Innovation Competitions Drive Creativity, Boost Researchers’ Projects to the Marketplace

The University of Pittsburgh has become a national hub for innovation for its faculty and students over the past several years.

Pitt set records for the number of startup companies formed (23), invention disclosures submitted (363) and licenses and options (162) in the 2018 fiscal year. There are currently 521 technologies available for licensing at Pitt in several fields, including biology, chemistry, engineering, materials and energy.

“Pitt has gone from being in the middle of the pack to one of the top universities with respect to our research policies right now,” said Stephen Badylak, professor of surgery and deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Over the past five or six years, the amount of support mechanisms such as executives in residence, startup funds and courses has increased to be almost too much. That is so different than the way it used to be. I know it’s not like that at most universities, so it’s very good what’s happening here.”

Badylak Named National Academy of Inventors Fellow

Stephen Badylak, professor of surgery and deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, was recently elected as a 2018 fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

Election to the academy is the highest professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. The 2018 NAI Fellows class will be inducted at the Space Center Houston in April.

Badylak holds over 60 U.S. patents, 300 patents worldwide, has authored more than 350 scientific publications and 40 book chapters. His research interests include tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Read more about the honor at UPMC.

Badylak received the Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award in early December at Pitt’s Celebration of Innovation. His work in extracellular matrices — molecular networks used for tissue regeneration to treat a variety of diseases and conditions — has been described as pioneering by experts in the field, but last year he began a new venture with his startup company, ECM Therapeutics. This company was one of the record 23 startups spun out of Pitt last year.

This fall saw numerous innovation competitions at Pitt targeted toward faculty and student researchers, with more than $600,000 awarded in prizes. These competitions not only serve to fund research projects as they move forward, but also to help take products from the lab and into the doctor’s office or the industrial factory through commercialization.

“Many of these competitions also provide the teams with valuable mentoring from our entrepreneurs in residence and other volunteer mentors who work with the University to identify and accelerate promising discoveries toward the market, where Pitt innovations can have a positive impact on people’s lives,” said Evan Facher, director of the Innovation Institute and vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt.

For researchers, this mentorship is most valuable.

“You get introduced to key people who help you through the commercialization process, because the pathway from bench to bedside is a long one,” said Maliha Zahid, assistant professor of developmental biology, who along with fellow developmental biology researcher Cecilia Lo, is leading the research on the drug therapy LungHealth-E. “Most physicians and scientists don’t understand this process.”

Zahid and Lo won big at the Pitt Innovation Challenge, or PInCh for short. LungHealth-E aims to increase cilia number and function to clear airways in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Along with the $100,000 prize, LungHealth-E received an additional $25,000 from Philips, a sponsor of PInCh, for the team’s research focusing on human performance.

Zahid also received the Emerging Innovator Award at Pitt’s December Celebration of Innovation, for her work on LungHealth-E and another research project, CardioTrak, a peptide that safely transports radioisotopes needed for stress test scans. The latter received $100,000 in PInCh funding in 2016.

“As a cardiologist, I know how to write prescriptions and treat patients. As a scientist, I know how to generate hypotheses and test them, but that jump from the bench to the bedside was a complete black hole for me,” said Zahid. “I’m grateful for PInCh, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and sciVelo for bringing me these opportunities. I am also honored and humbled by the recognition from the Innovation Institute but consider this award more of a ‘bon voyage’ present since our journey has just begun.”

Other competitions held throughout the fall include the student-oriented Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition and the Kuzneski Innovation Cup. In February, the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, heading into its 11th year, will award $100,000 to numerous student innovation teams from across the University. The CTSI will also host the Pain Research Challenge in January, to fund projects that aim to ease the burden of pain.

“At a competition, people see the pitch,” said John Cordier, a dual degree student in the Graduate School of Public Health and Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. “What they don’t see is the effort that goes into making that pitch happen.”

His team’s project, a Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics (FRED), took home the $15,000 first prize in the Kuzneski Cup.

The FRED team has worked with multiple agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Allegheny County Health Department, and is expanding to do work with the Queensland/Australian government, UPMC and other partners to support public health policy. FRED is a portfolio company of LifeX Ventures.

“We want to expand into four major policy areas: population health, disaster management, social dynamics and readiness,” Cordier said. “We are already looking to do work domestically and internationally with a number of key partners.”