Connecting Out-of-Work Talent With Ready-to-Develop Technology

From Merck & Co.'s recent downsizing announcement to the sale or merger of other locally based companies, including Cephalon Inc., the region's bustling life-sciences sector is undergoing big changes -- with big implications for the Delaware Valley.

David Niles, head of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, has watched a lot of these notable companies shrink.

"Many of them, they're shedding a lot of research and development employees because of the cost to develop drugs that are not necessarily blockbuster drugs for them. They can't take on that expense anymore," said Niles. "So they're outsourcing R&D."

Such changes in a region where life-science industries make up about 15 percent of the economy have led to more than 5,000 laid-off workers, according to the trade association Pennsylvania BIO.

The concern, according to Niles and others who are vested Southeastern Pennsylvania, is that those workers will relocate to other big bioscience hubs, such as Boston or San Diego.

So Niles' group is spearheading a pilot effort with Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners, called Life Sciences Connect, in hopes of redirecting that displaced brainpower to fuel a new wave of area startups. He points to the some 300 biotech companies that have sprouted in the state since 2008 for encouragement.

The idea behind Life Sciences Connect is, well, to connect people with potential technologies coming out of area universities and research institutions that are in need of a developer.

"What this is supposed to do is to really marry up teams of people, ideally, that have left pharma," said Niles. "Marry them up with technology, provide opportunities for them to obtain small financing opportunities through grants and or microloans, and really put back to work the PhD's that have been displaced."

The project is being funded through a two-year, $750,000 grant from Pennsylvania.

Anthony Green, with Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said the project is small but is about coming up with a long-term regional strategy.

"It's a pilot, the number of companies we could actually start and expand and the number of people we could get off the street is not going to solve the problem at all," said Green. "What we hope to show is ... that we have a model that we can exploit and expand and show value to the region to keep the resources here, keep the people here."

Other area groups involved include Pennsylvania BIO, the Chester County Economic Development Council, the University City Science Center and Ashton Tweed.

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