For Ajay Raju, being the CEO and chairman of Dilworth Paxson was not enough.

The high-flying attorney -- who has positioned himself as a venture capitalist, media pundit, and publisher -- stepped down from his position as top dog at Dilworth just before Christmas. He has bigger aspirations.

Immediate plans call for a new practice. Raju, who had run Dilworth since 2014, has taken three of the firm’s partners to form Raju LLC, a niche law firm that will focus on commercial, mortgage-backed securities, a topic on which his colleagues say he is a nationally recognized expert.

But he’s preparing a bigger announcement, a project he expects to fully reveal in March, that will marshal his interests in biotech and law, technology and entrepreneurship. He calls it the Ark Institute. He believes it could help place Philadelphia on the map as a center for innovation.

“The idea behind it is that there’s another flood coming,” Raju said, using a metaphor typically linked with Noah but expansive enough to include pandemics. “The ark we’re building will make sure we survive.”

Of Philadelphia CEOs, few have had as prominent a profile as Raju. It’s part of the reason the 51-year-old Temple law school graduate departed Dilworth. While running the venerable law firm, he has also managed venture capital firms: 215 Capital, a “subscription-only Series A pledge fund enabling investors to participate deal-by-deal;” and Togo Ventures, a “med-tech” venture capital fund.

In addition, Raju has been a weekly panelist on Inside Story, the news analysis show on 6ABC. He has hosted the video program called Overheard at Tredici, where he conducts one-on-one interviews with Philadelphia’s brightest scientific lights at a chic 13th Street boite. He also heads the Pamela + Ajay Raju Foundation which promotes Philadelphia as a tech center, encourages the building of a new scientific infrastructure, and funds the Philadelphia Citizen, a nonprofit media organization that encourages civic engagement.

Larry McMichael, who was named Dilworth’s new chair on Dec. 23, called Raju’s departure “a very amicable restructuring of the relationship.”

McMichael has served as a commercial litigator for 42 years at the firm, named after the legendary attorney and former Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth. The midsize, full-service firm specializes in sophisticated transactions and commercial work, financial law, and acquisitions and mergers.

“Losing Ajay will not hurt. His business is staying at the firm,” said McMichael, a high-profile attorney in his own right though he eschews a litigator’s typical braggadocio for a quieter humility. McMichael handled the high-profile bankruptcy cases for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s parent company, the Please Touch Museum, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Lawrence McMichael was named the new chair of Dilworth Paxson on Dec. 23, 2020.
DILWORTH PAXSON
Lawrence McMichael was named the new chair of Dilworth Paxson on Dec. 23, 2020.

“He wanted the time and space to grow 215 Capital and his other companies,” McMichael continued. “He needed the time and space to do that and I was happy to step in and take the reins of the law firm. We expect to continue to work together.”

McMichael said little at Dilworth will change. “We are not looking at any mergers. We will not be swallowed up,” he said. “This was an adjustment in our internal governance based on Ajay’s other business commitments. I’ll see what can be improved but I don’t expect anything earth shattering.”

Raju said he will first and foremost remain a lawyer. “Law is what defines me and despite my other interests, I’ll never be known as a venture capitalist. There are a kazillion VCs. I don’t need that title.”

Raju has written a manifesto for the Ark Initiative project but is holding back on publishing it until he lines up all his partnerships, which he said will draw on talent from Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Until the reveal in March, he speaks cryptically about the project’s mission which he said pivots on the “biotech revolution.”

“Another cataclysmic event is bound to happen, you have to prepare for it,” said Raju. “The reason Taiwan and Singapore and China and South Korea did so well with this pandemic and kept their rates of infection low was because they learned from SARS [virus] and they were prepared. There was a pattern for it and they acted on it. We need that here, too.”

Participation in Ark, a nonprofit enterprise, will be by invitation only. Raju said he is looking for “design thinkers” who can help prevent the next disaster. ”This is not a retail project. It will be a collection of the finest intellectuals.”

Among those Raju hopes to tap for the Ark Initiative include David Fajgenbaum, a Penn immunologist who famously discovered the cure to Castleman disease, which had been destined to kill him.

“This is a hinge moment for the region and myself,” Raju said. “The hinge moment is the biotech revolution. I’m seeing the early signs of an explosion into the biotech space. We’re poised to seize that. I’m convinced a few city-states will control that world. And Philadelphia will be one of them.”