Sparking innovation at Jefferson’s new ‘Accelerator Zone’

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    Nestled between a hoagie shop and an Italian restaurant, a former administrative building on South 10th Street in Philadelphia is now an eye-catching piece of architecture.

    The modern space is the home of Thomas Jefferson University’s Accelerator Zone (the JAZ). At a sprightly 190 years old, the medical school and hospital hope the JAZ can spur new innovation and become a hub for health start-ups within Philadelphia.

    “We wanted something that basically said, ‘we are not your mom’s Jefferson,'” says Steve Klasko, Jefferson’s President and CEO.

    Designed by the architecture firm Cecil Baker & Partners, the JAZ’s exterior is trimmed in dark steel, with a glass kite window curiously bulging from the second-floor.

    “If people are in a rush, they’ll just walk by,” says Klasko. “But I’ve actually watched people, they’ll walk by, and then they’ll like stop. ‘Oh, that’s really cool.'”

    The origami-like bay window is a less than subtle reference to Benjamin Franklin, whose kite experiments with electricity, which are believed to have taken place a few blocks away, represent the curiosity Jefferson hopes to harness with the JAZ.

    The interior also shakes off traditional hospital decor. Bright furniture including a lime green couch are reminiscent of a Miami hotel lobby.

    “I’m a Florida guy, I’ve been there, and I’ve been to South Beach, and I like it,” jokes Klasko, a Philly native who recently returned after a stint as Dean of the University of South Florida’s medical school.

    There are flat screens and smart boards and a fridge stocked with yogurt. Klasko wants staff members, residents and medical students to feel like they’re part of a slick Silicon Valley start-up. It’s meant to be a comfortable place where teams and tinkerers can meet, work, and pitch their ideas.

    It’s also a signal that innovation and even commercial success are now just as important at Jefferson as quality in the classroom and surgical suite always have been.

    You come up with a million dollar idea? Klasko, a fast-talking, 60-something in glasses, will help give it legs.

    “So what often happens is, people leave universities when that happens. We don’t want them to leave Jefferson. In fact, we want them to come from other universities here, because you are going to be able to totally advance based on entrepreneurship and innovation.”

    Advancement through entrepreneurship and innovation. That may not sound all that groundbreaking, but it isn’t the standard model at med schools, where getting published in academic journals can be the traditional stepping stone to promotion.

    Klasko believes a new patent, copyright or app should be just as valuable. And he hopes the JAZ, which cost $775,000 to build, inspires staff to take risks–to use the other side of their brain–even if there are growing pains along the way.

    “I think it is frankly BS when you get these entrepreneurs who lose a billion dollars. Oh, I had more fun and learned more in my failures. I think that sounds good, and you almost have to say it. I’ve done a couple start-up companies: one failed, one succeeded. I did not have one with the one that failed,” says Klasko.

    JAZ hasn’t had any failures or successes just yet, as the space only opened up this month. In fact, crews were still installing the blinds on the second floor during a tour.

    The final touches of construction don’t seem to bother a hushed meeting take place inside a glass-walled conference room. One of Jefferson’s doctors, I’m told, is pitching an idea to a dark-suited executive.

    Chief Strategy Officer John Ekarius won’t reveal much other than the proposal has to do with attracting wealthy Chinese medical tourists to the hospital.

    “The innovation ecosystem is not solely about inventing a medical device or an IT platform for your cell phone, or a new compound or drug. It could be how do we bring more people to the city of Philadelphia? How do we bring more patients to Jefferson? That’s what the innovation zone is all about,” says Ekarius.

    To be successful, though, it can’t just be a building. Its got to represent a new way of doing business, says Janis Orlowski, Chief Healthcare Officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

    “You do need to have a culture shift, and you have to be able to have the opportunity to let crazy ideas fly,” she says.

    Orlowski credits Jefferson for being on the leading edge of this trend, and says similar spaces are popping up at hospitals and med schools around the country.

    “Are the CEOs of academic health centers and deans of medical schools talking about this? Yes, they are. It is a hot topic right now, and I think that you are going to see more.”

    Steve Klasko says his goal is to create ‘baby JAZes’ around campus: little spaces carved out to remind staff and students wherever they are that the school wants them to think big.

    Ben Franklin big.

    And Jefferson, he says, is willing to grant them the time, support and couches to do it in style.

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