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October 16, 2017

Philly founders get a jolt as Benjamin's Desk merges with 1776

Business Entrepreneurship
101617_1776shirts Source/1776

1776 produces the international Challenge Cup, a startup pitch competition to solve complex challenges across borders, regulated industries and emerging technologies.

Five years after Anthony and Jennifer Mahar launched the real estate startup that became Philadelphia's most extensive co-working network, Benjamin's Desk will expand its entrepreneurial footprint further into the Northeast Corridor.

On Monday, the local business incubator formally announced its merger with 1776, the Washington, D.C.-based network whose startup pitch competition has helped propel companies worldwide with an emphasis on serving the public good.

Joined under the 1776 banner, the independent tech company will now encompass 11 campuses across four states and the nation's capital, with more than 1,000 member companies in their combined network.

"Five years ago, our intention was to start a space where we could build companies," Mahar told PhillyVoice. "We found out tthe best way to do that is by connecting entrepreneurs and helping them find better pathways to growth. Building a co-working space was only part of our goal. We're committed to the ecosystem as a whole and how we can connect startups, corporations and universities."

Merging with 1776 brings Philadelphia into the center of an incubator orbit of existing networks in Washington and New York, where the Brooklyn Navy Yard community drills down on real-world solutions in the worlds of infrastructure, transportation, education and medicine.

The expanded 1776 will maintain headquarters in both Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, where Benjamin's Desk had already expanded to five Center City co-working spaces, with plans underway for additional locations in North Philadelphia, Ambler and Wilmington.

"We're up for the challenge," said Mahar, who will join his wife as co-CEO of 1776. "We watched our growth happen on a regional level and stepped out of the co-working realm to help entrepreneurs. We wanted to know, can we really invest in deeper programs to help companies grow? We're going to attack that differentiator and do it with a better rigor than anyone else national."

When I talk to Philly entrepreneurs, they stress three things: capital, customers and founder-to-founder relationships. We've always seen ourselves as members in our own space. We wouldn't be where we are without the members lifting us up. They will now be more connected than ever. – Anthony Mahar, CEO, 1776

With 1776 founder Evan Burfield taking on the executive chairman role, Mahar said the hub-and-spoke model will be in full effect along the Northeast Corridor, driving a bigger impact through the custom, curated programming of Union, the company's digital mentorship and advisory network.

"After challenging entrepreneurs to solve complex problems all over the world, we realized the need for a platform that can connect startups to crucial resources while helping them stay in their hometowns," said Burfield.

Union offers founders a network of physical and virtual expertise in "regulatory hacking," or the art of navigating those thorny questions that nip at the progress of otherwise sound early-stage ventures.

"This evolution allows us to go deeper in those lanes by tapping into a curriculum that provides connectivity," Mahar said of Union. "The programming piece is where I always wanted to get more involved. That's part of the stickiness we think we can create better than other providers. It's tested and proven. We bring best-in-class mentors, coaches and advisors to the table in a way that holds companies accountable to their growth through measurable iteration."

For entrepreneurs in Philadelphia, the next chapter for Benjamin's Desk heralds an array of new opportunities for a city with a strong culture of innovation in place. Just as wisdom in real estate is local, Mahar said, so it goes with entrepreneurship.

"When I talk to Philly entrepreneurs, they stress three things: capital, customers and founder-to-founder relationships," Mahar said. "We've always seen ourselves as members in our own space. We wouldn't be where we are without the members lifting us up. They will now be more connected than ever."

From a logistics standpoint, the combined 1776 will manage, operate or license nearly a quarter million square feet of office space, including more than 138,000 square feet managed by Benjamin's Desk and its licensing partners. From the Curtis Center to the Pennovation Center and the rest of the Benjamin's Desk portfolio in Philadelphia, the physical spaces are now synced up with an enterprising regional support system.

"The right mix of talent and resources can revive the modern city," said Mahar. We've spent five years watching member companies bring new jobs to Philadelphia, and we're so excited about the potential to see members inventing new futures for communities up and down the Northeast Corridor."