Building Philadelphia’s start-up generation

     Ron Rock (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Ron Rock (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Ron Rock’s mission is to reverse what’s become known as Philly’s “brain drain.” He is, above all else, a Philly booster. You think Ben Franklin or The Roots put us on the map? You should meet this guy. (And yes, that’s his real name.)

    “I’m a Pat’s guy,” he recently told 150 entrepreneurs and corporate honchos attending RAIN 2015, the Regional Affinity Incubation Network conference, at University City Science Center.

    Cheese Whiz, thank you very much, not Provolone

    “I am passionate about this city. I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” says Rock, a LaSalle graduate and Chestnut Hill resident.

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    “I hire the smartest, the best, the brightest,” he says of the tech-savvy twenty-somethings who staff his company, “Five years ago we stood a zero chance of these kids staying here. They would’ve left town as soon as they got their degree, because the jobs simply were not here.”

    Rock calls his employees, 40 percent of whom are women, “a mini United Nations.” They come from around the world to study at Drexel, Penn and Temple, and Rock’s challenge is to give them a reason to stay. He achieves this by working closely with Drexel on directing their curriculum and maintaining relationships with other incubators in the city, including University City Sciences Center and Comcast.

    “Drexel has been a great partner,” says Rock. “They introduce us to alumni who are potential clients, as well as giving us early access to student talent through co-op programs and internships. Additionally, many regional companies ask Drexel for assistance in embracing innovation and new technology, and Drexel includes us in those meetings. The core value is the ‘connector’ role that higher education can play in bridging for profit enterprise and innovative startups.”

    Surprisingly, the diversity of Rock’s company applies not just to gender and ethnicity, but also to age. Rock, a deceptively youthful 55, has employees who range in age from 20 to 60. “The kids build the products,” he explains, “but no one under 35 knows how to talk to a Fortune 2000 CEO or CFO.” helps corporations take their traditional software systems mobile, allowing an on-the-go workforce access to secure documents from home, the field, anywhere.

    “ creates apps that turn your cell phone into your anywhere office,” Rock summarizes. “Geography means nothing. I call it ‘appifying real work.'”

    Is there competition? Plenty. But Rock is confident. “We’re only two and a half years old, but we’re going to lead the pack,” he says. is now negotiating with the one of Philly’s most robust media companies.

    A self-styled “serial entrepreneur,” Rock took a two-year hiatus in 2009 to travel the world with his family. He also joined the board of directors of the Wilma Theater. “I had spent my life thinking that success means you can stop working. But I don’t ever want to take time off again,” he says. “This is where I want to be. Mentoring young people. I like solving really hard problems.”

    Rock still has his father’s ’65 black Lincoln convertible. “I’ve rebuilt the engine three times since 1976,” he says. It’s an apt metaphor for his ability to inject new life into Philly’s economic engine.

    Looking out the window of 3401 Market, Drexel’s high-tech incubator, where is a tenant, Rock says he’s excited about the future of Philadelphia. “Just look at the number of cranes on Market Street,” he says. “University City Science Center is expanding on one side. Drexel’s Innovation Neighborhood on the other. If we can keep the kids here, the economic impact of what we’re doing will be unbelievable.”

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