Vital Lessons from 2020 Provide a Blueprint for Pennsylvania’s Economic Future
By Scott Nissenbaum, President & CEO
In March 2020, leaders from the Philadelphia region rapidly convened to understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, collaborating on solutions that resulted in the Chamber of Commerce, City of Philadelphia, and many regional partners developing great frameworks for response and growth. The four Ben Franklin organizations in Pennsylvania partnered with the PA Department of Community and Economic Development and quickly mobilized $8 million to help our companies manage the pandemic’s effects. As we have witnessed numerous times throughout Ben Franklin Technology Partners' near 40-year history, many hands working together in a spirit of collaboration once again proved to be an effective strategy for helping Pennsylvania thrive during times of uncertainty.
Pennsylvania’s ability to adapt has always been one of its greatest attributes. The late former governor Dick Thornburgh shepherded creation of the Ben Franklin partnership nearly 40 years ago as a response to the socioeconomic challenges that Pennsylvania faced in an economy that was transitioning in unprecedented ways. Ben Franklin helped Pennsylvania adapt to meet new and emerging opportunities and provide our communities with an economic path forward. We have always believed collaboration can, and will, turn our region’s resilience into greater and equitable growth.
The last year required all of us to examine if our best intentions were making necessary progress for diverse and equitable economic growth, while focus sharpened on how high growth enterprises can expedite that growth. Ben Franklin of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s (Ben Franklin SEP) grant and partnership with Philly startup leaders was a response to a community call to action to support underrepresented founders, and a small step forward. The promise of our involvement in initiatives like 1Philadelphia, which connects funders, employers, schools, and community organizations to build an equitable tech and innovation education system for Philadelphia residents, offer us and many other partners the opportunity to align what we each do best – to drive the long game for progress.
When we think about Philadelphia’s identity, healthcare and innovation are very much “on brand” for the region. In 2019, JLL cited Philadelphia’s emergence as a “new world city” because of its global influence in healthcare and innovation, bolstered by its concentration in cell and gene therapy. In 2020, by the time we had a firm grasp what a pandemic meant, many of the Ben Franklin companies were already working to fight COVID-19 and its effects. From Ben Franklin client Biomeme’s testing capabilities, to Roundtrip safely getting people to their doctors, our companies proved that novel solutions which solve global challenges are borne from our region. We have always known that we have a winning combination of talent and investment in Pennsylvania – but others are catching on.
It seems like yesterday that we hosted discussions about how the new movement of impact investing had a place in technology and innovation for Philadelphia. In 2021, ImpactPHL and ImpactPHL Ventures turn five years old, and nearly 60% of our portfolio is aligned with more than one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. More than ever, the world understands that capital can, and should, drive multiple community outcomes. As Ben Franklin, one of the earliest impact investing practitioners, nears our 40th anniversary, our mission is as relevant today as it was on day one.
In 2020, Ben Franklin approved $6.9 million in funding and support across 46 companies in southeastern Pennsylvania. In sectors that include information technology, healthcare, and physical science, we helped create 338 jobs and retained more than 2,500 positions. Ben Franklin SEP’s 211-member client portfolio is comprised of 22% minority led companies and 21% women-owned businesses, while 58% of the companies we invested in during 2020 were social impact-focused companies.
While we are proud of Ben Franklin’s impact in southeastern Pennsylvania and across the commonwealth, it also begs the question – where does Pennsylvania go from here?
Chief among our next steps is Pennsylvania continuing to make the types of investments in innovation like the $14.5 million we saw in the 2021-22 General Fund budget. The funding for the upcoming fiscal year maintains Ben Franklin’s base appropriation level from the previous fiscal year and serves as an important first step in Pennsylvania’s post-COVID recovery.
Now more than ever, Pennsylvania is facing renewed competition to attract businesses and retain brainpower. Our neighbors have already shown they are willing to make investing in innovation a priority. But Ben Franklin invests more than money alone; we surround clients with expert support that is instrumental to their eventual success.
Startups and innovative established manufacturers seek fertile ecosystems. When we look back at 2020, we can see first-hand what those ecosystems look like and the positive economic impact that comes from investing in innovation. Pennsylvania has never been more attractive for businesses, and we must capitalize on what we have built over nearly 40 years of hard work and successful strategic planning. While 2020 was a challenging year, Ben Franklin’s clients continued contributing to Pennsylvania’s economy when it mattered most. Despite the success of our clients during the past year, our greatest success stories could still very well be ahead of us if Pennsylvania continues to prioritize investing in innovation. Ben Franklin’s base appropriation in the 2021-22 General Fund budget represents an important first step.