A $365 million development will expand the life sciences hub at Pennovation Works

Penn Senior Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli speaks with Penn Today about the evolution of the research and manufacturing project, led by Longfellow Real Estate Developers, and its value for Penn and the region.

A rendering of a new building at Pennovation Works with glass and copper features
A view of the new research, development, and biomanufacturing facility from the intersection of Grays Ferry Avenue and 34th Street on the Pennovation Works property. (Image: Longfellow Real Estate Partners)

Pennovation Works, the 23-acre University of Pennsylvania property just across the Schuylkill River from the core campus, has long been a site for innovation. Home to a ferry business in the 18th century, a paint company in the 19th century, and a DuPont chemical research facility for much of the 20th century, the space underwent a further transformation in 2016 with the establishment of the Pennovation Center, an incubator for science and technology startups, many of which have their origins within the University. Last year, the 65,000 square foot Pennovation Lab opened, offering larger lab spaces for companies outgrowing their previous locations.

Now the next phase of reimagining this site is set to begin. 

With a 75-year ground lease, Longfellow Real Estate Partners will develop, finance, and operate a 455,000-square-foot life sciences facility along 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. The building will include roughly 387,000 square feet dedicated to biological research and development and 68,000 square feet for biomanufacturing. Construction on the building, designed by architectural firm Jacobs to integrate visually with the existing Pennovation Works campus structures, is scheduled to begin next year, with the opening planned for 2025. 

Aerial of Pennovation Works property showing the Schuylkill River Trail, Pennovation Center, Pennovation Lab, Proposed Garage for 850 cars, Center City in the distance, and the new Longfellow Research and Biomanufacturing Building
Integrating into the existing campus and infrastructure of Pennovation Works, the Longfellow Real Estate Partners development is intended to foster the site’s, and the city’s, innovation ecosystem. (Image: Longfellow Real Estate Partners)

With the flourishing cell and gene therapy programs at Penn, as well as the successes and future promise of mRNA as a therapeutic, the lab and biomanufacturing facilities will offer an opportunity for biotech companies to remain in Philadelphia, adjacent to Penn’s campus, as they expand.

To learn more about the project, the evolution of Pennovation Works, and the growing life sciences ecosystem in Philadelphia, Penn Today spoke with Craig Carnaroli, Penn’s senior executive vice president. Carnaroli was vice president of finance from 2000 to 2004 and has been executive vice president since 2004. He has been shaping the campus broadly in this role, including Pennovation Works since it was acquired in 2010. 

The transformation of the Pennovation Works site has been striking over the last several years. Can you share some of the highlights of what has been happening there?

Penn has been involved in that space for more than a decade, but it’s only been six years since we celebrated the opening of the Pennovation Center in 2016. Since early on we’ve seen a nice mix and diversity of tenants, everything from the engineering school’s GRASP Lab in robotics to the work that Dr. Henry Daniell is doing with drug delivery through plants, and of course the Working Dog Center’s scent-detecting canines.

The investment we made in the Pennovation Center provided a launch pad for entrepreneurs and young companies. But we’ve also seen that the space needed to grow further, so we’ve added the renovation of the Pennovation Lab building. That has provided needed growth space for young companies.

Why is now the right time for this stage of building out Pennovation Works?

There are a couple of dynamics at play. With some of the successes we’ve seen in the medical school, particularly in the cell and gene therapy space, there’s an increased number of startup companies coming out of Penn and an increased demand for lab space. And as more tenants have come in, they’re wondering, If I don’t see my growth space here, am I going to have to move elsewhere? 

Say you start out in a lab in the Pennovation Center with 1,000 square feet and you want to expand to a 2,000- or 4,000-square-foot facility. You can look to the Pennovation Lab building for that. But what happens when you need 10,000 square feet? We are showing people their potential trajectory. That’s partly what is driving this project. 

And why is Pennovation Works—and more broadly, Philadelphia—the right space for this type of development?

As for Pennovation Works, we’ve always had a long-term view of how the site could evolve, and Facilities and Real Estate Services had developed a master plan. This is in line with that early vision.

Looking to the city, what you’re seeing all across Philadelphia now is that there is no shortage of projects that are looking to expand, especially in this science and technology sector, whether it’s Schuylkill Yards, University City Science Center, or the Navy Yard. The proximity of Pennovation Works to the whole Penn Medicine complex, as well as Penn Engineering and other schools, is a huge asset. And because it’s owned by Penn, we can be a little more flexible with Penn tenants.

Penn put capital into the acquisition and initial development of the site, and now, having an entity like Longfellow that is capitalized and willing to do the next step, it’s an affirmation of the investment we made and the success of it. It’s nice to see. It’s not unlike what’s happened around campus. Penn stimulated the market, with things like the Inn at Penn and the 40th Street corridor, and that led to other development and activity in and around Penn.

Rendering depicting aerial view of new life sciences building on Pennovation Works campus
The new building will offer significant growth space for companies in cell and gene therapy to expand, conveniently adjacent to Penn’s campus. (Image: Longfellow Real Estate Partners)

The term innovation ecosystem is used to describe how sites like this one can invigorate the people and companies that study and work there. How do you see this development contributing to and fostering the innovation ecosystem of the city?

We’ve seen the demand from our companies, particularly around spanning the need for this manufacturing space for cell and gene therapy. Offering it here, we think, will be important in helping us retain these companies in the region and retain our faculty who are doing that work in Philadelphia.

Penn is a positive economic multiplier in the city in general. We see this space as the next, natural evolution of this campus to support more of the University’s spinoff activities. As quickly as we built the Pennovation Lab space, it was absorbed, even during COVID. It’s now almost fully committed.

This project is helping us be proactive rather than reactive. When a company needs their space and has their financing, they don’t want to wait for something to be built. Here, that growth space will be readily available.

How will this benefit the Penn community?

Our hope is that as faculty spinout companies grow, these facilities will be an option for them, keeping their work proximate to campus. Hopefully, it also creates opportunities for our postdocs and Ph.D. students. Those who are interested in continuing their work in this type of space can see that they can pursue their career here, in a thriving ecosystem in Philadelphia, and not feel like they have to relocate. It’s a way of building density and stickiness to the innovation work that’s coming out of Penn.

Is this just the beginning in terms of attracting private sector development to this hub for life sciences?

In the master plan there are definitely future phases. This is our first ground lease development, so we want this to be successful before we think about the next one. But maybe the science may evolve quickly and prompt us to think about the next step sooner than expected. One of the nice features of this development is the biomanufacturing space. For years, our Penn Medicine colleagues have advised us on the need for affordable biomanufacturing space to support Penn startup cell and gene therapy companies. It is thrilling to see this aspiration come one step closer to fruition.

It seems apt that a hub for 21st-century life science entrepreneurship is being developed on this site, where a previous era of innovation played out, with DuPont and other earlier uses of the space.

It’s a great symbol of the transformation of the industrial economy to the knowledge economy. You have a site that once supported paint research and manufacturing now supporting 21st-century activities around innovation in science. You have canine scent-detection research, robotics, plant-grown biopharmaceuticals, all symbolizing the evolution of innovation and showcasing what universities can do to contribute to society.