week, a celebration of the local tech scene that features 80 events and could attract as many as 7,000 entrepreneurs, open-government data geeks, and technology fans. (Full disclosure: I was on a panel at one Tech Week event.)
For instance, Wednesday night, in an aging auditorium on South Broad that strongly recalled Philadelphia’s faded grandeur, five local tech start-ups pitched their products before an audience of 130 and a panel of three judges, including Mayor Nutter.
I didn’t see a future Facebook in the bunch, but these local start-ups had some genuinely interesting ideas. There were a mobile language-translation service, which connects travelers around the world to live human translators on demand; an iPhone coupon-clipping app; an apartment-hunting website with a novel twist; a tablet-optimized Web browser; and a product that converts routine business e-mail into a marketing platform.
“You could put those five start-ups in the room in any market and they compete. This is not a Philly B-team,” said Christopher Wink, one of three young Temple graduates who together cofounded Technically Philly, a news organization that covers the city’s tech scene and organizes Philly Tech Week, which is in its second year.
The event’s purpose mirrors what Technically Philly tries to do every day: Celebrate and build the city’s tech community. The job isn’t as hopeless as it might seem.
Philadelphia is never going to catch up with Silicon Valley or, in all likelihood, New York. But there’s no real reason the city couldn’t become a serious secondary tech hub, comparable to a Boston or a Seattle.
Already there are some major venture-capital firms in and around the city, most notably First Round Capital of Conshohocken, which is one of the bigger early-stage investors nationally.
In Wharton, Philadelphia has one of the best incubators of new businesses in the country. The trick is in persuading the school’s graduates to do business here, instead of taking their big ideas elsewhere. In time, it should help that the city is a far more appealing place for young tech entrepreneurs to live and work than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
And it can’t hurt that city government – though perhaps a bit late to the party – has lately embraced the city’s nascent tech scene in ways big (entrepreneur-friendly business-tax reform that begins phasing in in 2015) and small (a Twitter-savvy mayor).
One of the most promising aspects of the city’s newfound interest in technology is wider release of public data that have been locked up in databases accessible only to city workers and those relative few members of the press and the public who file right-to-know requests. On Thursday, Nutter issued an “open data” executive order that, theoretically, will lead to the release of still more public information and, just as critically, place it all in an easily accessible centralized portal.
There’s obviously no direct link between tech start-ups and the city’s increasing willingness to make its data public. But it helps with the perception that, as a city, Philadelphia gets that tech matters.
“We have a lot to offer as a city. You have a lot to offer as well,” Nutter said to the assembled tech entrepreneurs Wednesday evening. He wanted them to know that Philadelphia is “a growing city that respects the marketplace, entrepreneurs, and innovation.”
Let’s just hope it’s not too late to catch up.