Category Archives: Pittsburgh
In this second installment of Colliers Pittsburgh Science Spotlight, we had the opportunity to speak with Evan Facher, Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
To view the second installment of Pittsburgh Science Spotlight, click here.
As President & CEO of Life Sciences Pennsylvania, Christopher Molineaux serves as the chief advocate and spokesman for the life sciences industry that calls Pennsylvania home. Molineaux oversees the strategic direction for the association, assuring Life Sciences Pennsylvania continues to be the catalyst that makes Pennsylvania the top location for life sciences companies.
Colliers Pittsburgh’s own Edward Lawrence sat down (virtually) with Christopher to discuss Pittsburgh’s growing impact on the Life Sciences industry.
What are the effects you have seen from the pandemic on the life sciences industries Over the last 12 months?
Christopher Molineaux: On the positive side, the industry has developed a very nice halo effect over its reputation, and the public and lawmakers have a better understanding of the importance of what our industry does. And it’s not only in the area of vaccines, although vaccines right now are the most talked-about, our industry really stepped up in 5 different categories. The first, the earliest, was the development of diagnostics as there were companies across Pennsylvania that focused on diagnostics to identify the virus. On a parallel track, companies engaged very quickly on developing vaccines, so those two developments were the most visible efforts by the industry, but both required significant shifts in their business activity and even their scientific activity. Even companies that have products on the market were looking at ways those products might work against the virus. You may have heard about the Cytokine storm that is inherent in the immunological response to the virus. These companies have therapeutics that work in that area, so therapeutics are the third category. Once the virus was identified and physicians were looking to treat patients, therapeutics became incredibly important. The fourth category we look at is medical devices as there was a lot of discussion early about the importance of ventilators and respirators. A significant challenge that was discussed less frequently was the damage that ventilators cause the patients. Not only was it with the constant pounding on the lungs but also when the patient becomes reliant on a ventilator the patient sometimes realizes diaphragmatic atrophy. So, there are devices that were developed right here in Pennsylvania, designed to wean patients off ventilators so the damage from the ventilators did not continue. One example of a company that was involved in that part of the science was ALung, Pete DeComo’s company. Another important area that emerged during the pandemic the repurposing of manufacturing facilities to address shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE). One example of a company doing that is Actuated Medical. They are located in State College, where their core business is manufacturing a device that cleans feeding tubes. Actuated Medical repurposed their manufacturing to manufacture face shields, initially for first responders, and later for general public use. A positive outcome for the life sciences industry during the pandemic was a willingness and ability by companies to repurpose their operations to address the pandemic and along the way realizing the different innovations that come from that. Another example, of such resulting innovation is a company called ZSX Medical in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. ZSX is a device company in which the engineers figured out how to take a vacuum bag, a zip tie and some duct tape to create what they call an origami respirator. This was to help patients breathe better because the microns in the vacuum bag would capture the virus, of course you could do anything with zip ties and duct tape. But with a vacuum bag is an example of an incredible innovation that scientists in our industry come up with to fill a need. Another benefit or a positive impact on the industry is of course the identification of efficiencies, and I do not think it is unique to the life sciences community, but they were able to realize better efficiencies with people working remotely. For example, there were more IPOs in our industry last year than ever before in our history and this in the middle of a pandemic. This just showed that things were able to be done efficiently including raising funds. Workers worked more efficiently and of course we as a country — and really the world — saw a greater efficiency at the FDA in order to get these vaccines approved for emergency use and then through the process of diagnostics. So, some great positive outcomes but on the negative side I think broadly there was concern across the entire business community about the mental wellness impact of the pandemic, that is something that we have seen an increase in depression, an increase in alcoholism and drug use, and an increase in suicide rates. Mental wellness issues are not unique to the life sciences industry but certainly the life sciences industry was not immune to it either. I think also on the downside is the fact that all or nearly all clinical trials had to be put on hold or experienced a pause for some period of 2020, simply because you could not get patients to the clinics. That will have a negative impact somewhere down the road as there will be a resulting gap that follows that delay in getting patients in the clinic. New drugs will not be approved on the original schedule because of that delay caused by business closures and closing hospitals and other clinical trial sites.
CBRE recently had a report that named Pittsburgh as the number 1 emerging market for life sciences. From your point of view and your organization’s point of view, what are some of the contributing factors that recognition?
CM: In the last decade, there has been a tremendous amount of energy, investment, enthusiasm, commitment to what we refer to as innovation economy across Pennsylvania, but I would say specifically in Pittsburgh. So, if you think back to 8 years ago, when Chancellor Gallagher came to Pitt, there was a historic — one might say institutional — resistance within Pitt to spin out companies and technology out of the labs. When Chancellor Gallagher came in he made it very clear that Pitt would be heavily invested in the spinning-out of technologies. Basically, translational medicine needs to grow to where it is no longer just science or research for research-sake, but the research has an application in the real world to positively affect mankind. Chancellor Gallagher recognized that fact and it lit a fire under the faculty, scientists, post-doctoral candidates, and the tech transfer office to start pushing these technologies more vigorously and more aggressively. I do not think the tech transfer office needed as much of a prod as they were under the leadership of Dr. Marc Malandro, who is a big believer in the commercialization of technology. Therefore, we have seen a lot of top technologies being spun out of Pitt and Marc’s successor running the technology transfer office is Dr. Evan Thatcher, who has added momentum to what has been coming out of the University of Pittsburgh. As I understand, since 2015 there have been 105 companies spun out of Pitt, many of which are life sciences companies and all of which contribute to that innovation economy that creates a vibrant startup community.
Of course, Carnegie Mellon has always been a national standard bearer for tech transfer, and has always done a fantastic job Additionally, schools like Duquesne University in addition to their strong pharmacy program, are now spinning out technologies, primarily pharmaceuticals out of their schools as well. There has been a broader interest in the Pittsburgh Life Sciences community on behalf of Pitt, so now there is greater collaboration between the university, medical center, the local entrepreneurial community and the investment community, which is based largely outside of Pittsburgh but is gaining traction and interest because of what is going on in the commercialization world and around Pittsburgh. And of course, you have leaders like, Mayor Peduto, and former state senator Matt Smith, who heads the Pittsburgh Chamber and was one of the co-chairs of the life sciences caucus in the senate, so he understands the life science ecosystem very well and pushes policy to accelerate it. I also think there is a lot more visibility into what is going on in Pittsburgh, from what has historically been somewhat of an insular culture has become much more outward facing.
What do you think Pittsburgh can do as a region to further attract and retain life sciences companies?
CM: I think leaders need to get out of Pittsburgh and get on the road and talk about what is going on in Pittsburgh. I say that about government officials, officials at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University as well as the business leaders. It is important to recognize that money can come from anywhere, but the executives need to get out of Pittsburgh and go find the money and that will generate more interest, raising awareness of what is going on in Pittsburgh in the process. That is one of the lessons we learned from Governor Deval Patrick in Massachusetts years ago. He was out nationally and internationally on the stump basically talking about the biotech community of Massachusetts and Cambridge, in particular. Through these efforts, he gained a lot of interest and visibility and it attracted businesses and talent to Massachusetts.
Does the fact that CMU and Pitt work so nicely benefit our region?
CM: I think absolutely yes, there have been many great examples of partnership across Pittsburgh not just between CMU and Pitt but across Pittsburgh where different, formally adversarial relationships have become very partner based — and true partnerships, not sugar coating. I think those partnerships need to continue to grow and expand. I think the efforts that are put together to attract businesses like Google and Uber, some of the other tech-based companies are great examples of how this can work.
For more information on Life Sciences Pennsylvania, click here.