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Lehigh Valley Boasts Impressive History of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

By Don Cunningham on November 16, 2015

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in Lehigh Valley Business on November 16, 2015. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

The Lehigh Valley’s economic history is most often associated with heavy industry and manufacturing, Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks.

Often overlooked is the region’s impressive history of innovation and entrepreneurship that has led to business growth and development for centuries. Consider this:

  • The Bethlehem Moravian’s built the first waterworks in the American colonies in 1754, creating a municipal water system, which is the core underpinning of community and economic development.
  • Bell Laboratories invented the solid state transistor in 1947 and pioneered its development at the facility in Allentown, located next to Coca-Cola Park, which is now home to the region’s Workforce Development Board. The solid-state transistor was the forerunner to the computer chip and launched the electronics revolution of the second half of the 20th century.
  • Joel Spira invented the electronic dimmer switch and started his company, Lutron, in Center Valley, giving way to the development of hundreds of other lighting control devices that are now sold around the world. His drawings and the original dimmer are housed in the Smithsonian Institute’s electronic section next to those of Thomas Edison.
  • OraSure Technologies, the successor company to SolarCare Technologies, which incubated on South Mountain as part of the Ben Franklin program, developed the world’s first oral HIV test and is now developing a similar test for Ebola in conjunction with the U.S. government.

The innovation of the region’s history continues today in efforts being made across the Lehigh Valley. Currently, there are more patents held in the two counties of the Lehigh Valley than in nearly a quarter of the U.S. states.

Last month, the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in south Allentown was named the economic development program of the year by the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association. Bridgeworks is housed in a former Mack Trucks building along S. 10th St. and is home to 11 start-up manufacturing companies. The program is run by the Allentown Economic Development Corp., and the start-ups generate $4.3 million in annual sales and employ about 40 people.

More importantly, the center helps manufacturers of all types of products develop to grow at a low cost with the hopes of spurring growth that someday will help to drive the economy.

Across the river in Bethlehem, a similar success has taken hold with the state supported and city-run Keystone Innovation Zone program, which since 2004 has created 387 jobs, 227 patents, 103 new products, and $63 million in investment within 80 companies. Many of the companies are housed at the city’s innovative Pi: Partnership for Innovation center, a start up business incubator, which opened in 2011.

Up the hill on the South Side, the new Hatch House is a live-work community for young entrepreneurs, many of whom come from Lehigh University, which is the region’s major center for innovation as home to the Ben Franklin Tech Ventures incubator and the Baker Institute for Innovation at the university. Cernostics, a diagnostic company located at TechVentures, recently to hear about and celebrate the success of the innovation efforts in the city. Several companies that have participated in the KIZ program spoke. They included EcoTech Marine, which designs and manufacturer’s high-quality aquarium equipment; CryoConcepts, a medical device developer and manufacturer; and Viddler, which provides interactive online training solutions for thousands of clients in more than 150 countries.

And, not to be outdone, back in Allentown, City Center Development has announced plans to build an Innovation Center high-rise office building that would dedicate several floors to start up companies. A concept that has taken hold in numerous major U.S. cities, the innovation building would combine established large companies in the same space with growing startups.

So, stay tuned for much of the Lehigh Valley’s future growth to come organically from our own soil. This is part of our history, our present and our future. What is happening in the Lehigh Valley is a fabulous American success story of transition from a big industrial-based economy to a multifaceted economy, ripe with startups, entrepreneurs and smaller but growing companies.

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Lehigh ValleyQuick Facts

  • Industry Spotlight

    14.2% of Labor Force
    Employed in Professional & Business Services
    Q4 2016

  • By the Numbers
    $37 Billion

    Gross Domestic Product

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    City Center Lehigh Valley
  • Industry Spotlight

    10.2% of Labor Force
    Employed in Manufacturing
    Q4 2016

  • By the Numbers
    $4.3 Billion

    Exports (2015)

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    Air Products
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    1325 Total Office Buildings

  • By the Numbers
    $58,134

    Median Household Income

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    PPL Electric Utilities
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    1707 Total Industrial Buildings

  • By the Numbers
    24,400

    New Jobs Created Over Past 5 Years

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    4.8% Industrial
    Vacancy Rate

  • By the Numbers
    658,477

    Population

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    8.8% Office
    Vacancy Rate

  • By the Numbers
    336,100

    Labor Force

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    10% of Labor Force
    Employed in Leisure & Hospitality
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  • By the Numbers
    4,359

    Technology Patents from 2000-2013

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    Mack Trucks
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    1.6% of Labor Force
    Employed in Food & Beverage Manufacturing
    Q4 2016

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    25 Million

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    UGI
  • By the Numbers
    108 Million

    Industrial Inventory (Square Feet)

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