Life Sciences Week Brings Researchers, Business Leaders Together

  • SLIDESHOW: Testing engineer Ben Gebrosky shows visitors to Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories some specialized wheelchairs including an all-terrain chair and a pneumatic chair powered by air rather than batteries. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • “Investing in the life sciences is going to be critical in growing the region’s economy,” said Rob A. Rutenbar, Pitt’s vice chancellor for research, at the Life Sciences Week kickoff event. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Research scientist Scott Johnson of the Biological Scaffolds for Tissue Engineering lab at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine displays a cylindrical scaffold that can support healthy tissue growth in the trachea. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • LifeX team members and representatives of LifeX portfolio companies watch as Rebecca Bagley, University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor for economic partnerships; Scott Sneddon, CEO of Sharp Edge Labs; and Dietrich Stephan, founder and CEO of LifeX, cut the ribbon at the new LifeX headquarters in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. LifeX is a biotechnology commercialization platform that empowers scientist entrepreneurs to create and deliver new solutions to alleviate suffering and premature death across the globe. (University of Pittsburgh)
  • Human Engineering Research Lab researcher Deepan Kamaraj instructs Bistra Iordanova, faculty in the Swanson School of Engineering Department of Bioengineering, on the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment during a Life Sciences Week event. Known as CAREN, the rehabilitation environment is a simulation system used in the design and development of novel robotic wheelchairs and rehabilitation training protocols for people with disabilities. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Research assistant professor Marie Billaud of the Thoracic Aortic Disease Research Lab offers visitors a close-up view of a segment of aortic tissue as part of a Life Sciences Week tour of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)

In the spirit of Pittsburgh’s world-changing life sciences innovators including polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk and transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl, researchers here are working to discover — and deliver — new ways of improving life and health across the globe, said Rebecca Bagley, University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor for economic partnerships, at the kickoff of Life Sciences Week 2018: Convergence and Connectivity.

Pitt researchers are developing scaffolds to enable the growth of new organs and healthy tissue; others have worked to bring off-grid hydroponic and aquaponic farms to urban neighborhoods to increase healthful food options and economic development; still others are advancing mobility technologies for wheelchair users.

Their work — and much more — was showcased across 15 events, including tours, demonstrations, panel discussions and celebrations designed to foster the integration of science and business.

Life Sciences Week, held in April, drew more than 1,000 people — more than double last year’s attendance — to learn about Pittsburgh’s life sciences assets and, as noted in a 2017 Brookings Institution report, their potential for securing Pittsburgh’s place as a global innovation city.  

Participants included investors, entrepreneurs, researchers and representatives of life sciences companies from across the region and from other centers of life sciences activity including Boston and the West Coast.

As part of the week, more than a dozen local early-stage biotech companies and entrepreneurs pitched to investors including Eli Lilly and Hatteras Venture Partners at a health care investment pop-up hosted by multinational legal advisers Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.  

Focusing the region’s life sciences innovation

“Investing in the life sciences is going to be critical in growing the region’s economy,” said Rob A. Rutenbar, Pitt’s vice chancellor for research, at the kickoff event, echoing a key component of the Brookings report’s findings. The region’s existing strengths in science and technology, clinical resources and research funding must be focused to maximize their collective value, he said. “This is really ours to master and ours to win.”

The University is using its power as an anchor institution to accelerate that momentum, said Bagley. Multiple pieces are being put in place to maximize the impact of Pitt’s research capability. And, as the Brookings report noted, research innovation generates opportunities not only for high-skilled workers, but also for workers in related positions, not all of which require a college degree.

Pitt’s plan to renovate the former Ford Motor Co. plant at 5000 Baum Blvd. in the city’s Bloomfield neighborhood to house many of UPMC’s new Immune Transplant and Therapy Center researchers and translation partners; its purchase of the former Allegheny County Health Department building in the heart of Oakland; and its launch of the Strip District-based LifeX platform to develop promising early-stage life sciences companies, all aim to strengthen Pittsburgh’s innovation ecosystem, Bagley said.

Nearly 200 Life Sciences Week guests celebrated the opening of LifeX headquarters and the announcement of $2 million in Henry L. Hillman Foundation funding at a ribbon-cutting event. Sanjay Kakkar told guests at the event that it is an unparalleled time for life sciences discovery, particularly in Pittsburgh. Kakkar is CEO of Peptilogics, a LifeX portfolio company that has licensed University of Pittsburgh technology to develop new treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

In sentiments that were echoed throughout the week, he said that technology from university innovators, strong managerial talent and sources of deep long-term capital all are needed if Pittsburgh is to take its rightful place as a global life sciences industry leader.

Making ideas impactful

Among the biggest hurdles for academic innovators is their inexperience in business, said Joe Marks, executive director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Machine Learning and Health, in a Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance panel discussion on moving ideas to the market.

“Every researcher knows how to write a research paper but doesn’t know how to write a patent. They all know how to write NSF (National Science Foundation) proposals but they don’t know how to write a business plan,” he said.

The Health Data Alliance staff members, with expertise in both research and in commercialization, work to bridge the gap between the academic world and the commercial-entrepreneurial world so that University talent and innovation can be applied to solving real-world needs.

While it’s a common notion in academia that one can either be a great researcher or can “sell out” and commercialize their ideas, “it’s not either/or,” Marks said. “In fact, when done properly, one feeds into the other.”

Needed: deep pockets, direct flights

More money and better transportation could boost development of the abundance of University innovations, said panelists in a forum on life sciences investment trends.

“There’s not enough of us here to fund the wealth of IP (intellectual property) that’s here — right here,” said Catherine V. Mott, CEO and founder of Wexford-based BlueTree Venture Fund and BlueTree Allied Angels.

She said more local capital is needed. The region has terrific resources for launching startups: “Helping you find resources, helping you find a team, helping you get your grants. … But we don't have enough that can do the $10 million, the $30 million, the $100 million.”

Panelist Ben Scruggs of Hatteras Venture Partners in Durham, North Carolina, agreed. “We are the primary early-stage investor there. … Unfortunately, we can’t fund every good company that we see,” he said. “I really echo the idea that more capital in a region is better for that.”

“Make it easier for people to come here,” said corporate business development executive Yvonne Kobayashi, senior director of emerging technology and innovation at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis.

UPMC Enterprises Executive Vice President Jeanne Cunicelli, who is based in San Francisco, agreed, advocating for more air service. Visitors see that “the city is very welcoming and the network is incredibly accessible — and that’s rare in a lot of other places,” she said.

“Once they come here and see the technology, the life sciences, the clinical and the creativity here, they will come back.”