Conventional wisdom suggests a pandemic would decrease overall research output in science and innovation. It’s the kind of wisdom that Maria Escolar thought would hold true this year—at least at first.
Escolar is chief medical officer of Forge Biologics, which spun out of the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute earlier this month. She is also the founder and director of the Program for the Study of Neurodevelopment in Rare Disorders at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
The startup aims to support the clinical development of a gene therapy program for rare diseases such as Krabbe, a rare inherited disease of the brain caused by a faulty gene. In June the company closed on $40 million financing to support therapy development and manufacturing. Escolar’s novel therapy was also licensed by the Innovation Institute.
“I thought things would come to a standstill with the pandemic,” she said. “But everything fell into place. Our data for our potential treatments was strong and convincing.”
Forge Biologics’ success is part of a trend by Pitt innovators this past year.
The Innovation Institute recently reported that a record 394 invention disclosures were submitted in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended June 30, and early indications for the 2021 fiscal year suggest Pitt innovators aren’t slowing down.
“This is a testament to the drive that Pitt’s faculty, students and staff have to confront the world’s most pressing challenges head on,” said Institute director Evan Facher. “This past year represented yet another robust year of innovation at Pitt, both despite and because of COVID-19.”
The Institute also reported 39 disclosures of research projects related to treatment and prevention for COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and coronavirus.
Facher has overseen the University’s innovation commercialization since 2018.
“We anticipated once campus and labs closed down earlier this year, there would be a dramatic slowdown in activity. We had the same concerns on the startup funding side,” he said. “But we were extremely surprised in a positive way to see the numbers recorded this year. Even though research in the labs dramatically slowed, people took their time outside the lab to submit their disclosures. It gave inventors the opportunity to reflect on their work. We also continue to remind people that we’re still open for business.”
The Institute recently recorded its 100th spinout company, Impulse Technologies LLC. Led by health scientists and athletic personnel at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and School of Education, Impulse focuses on measuring force production in competitive swimmers via a tether device attached to athlete. The goal is to improve swimmers’ performances, as well as prevent athletic injuries. The device itself was designed and built by Jarad Prinkey and Andy Holmes at the Swanson Center for Product Innovation.
The team has focused on improving their technology and acquiring more funding. And even though the pandemic has prevented testing with the University’s competitive swimming teams, they have continued their progress through one-off testing, feedback from athletic coaches and better communication between the technology’s devices.
“We just haven’t given up. We continue to set goals every week to reach out to our contacts. We hold each other accountable,” said Elizabeth Nagle, one of the principal investigators behind Impulse. She is also an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Health and Human Development in the School of Education.
Impulse also took home first place in the Pitt Ventures First Gear challenge in April.
“It’s like what the Pitt branding says: ‘Progress never stops,’” said Matthew Darnell, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition. “It’s focusing on the next big thing, taking care of the small things and checking the boxes, no matter what the landscape is.”
Darnell and Nagle said they are grateful for the University and Innovation Institute’s support, including their “deep networks” and access to those networks.
Escolar echoed that sentiment, saying with the University and Institute’s support, Forge Biologics can move forward with clinical studies on new gene therapies.
“Stopping our progress this year would have been detrimental to us,” she said. “We are funded through accomplishment. I give a lot of credit to Pitt for the support.”