A disposable surgical retractor system that decreases time in the operating room.
An antidote for carbon monoxide poisoning that removes potentially deadly CO from the blood more effectively than current hyperbaric treatment.
An augmented-reality patient simulator that enables health care trainees to practice and perfect clinical skills safely and on-demand.
These and 20 other innovative and impactful discoveries — all developed at the University of Pittsburgh — were the basis for the formation of 23 startup companies that were formed, or “spun out,” in fiscal year 2018, according to Pitt’s Innovation Institute. The institute is headed by Evan Facher, who held the position of interim director until being named director and vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship earlier this week.
The 23 companies add up to a new University record — for the third year in a row. FY17 saw 15 startups and FY16 had 13.
- Invention disclosures, the first step toward commercializing an innovation, came in at 363 — surpassing last year’s record 329 invention disclosures.
- License and option deals set a new record at 162, up from the FY17 record of 146.
- University-based innovations were awarded 98 patents in FY18, just shy of the FY17 record of 102.
The Innovation Institute’s full FY18 annual report will be posted here. The rising numbers are tangible evidence of a campuswide commitment to the University’s strategic goal of innovation and impactful research.
Moving University innovations out of the lab to benefit society takes more than enthusiasm and an entrepreneurial mindset. It takes time, money and business knowledge. The Innovation Institute, Pitt’s hub for commercialization, offers programming and expertise to help faculty, staff and student innovators who want to bring their innovations to the world. University support includes an array of funding opportunities, friendlier policies for faculty entrepreneurs and a growing number of partnerships.
Vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship named
Evan Facher has been named vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Innovation Institute after a national search.
Facher has been serving as interim director since August 2017. He joined the Innovation Institute in 2014 to lead the University’s initiative to generate more startups based on Pitt research discoveries. Pitt set a new record for startups this past fiscal year with 23 and reached new highs for invention disclosures submitted, 363, and options and licenses executed during the past year, 162.
“Evan’s performance in the interim role and his contributions during his overall time at Pitt convinced me and the search committee that he deserved the opportunity to continue executing on the strategies that he and his team have developed to innovate and improve upon the services that the Innovation Institute delivers to Pitt faculty, students and partners,” said Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research.
Before coming to Pitt, Facher served as president/CEO of SironRX Therapeutics, a biotechnology company developing novel drug therapies. He also previously held managerial roles at Bayer Healthcare’s medical device division and the biotechnology company Athersys.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to build on the positive momentum that has been established over the past five years since the creation of the Innovation Institute,” said Facher, who holds a PhD in human genetics from Pitt. “Our talented staff is focused on reaching more Pitt faculty, students and early-stage businesses in the region to inspire and enable them to accelerate the impact of their ideas and discoveries through entrepreneurship and innovation commercialization.”
“Pitt faculty and students are constantly pushing the boundaries of discovery across multiple disciplines. The positive trajectory of these metrics reflects the policies and programs that have been developed over the past four-plus years since the creation of the Innovation Institute to inspire and enable the commercial translation of those discoveries so that they can make an impact on society,” said Facher.
“It’s a big deal that universities are now developing the technology that’s going to propel us into the future,” said Joe Marcanio, who has been guiding University innovators as an Innovation Institute entrepreneur-in-residence since 2015. “My job is to stand behind them and help them avoid the mistakes I learned the hard way.”
University innovation contributes in multiple ways: Through corporate-funded research; through startups based on licensed university innovations; and through university spinouts, he said.
“As a result of economic pressure from offshore manufacturing, few companies today have the resources for extensive research and development. We’re relying on universities,” said Marcanio. “Companies often pay top dollar to acquire a successful startup rather than assume the expense, time and risk of developing a new technology.”
A former Sony executive, Marcanio has a background in manufacturing, decades of experience in commercializing technologies and several startups under his belt. Now he is investing in one of the recordbreaking year’s spinouts, Atlas MedTech, formerly known as Steeltown Retractor.
Its story is just one example of how Pitt’s investments in support of entrepreneurial innovators are advancing new ideas toward real-world impact.
Surgeons who perform abdominal procedures use retractors to hold open incisions or keep nearby organs out of the way. Often, a member of the surgical team must hold a retractor — sometimes for hours.
Seeing the need for a better way, a team of Pitt bioengineers and UPMC surgeons conceived a surgical retraction system that needs no assistant to hold it in place and that sets up quickly, saving time in the operating room.
The National Science Foundation I-Corps program, administered at Pitt through the Innovation Institute’s First Gear program, helped the team discover more about their potential customers. The team talked to 50 surgeons in addition to hospital administrators and other health care experts as part of compulsory market research. “You learn about what customers want or need,” Marcanio said.
The team is currently fine-tuning the interface that makes the retractor’s articulated arm hold without slipping and testing materials to optimize its rigidity and weight. And Atlas MedTech — which recently shed its Pittsburgh-centric name in favor of one more global — is approaching a key milestone: testing the retractor in actual surgeries.
The project has come this far with myriad sources of funding — nearly $300,000 in all since 2015. The team has pitched its way to prizes in multiple University innovation competitions and attracted significant support through I-Corps, the Center for Medical Innovation and the Coulter Translational Research Partners program.
Testing in 10-20 surgeries will be the crucial experiment to prove whether the product is commercially viable or the idea should be abandoned, Marcanio said.
“I wouldn’t spin Atlas out without it. Even if surgeons say they’ll use it, I want to see them use it and generate the results that will convince hospital administrators to pay for it.”
A company typically must raise funds for this activity; for Atlas MedTech, Coulter funding takes much of the risk off the table. “It is unusual and very valuable to get this done within the confines of the University,” Marcanio said.
Testing should be finished by early next year. Funding, final product development and FDA clearance should be complete by the end of 2019, Marcanio said. That means the retractor could be in the hands of surgeons by early 2020.
“Funding support is what makes this all happen,” he said. “I don’t have to go to investors saying, ‘This might work.’ Having developed usable prototypes that have been clinically vetted will make all the difference.”
The year in kudos
Pitt rose to No. 21 — up from 27th last year and 35th in 2015 — among the top universities worldwide to be granted U.S. utility patents for a new or improved product, process or machine. Neighboring Carnegie Mellon University, a fellow anchor in Pittsburgh’s innovation ecosystem, was No. 40 in annual rankings compiled by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association.
A new Innovation Igniter workshop outlines the path to licensing an innovation or forming a startup company. The two-hour workshop is open to faculty, staff and students who are curious about commercialization.
The first cohort of a revamped Blast Furnace student accelerator program completed the nine-week program in June. Ten teams pitched their business ideas at a June 29 final event at the University Club. The Innovation Institute will host @PITTINNOVATES Open on Sept. 20 to introduce its 2018-19 academic year programming and funding opportunities.
Finally, the Innovation Institute came home a winner from the recent Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education, receiving the 2018 Exemplary Practice in Technology Commercialization Award in recognition of its work in accelerating innovations to the market.