Spark CEO Marrazzo: Philadelphia will shine at BIO 2019
By Jeff Marrazzo – Guest Columnist
Philadelphia Business Journal

Our region is a hotbed for gene and cell therapy innovation. How do we mazimize this moment?

Thousands of biotech leaders, researchers and entrepreneurs are in Philadelphia this week at the BIO International Convention. While there will be a myriad of discussions about the latest industry developments and breakthroughs, one of the more compelling stories will be the rise of Philadelphia as the hotbed for gene and cell therapy innovation and the potential for the city to capitalize on this moment to sustain its position as the leader in genetic medicine — the future of healthcare.

Philadelphia has been working toward this moment for decades. Home to more than 85 hospitals and clinics with 20 percent of the city’s workforce employed in the health care sector, it’s been estimated that one out of every six U.S. doctors has received medical training here. The city also ranked third in terms of U.S. cities receiving NIH grant funding in 2017.

It should therefore be no surprise that the first FDA-approved CAR-T cell therapy for cancer and first FDA-approved gene therapy for a genetic disease were born out of research conducted in Philadelphia. These innovations have sparked a renewed interest in this promising area of medicine, with former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb projecting last year that the FDA will approve 40 gene therapies by 2022.

Today, we have esteemed institutions like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and UPenn making investments of both money and talent in local companies to commercialize research, pharmaceutical giants like Novartis supporting research facilities in the city, and more health care startups sprouting up than ever before. The tipping point has come. The question now is: how can Philadelphia maximize this moment? I urge three priorities:

Double down on a world-class strength – gene and cell therapy. Silicon Valley’s reputation was in part built on disruptive information technologies, while Cambridge focused on biologics research. Philadelphia is uniquely positioned to deliver innovations from its countless academic labs and more than 30 companies dedicated to gene and cell therapy research. By nurturing and focusing our growth and investments in gene and cell therapy, an area of health care research and development expected to fuel the next generation of medicine, Philadelphia is primed to stay on top.

Build and retain talent. Philadelphia is enjoying a renaissance. In March, the state’s unemployment rate dropped to the lowest on record, and a thriving network of universities, hospitals and biotech companies makes Philadelphia a breeding ground for talent. Philadelphia now outpaces Boston in retaining graduates from local colleges and universities. We have seen an almost 50 percent increase in venture capital funding in the last 18 months in the Greater Philadelphia region. The onus is on us, anchor companies and institutions, to stimulate this growth by ensuring Philadelphia’s biotech job market continues to thrive, serving as a catalyst for economic growth in city neighborhoods.

Importantly, remain vigilant about affordability. Philadelphia remains significantly more affordable than its East and West Coast biotech counterparts. The expansion of biotech has eroded affordability in these other cities, especially when you look at the cost of lab space and cost of living. Currently, Philadelphia has more than 11 million square feet of affordable life sciences space, but space is already getting tighter in certain neighborhoods. We need creativity in spreading biotech growth across the city, even the region, rather than dominating one specific area. We share an obligation to the residents of Philadelphia to responsibly ensure businesses and people can afford to both work and live in the city.

At this week’s BIO Convention, the theme of “It Starts with One” recognizes that scientific breakthroughs often start with one company, one meeting, one idea. The history-making achievements we have seen in Philadelphia speak to the power and potential of those “ones,” but also the importance of all stakeholders working together, as one, to do what is right for patients, families, employees, and the city. Together, the next generation of medicine starts with one Philadelphia.

Jeff Marrazzo is co-founder and CEO of Spark Therapeutics.


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