A center for innovation at Penn

First there were working dogs and flying robots.

Now, Penn hopes to draw a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs to a 23-acre parcel of land along the southern bank of the Schuylkill River.

The site, known as Pennovation Works (formerly referred to as the South Bank), will house the Pennovation Center, a 58,000-square-foot, three-story facility that will serve as the University’s hub for innovation, research, and entrepreneurialism.

“It is building upon this whole theme in the Penn Compact 2020,” says Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate Services Anne Papageorge, with “cross-disciplinary collaboration, creating opportunities where discussions, where partnerships, where potential innovation can happen.”

The site has housed tenants since 2010, and counts the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and KMel Robotics, a spinoff of the GRASP Lab, as current occupants. Penn hopes to  draw even more individuals and startups after completion of the first phase of development. Included in that first phase, a $37.5 million investment by Penn, is construction of the Center, as well as landscaping, infrastructure improvements, signage, and branding.

The Pennovation Center’s design, by New York-based architects HWKN, rehabilitates an existing industrial building and replaces its existing northern façade with  illuminated angular panes of glass. This airy and striking design will allow for natural light, as well as views of the Schuylkill River, Penn’s campus, and Philadelphia. In a nod to many inventions and ideas concocted in home garages, the eastern façade will contain a series of garage doors that open directly to studio spaces for some teams that work in the building.

“The Pennovation Center design creates a truly iconic landmark for Penn’s innovation ecosystem and a dynamic hub for Penn’s culture of innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “The Center is designed to bring the University’s eminent researchers and scientists along with our extraordinary students, together with the private sector to foster creative exploration, entrepreneurship, and new alliances, and to generate economic development for the region. We are excited about the discoveries that will come out of the Center and about the kind of real societal and economic impact they will have in our region, the country and the world.”

David Hollenberg, university architect in Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES), says HWKN’s design manages to respect the site’s past, while also casting an eye to the future.

“It’s not and was never intended to be a preservation project,” Hollenberg says of the site, which was formerly DuPont’s Marshall Labs. “This wanted to go beyond those kinds of noble projects.”

Papageorge says that the team of HWKN has a Penn connection and understands how to implement a job through Philadelphia’s institutional world, making the firm a good fit for the project. One of HWKN’s co-founders, Matthias Hollwich, is a lecturer in architecture in Penn’s School of Design.

The firm “offered the edge, the whimsy, the innovative quality that we were looking for,” Papageorge adds. “We wanted it to be of Penn, but not identical to our campus. We wanted it to be high-quality but we wanted it to be more economical, a little more raw.”

The Center will contain two floors of co-working space designed to support innovators and entrepreneurs not only from Penn, but also from outside of the University. The Center will create and host workshops, programs, and professional development resources for this community. The first and second floors will include wet and dry labs with shared lab support equipment, meeting rooms, and social areas.

The third floor will be occupied by the Penn Engineering Field Research Center, integrating computer science and electrical, mechanical, and systems engineering. It is designed as an open laboratory for promoting fundamental research and accelerating the lab-to-market technology transfer pipeline in robotics, the internet of things, and embedded systems.

Outside, Penn will build the Pennovation Plaza, with sitting areas, trees and plantings, and common space, and a netted outdoor lab ideal for the testing of flying robots.

The Penn Engineering Field Research Center is expected to open in late fall of 2015 and completion of the Pennovation Center and site improvements is anticipated in the summer of 2016.

Paul Sehnert, director of development management at FRES, says the University did extensive research into best practices of other research and innovation hubs, including the Cambridge Innovation Center near M.I.T. and Harvard in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center of Bucks County, located in Doylestown. The spectrum of these innovation incubators is wide, Sehnert explains, as some are more focused on company-formation, while others are more classroom-based. Pennovation Works, he says, has university and private sector partnerships, with a focus on biotech, and is primarily focused on the commercialization of business.

“What you want to have is a place where … you can inspire like-minded companies,” Sehnert says, adding that the flexible spaces in and outside the Center will hopefully lead to impromptu, over-the-water-cooler meetings. “We hope to stir all that up.”

Space throughout the site has been leased to both University and non-Penn affiliates, including the Penn Center for Innovation, the Penn Dental research greenhouse, Penn Transit Services, and Novapeutics, a company established through Penn’s UPstart Program that is developing a treatment for diabetes.

The site is nestled in the Gray’s Ferry Crescent. It is close to campus but not adjacent, so there is an on-demand shuttle to transport people to the site. The scope of the Pennovation Works project also includes improvements to make the site more pedestrian- and bike-accessible, including perimeter sidewalks, street trees, and streetlights along two edges of the property.

Papageorge says they have applied for funding from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to examine pedestrian, bike, and vehicle traffic in the Grey’s Ferry Avenue and 34th Street areas.

She says they’re already thinking about the kinds of spaces entrepreneurs might need once they “graduate” from an incubator. Other buildings on the grounds may have potential, including a 70,000-80,000-square-foot space with laboratory infrastructure, and a 30,000-square-foot office building.

“We don’t see this as a Penn-only facility,” Papageorge says. “There are others who will work in this space, whether they be venture capitalists, or attorneys, or IT, or tech.”

Pennovation Works