Does Philadelphia have room for one more specialized business incubator?
It may, indeed, if enough education- technology entrepreneurs choose to take the plunge into what the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education calls its new Education Design Studio Fund.
Even the name suggests that what Penn is planning will be unlike spaces such as GoodCompany Group's residency program for social enterprises in Center City, the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center of Bucks County in Doylestown, and the planned Hub Commercialization Center for clean-tech firms at the Navy Yard.
The Education Design Studio Fund as yet does not have physical office space, but it intends to sign a lease for a site off-campus, according to Bobbi Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at Penn GSE.
One goal is to help keep together the ed-tech start-ups that participate in the annual education business plan competition, run by Penn GSE and funded by the Milken Family Foundation. Kurshan said the 10 finalists from the most recent competition have been invited to participate in the new program.
And what she is aiming for would be more than a business incubator offering below-market space, or a business accelerator program offering mentorship and seed funding.
Unlike accelerator programs, such as Philadelphia-based DreamIt Ventures, the Penn effort will be designed to last longer than 12 weeks, according to Kurshan, because education products take longer to develop and test in the field than consumer-oriented mobile apps or Web-based services.
She anticipates firms sticking around for six months with the opportunity to receive "transition funding" for up to a year. Kurshan was not ready to release any information about the total dollar amount for the fund or the sources of that investment.
One professional involved in the area's incubator community said she liked what she had heard about Penn's plans so far. Zoe Selzer, executive director of GoodCompany Group, said the specialization that has been going on in the incubator field helps bring together a community of like-minded companies operating a specific niche, like education technology or social enterprise.
Ed-tech businesses are a subset of the many companies tackling social issues. In fact, Autism Expressed and Persistence Plus, who were finalists in the Milken-Penn GSE contest, had previously participated in GoodCompany's acceleration program, Selzer said.
GoodCompany's 4,500-square-foot incubator at 1650 Arch St. is about 80 percent occupied. Companies have come and gone as they do for a variety of reasons, but AgileSwitch and Shenandoah Studio have grown and added employees since they joined the residency program, Selzer said.
To Kurshan, the Education Design Studio Fund will be about building the community, connections, and programming needed to nurture ed-tech entrepreneurs in higher-ed-heavy Philadelphia. If Penn can do that, the program should find its own niche among the region's more than two dozen incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces.