Source: BioBuzz  |  March 24, 2021

As some are now calling it, the greater Philadelphia region, or ‘Cellicon Valley’ is garnering a lot of attention these days as a rapidly emerging Biopharma cluster, earning a defining spot among   the top 10 clusters in the US. The nickname comes from the city’s storied history in the field, eventually achieving the first FDA-approved gene and cell therapies, and its current position as a global leader in advancing gene and cell therapy research, out of which a whole commercial biotech ecosystem is flourishing.

According to Nature, Penn Medicine, which is ranked 1st among global universities for CAR-T cell patents, has launched more than 10 startups in the field, including companies such as Spark Therapeutics, Tmunity Therapeutics, Carisma Therapeutics, Cabaletta Bio, ReGenX Bio, Scout Bio & Passage Bio.

There are big plans to build on these solid foundations, and experts are estimating that there will be between 2,000 to more than 7,600 new cell and gene therapy jobs created in the Philadelphia region over the next 10 years.

Those estimates were released last year in a report published by CEO Council for Growth, the University City Science Center, and University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, titled “Cell and Gene Therapy and Connected Health Workforce Analysis.” It forecasts between 35% to 94% employment growth in the next 10 years but suggested it could be as much as 136% according to some growth estimates.

With such astronomical growth estimates within a nascent industry such as cell and gene therapy, it will put tremendous pressure on the demand for the highly specialized, scientific workforce needed for these companies to succeed and bring their novel medicines to market. Does Philly have what it takes to meet that demand? Many say ‘yes.’

We caught up with Lisa Dalton, Chief People Officer, Spark Therapeutics, to dive into why Philly’s talent market is a key asset that can propel the city to be a top biotech cluster.

How has the makeup of the talent pool in the Philadelphia region played a role in fueling its growth?

With its thriving network of universities, hospitals, and biotech companies, Philadelphia has quickly become a hub for biotech talent. Philadelphia is home to 85 hospitals and clinics, with 20 percent of the city’s workforce employed in the healthcare sector, and one out of every six U.S. doctors receive medical training in Philadelphia, according to Drexel University.

The combination of academic and medical institutions making investments in capital and talent in local companies to commercialize research – as was the case with Spark Therapeutics born out of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) – has primed Philadelphia for biotech success.

Why is the region so strong in gene and cell therapy talent?

Today, there are countless academic labs and more than 30 companies dedicated to gene and cell therapy research, further establishing and reaffirming Philadelphia’s reputation as “Cellicon Valley.” Not only does the city outpace Boston in retaining graduates from local colleges and universities, it also attracts industry talent nationally – with many professionals feeling a pull to the region to be part of the future of medicine and the city’s thriving biotech community.

Spark, the developers of the first gene therapy for a genetic disease to be approved in both the U.S. and EU, has helped Philadelphia become a hub for gene and cell therapy. Spark is fully dedicated to hiring and expanding its workforce to meet ambitious growth plans and grew by more than 250 employees in 2020, bringing the company to over 600 team members, with no plans of slowing in 2021. By nurturing and focusing our growth and investments in this field expected to fuel the next generation of medicine, Spark and the city are primed to continue its leadership in this growing arena.

What workforce challenges must the region address to achieve its full potential as a top biotech cluster?

Spark and the life sciences sector can play an integral role in helping the local economy recover from challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a key part of this effort will be to continue to foster and hire diverse and underrepresented talent.

Reports and studies show that companies that take advantage of the power of diverse talent are more creative, innovative, better at problem-solving, and even experience improved financial performance. But more than anything, it’s the right thing to do. We need each other’s experiences and perspectives to power the industry forward, and if we want to attract underrepresented talent as a region, it starts with us. It’s incumbent upon our organizations to build ever more diverse and inclusive organizations.

At Spark, we strive to create a diverse workforce of unique viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives to break barriers in gene therapy and reflect the diversity of the world around us. We commit to working to identify additional concrete and measurable steps we can take to move our company forward on our journey to a more diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace for all of us.

Throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding area, several workforce development initiatives aim to address the increased demand for talent in the city, including providing opportunities for economically-disadvantaged populations. At 25%, Philadelphia has one of the largest poverty rates in the country.

One way the industry is seeking to attract new talent is through Project Onramp, a program launched by Life Sciences Cares Philadelphia. Through Project Onramp, a program first launched in Boston two years ago, Life Science Cares Philadelphia and its partner Philadelphia Futures will help first-generation college students land paid internships in the city’s life sciences industry. Pete Wolf, Executive Director of Life Science Cares Philadelphia said internship opportunities can provide pathways to full-time jobs that offer higher-than-average starting salaries and benefits. Through Project Onramp, Wolf said he hopes the internship program will break down barriers that have historically excluded many deserving students while building a more diverse pipeline of talent in the community.

In addition to Project Onramp, another Philadelphia-based program is helping steer students into STEM-related industries. Last year, the University City Science Center launched BULB: Building and Understanding Lab Basics. The program is an intensive, two-week program open to any Philadelphia resident with a GED or high school diploma who’s had some kind of workforce experience. The mission of BULB is to develop more opportunities for Philadelphians to attain “family-sustaining” careers in high-growth STEM industries.

Tia Lyles-Williams, Founder & CEO of LucasPye BIO (LPB) and HelaPlex, is also working to bring more diverse talent into the life sciences industry. In a previous conversation with BioBuzz, Lyles-Williams outlined her belief in helping those who are more marginalized by income inequality and other barriers find a career path in life sciences. She wants to bring high-quality, high-wage jobs to underserved communities.

For Lyles-Williams, that means offering a salary that provides a living wage so people can “have a real opportunity for supporting their family with healthcare, paying for their kids to go to college, or paying for Little League.”

These efforts, as well as others, will help Philadelphia achieve its goal of not only becoming a top biotech hub in the United States but globally.