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If a facility like the one University officials are currently planning had existed at Harvard in the 1970s, Bill Gates might not have had to drop out to become a billionaire.

Penn is in the process of converting a former plumbing warehouse at 3025 Walnut Street into a high-tech start-up "incubator" to support the development of fledgling computer and biotechnology companies in the area.

The facility is designed to assist Penn students and faculty in getting their business ideas off the ground, according to University Executive Vice President John Fry.

"At the most fundamental level, I think their are two [goals for the incubator]," said Fry, who is overseeing the project. "One is to provide our student, faculty and staff entrepreneurs with an opportunity to actually carry out some of their ideas, and form ventures and companies, and take their ideas and put them to work."

Fry said that University officials hope the facility will keep students and faculty with business ideas from leaving the Penn and the Philadelphia area to start their businesses.

"I think it's important to emphasize [that the incubator will aid] students as well as faculty," Fry said.

He added that the incubator might also provide assistance to University City residents.

The second goal of the project, Fry said, is to stimulate activity on the eastern end of campus.

The University has made it clear that it intends to expand the campus eastward using the 24 acres of land now owned by the United States Postal Service when it becomes available in 2003 or 2004.

The University began its push east with plans to convert the former G.E. Building into a luxury apartment complex called "The Left Bank."

"[The incubator] represents, along with the G.E. Building, one of the first significant attempts to stimulate activity in the area east of campus adjacent to the postal site," Fry said.

"The reason we're doing is that we want to help entrepreneuers and help systematically develop the easter part of campus," he explained.

The University has been discussing the project for about six months now, Fry said.

"It's just been a small group of officers and trustees who have been talking abot the need for something like this," he explained.

Fry said that costs for the project were still being determined, and that construction on the facility will likely take between nine months and a year, depending on the condition of the building.

"That's sort of an uncertainty right now," he said.

The University is looking for a corporate partner for the project to provide funding and oversee management once the facility opens. Fry said that talks are going on with a number of potential partners -- but focusing on one in particular -- and that he expects the University to chose the partner in the next 30 to 60 days.

"This is at the earliest stages right now," he said. "We're going to have a lot of work to get it up and running."

Fry said that the University and its partner will form an advisory board to review proposed businesses, selecting those they feel have the most promise to receive assistance.

"[The incubator] will offer good, usable space and strong technical support for individuals who are attempting to commercialize their ideas," Fry explained. "We're trying to provide real opportunities for space and support and keep our entrepreneurs in the area."

The Penn incubator will focus on "early stage" support, he added.

He continued by noting that "[entrepreneurs] come and get support, nurture ideas, then graduate to larger space," like the University City Science Center's Port of Technology facility.

Fry said that while the incubator's facilities will be available to those associated with any of the University's schools, researchers at the schools will not be limited to using it.

"This isn't something that people have to use on a mandatory basis," Fry said. "If schools want to work with another incubator, that's fine, too."

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