Originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal by Ryan Mulligan on Feb 21, 2023.
The nation’s first historically black college or university continues to push into life sciences through a new project that will give companies on-campus lab space and seeks to boost student interest in the industry.
Cheyney University is moving forward with its thinkUbator, a concept that is being built out in partnership with Philadelphia-based Mosaic Development Partners and Blue Bell’s Integrated Project Services. The project includes retrofitting an existing 70,000-square-foot building on Cheyney’s campus with more than 30,000 square feet of new lab development in addition to office space.
The first phase of the project is expected to begin in the third quarter and will include the construction of 10 labs, said Greg Reaves, the CEO of Mosaic, a firm also working on projects like the Philadelphia Navy Yard and proposed new 76ers new arena in Center City. Phase one will cost between $10 million and $11 million and the entire project will be fully built out in 2025, Reaves said.
The project received a $5 million grant from the state in the form of a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant. It also received $400,000 from in federal appropriations funding advanced by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. Additional funding will come from Cheyney fundraising and Reaves said there will also be a tax credit on the project.
Mosaic is also working on a development strategy to “reimagine” Cheyney’s campus, which straddles Chester and Delaware counties. Reaves said that the thinkUbator speaks to a larger vision at Cheyney. The university has undertaken a strategy over the last few year to repurpose unused and underutilized real estate to bring in new revenue and business ideas to the campus. The strategy brings companies that will pay rent and also provides STEM jobs for students at the HBCU.
“We have certainly seen in life sciences not just in Philly but around country, the lack of inclusion of people of color, not just at the bench level but also the ownership level,” Reaves said. “There’s been a dearth of communities of color, we think because we haven’t created the right pipeline. Doing this at an HBCU we think gives the ability for others to see true opportunity as a pipeline to talent development and working in this industry.”
Cheyney has already brought five companies to campus in the existing lab space it does have, what Reaves called a “proof of concept” to move forward with the development of the thinkUbator. Companies include Sure-BioChem Laboratories, Navrogen, ASI Chemicals.
Since the companies have planted roots on the suburban Philadelphia campus, Reaves said the percentage of students showing interest in careers in the sciences at Cheyney jumped from 10% to 22%.
The 700-student university has a requirement for businesses working on campus that they need to have student involvement, which helps fuel the talent pipeline the partners are looking to build. Reaves said that with internships and jobs in STEM, there is an opportunity to “enhance the level of diversity in science through this model.”
“This is really more about Cheyney,” Reaves said. “Cheyney’s interest in being at the forefront of science with their students, and doing it in a creative way. It puts together this petri of partnerships, from the university, the private side, the state. It’s all sharing investments, sharing talent and sharing successes.”