Steve Tang, Former President and CEO of University City Science Center, on His Career and Advice for Entreprenuers

Steve Tang, the outgoing president and CEO of Philadelphia’s University City Science Center will take the reins at Bethlehem’s OraSure Technologies, a publicly traded maker of medical devices. In his new role his success will be measured by shareholder value, not on economic, programmatic and physical growth.

 

Like so many of the entrepreneurs and innovators he has nurtured for 10 years, Steve Tang decided to pivot. He had a few things to say, both in a public talk late last month at the Science Center’s Quorum and in an interview with CityWide Stories. (The Quorum conversation was with Jill Chernekoff, a former journalist, executive leadership coach and Tang’s wife of eight months. Not surprisingly, Tang spoke from the heart about personal as well as professional matters.)

 

His personal story is compelling, a child of highly educated immigrants and himself highly educated (an MS and PH.D. in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University, and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania), cancer survivor and a current practitioner of yoga, meditation and spiritual growth.

 

In his decade at the Science Center, Tang led a transition from “a traditional real-estate focused research park to an innovation powerhouse,” said board Chairman Craig R. Carnaroli.  Much of the growth was physical, in a partnership with Wexford Science & Technology, a specialized Baltimore-based real estate developer, the Science Center campus grew from 17 to 27 acres and was rebranded as uCitySquare. Three new buildings, totaling 735,000 square feet were built, and a fourth 14-story tower is under construction.

 

Tang notes, “It’s what goes on in those buildings that’s important.” Five companies that launched from the Science Center’s Port Business incubator – Avid Radiopharmaceutals, Invisible Sentinel, Integral Molecular, Pulsar Informatics and Halo Labs – remain on campus, accounting for more than 250 jobs. And during Tang’s tenure, the Science Center added a panoply of new programs that support technology commercialization, including its QED Proof of Concept, Phase 1 Ventures, the Digital Health Accelerator and ic@3401.  

 

Tang is well aware of the potential incongruity of the Science Center as real estate developer, economic development engine and supporter of innovative ideas and young companies.  He frames the roles as being an “agent” and a “principal.” As an agent, the Science Center, he says, is a cheerleader, convener and resource organization for entrepreneurs. As a principal, he notes, it’s a property owner.

 

“We’re going to have that dichotomy all the time,” he says. “But property and real estate are important resources in this community and the revenue from that property and real estate can drive programs.”

 

Tang speaks about passionately about a larger disparity: the difference between the impoverished West Philadelphia neighborhoods to the Science Center’s immediate north and the bustling university, hospital and research nexus to the south.  More than 50 percent of the residents live in poverty in the adjacent West Philadelphia Promise Zone, Tang notes, “and it’s intolerable that we live with that division and do nothing about it.”

 

In fact, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, a joint effort among Drexel University, the University City District, and the Science Center, last month received a $5 million grant from the Lenfest Foundation with the goal of placing 600 previously unemployed residents into careers in the University City tech corridor. 

 

It’s a myth, says Tang, that tech companies only can provide jobs for the highly educated; the grant, he adds, is aimed at middle-skill jobs that can be a model for other institutions and “a renaissance for a new middle class in Philadelphia.” Tang also touts the Science Center’s FirstHand program, established under his watch, that partners with Philadelphia schools to introduce middle- and high-schoolers to STEM subjects.

 

Tang isn’t leaving his social conscience at the door as he leaves. Besides pledging to stay involved with Philadelphia civic life, he notes that he’ll be concerned with global public health issues at OraSure, whose product and research portfolio includes rapid Hepatitis C and HIV tests (including the only over-the-counter HIV test approved in the U.S.), threats like Ebola and the human genomics movement.

 

Looking ahead to Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial culture, Tang says the essential challenge is keeping promising companies in the city as they scale up – and that requires more homegrown risk capital from Philadelphia-based corporations. “The food chain has to result in the big fish staying here, not just the little fish propagating on their own,” he says. “[These growing startups] will thrive anywhere so source capital is very critical – not just venture capital, but from corporations with investable risk capital.”

 

Citing earlier career reversals, including the fact that he interviewed at both the Science Center and OraSure in 2004 and didn’t get either job, he has a potent message for young entrepreneurs.

 

“The idea might be great, but the time might be wrong or your capabilities may not be right in that moment,” he says. “The world’s an abundant place. I wish I knew that 20 years ago.”

 

We asked Tang what note he might leave in his desk for his successor, a White House tradition. (Curtis M. Hess, a longtime Science Center executive, is serving as interim president and CEO while a national search is conducted.)

 

Here is Tang’s note, in its entirety:

 

“Congratulations and welcome to you, the 11th president of the University City Science Center!

 

“You have an abundance of opportunity ahead of you and this august and consequential organization. Enjoy it and be grateful each day for it.

 

“You will accomplish much if you believe that our Greater Philadelphia community will be better and stronger with innovation and entrepreneurship as one of our core missions. It can also affect the lives of those impoverished in our neighborhoods, if we include them in our mission and embrace them. I encourage you to put the community’s interests first, link those interests to the interests of the Science Center’s shareholders and stakeholders, and then leverage the capabilities of our talented team at the Science Center. If you do all of that, you will discover and understand why we truly are the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.

 

“I am with you in spirit and intent!

 

“Steve”

 

 

This article was produced as part of our Writer in Residence Program with the University City Science Center.