Philadelphia bidding for new federal research agency headquarters

Shown is the skyline in Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Shown is the skyline in Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Joining places like Chicago, Boston, and Texas, Philadelphia is vying for the chance to house the headquarters of a new federal health research agency. But, as first reported in STAT News, the public bidding war is confusing some experts – who say the agency building won’t be the glitzy, futuristic research campus that they may be imagining.

A federal law established the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) this spring. The agency will fund and support high-risk, expensive, long-term projects. The White House said examples could include work on vaccines to fight cancer cells, or better monitors for blood pressure and blood sugar. So far, the proposed budget is around 6 billion dollars over the next three years.

Philadelphia business, civic, industry, and elected leaders signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make their case and start a public campaign to bring ARPA-H to the city. The letter points out that the Philadelphia region is home to more than 50 cell and gene therapy companies, many research labs, and most pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

“Philadelphia is the obvious choice for this. We’re the birthplace of cell and gene therapy,” said Sam Woods Thomas, senior director of business development at Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce.

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But the public campaigns puzzle experts like Brian Darmody, chief strategy officer for the Association of University Research Parks.

The White House explained that ARPA-H will be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).) Darmody explained that the DARPA headquarters in northern Virginia is mostly the temporary home of grant officers who decide where research funding will go, and most will stay for just a few years.

“They don’t do internal research, and it’s in a modest office building,” Darmody said.

Acting White House Science Advisor Francis Collins said in an interview with STAT that “this is a crazy and unnecessary bidding war. People don’t recognize: this is not a big, shiny building with a lot of lab equipment and clinical space.”

Local leaders pushing to bring the headquarters to Philadelphia said even if the agency itself does not do internal research, they still want to promote the city as a hub of the biotech industry, an effort that has been ongoing for years. They say having grant and program officers come to the city, even temporarily, will help do that.

“We pursue every business, or organization looking at Philly with the same amount of energy – this could be a small coffee shop, it could be a large life science company, or it could be a building with people who are pushing paper,” said Sam Woods Thomas, from the city’s Department of Commerce.

Aleister Saunders, vice provost for research and innovation at Drexel University, compared the city’s campaign to previous ones from past years, like the bids to get Amazon’s new headquarters, or a new Army headquarters. He said the group behind this campaign grew out of those efforts, and even if the new ARPA-H headquarters is mostly for administrative work, it will benefit the region by bringing talented people in.

“If they leave after two years to go back to their home city or their home institution, they’re going to know a lot more about Philadelphia and our assets,” he said. “It is another way to tell our story and increase our reputation.”

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Claire Greenwood, senior vice president of economic competitiveness at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, said a lot of research is happening in the region already, and the campaign builds on that.

“Whether the agency is located and the science is happening here, or the offices are here, we do think it’s really well aligned with our collective strategy.”

ARPA-H has not yet provided details on how it will choose its home base. But the group of Philly business leaders is already working on other efforts to bring research dollars to the region. For instance, the group is applying for a new program from the National Science Foundation to establish regional research hubs, according to Dawn Bonnell, vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania.

Disclosure: Claire Greenwood is the daughter of WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo. Marrazzo signed the letter pushing for Philadelphia to host ARPA-H. 

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