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Biotechnology / Federal government / Life sciences / Manufacturing / Pittsburgh

Does Pittsburgh have what it takes to be designated a national biotech hub?

As the EDA Tech Hubs program's Phase 1 deadline approaches, two leaders involved in a regional consortium explain why they're going for it.

University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Flickr user Always Shooting, used by a Creative Commons license)
Pittsburgh tech leaders feel confident in the city’s life sciences sector. Now, they want federal recognition of its potential to keep growing.

Aug. 15 marks the deadline for Phase 1 of the EDA Tech Hubs program. This initiative from the US Economic Development Administration calls for applications to show which regions have existing or potential hubs of innovation. The goal is for the federal government to help regions without the same funding or name recognition as Silicon Valley become global competitors and assist the US in its aims to become a major player in high-tech manufacturing.

Phase 1 is focused on identifying 20 regions from around the country as Tech Hubs. Phase 2, which begins in the fall, gives those selected regions the opportunity to apply for strategy implementation funding — between $50 million and $75 million from the CHIPS and Science Act. (Phase 1 will also identify a separate round of regions to receive grants from a $15 million pool to help them grow into “future tech hubs,” per the EDA.)

Consortiums made up of institutions including universities, state or local government entities, private sector firms and economic development groups apply on a region’s behalf. These consortiums must also align themselves with one of 10 key technology focus areas for their application — say, life sciences or robotics or AI.

Regions being considered are judged on their capacity to manufacture, commercialize and deploy technologies. As a tech community with a proud manufacturing history, it should be no surprise that Pittsburgh wants to toss its hat in the ring for a chance to receive the designation.

While some details were still being finalized as of late July, Kinsey Casey, University of Pittsburgh’s vice chancellor for economic development for health sciences, said then the university is part of a consortium applying for Tech Hubs designation for Pittsburgh, centering on the region’s biomanufacturing economy. Casey said the consortium members felt this was the best sector to focus on due to the praise the region has already received for its strong life sciences sector and its previous success in receiving National Institutes of Health funding.

“We wanted to figure out how we could differentiate ourselves from other regions that want to be biotech,” Casey told Technical.ly. “Where we really think we have an interesting strength is in partnership with [Carnegie Mellon University] and their robotics, AI [and] advanced manufacturing.”

In the Pitt-led application, Casey said, the consortium will be highlighting the investments that the region has already made such as the BioForge facility being built in Hazelwood Green. The consortium hasn’t yet decided what it would do with the federal funding it could receive at a later stage, should Pittsburgh be eligible to apply in Phase 2.

“We’ve talked about how we would focus this to really ignite a biotech environment manufacturing sector here in the region,” she said. “But how we would utilize the funding, we haven’t gotten there yet. Just hoping to get the designation first.”

While some cities have multiple consortiums submitting applications, Pittsburgh seems to only have one willing to make itself known. It’s also not yet clear how many institutions are formally part of this application. InnovatePGH Executive Director Sean Luther told Technical.ly other organizations were still finalizing their commitment to the process as of last week. However, Luther did say the consortium includes partners ranging from academic institutions to elected officials.

“We’re still kind of getting the formal commitment letters from folks, so I don’t want to tip my hat,” he said, “or over-commit folks who haven’t formally committed yet. But the way that the Tech Hubs project is structured is, everything in every application — regardless of if it’s here in western Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the country — is centered around the concept of consortiums, which I think is a really interesting evolution.”

In the meantime, Luther says the approach the Pittsburgh biotech consortium takes will provide an opportunity for some unique partnerships to take place. It reminds him of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, which in fall 2022 dedicated $62.7 million in EDA grants for robotics projects in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“I think it’s gonna be a really interesting process for us on that partnership development perspective,” Luther said. “Since we’re part of the Build Back Better partnership that was driven by the Allegheny Conference, I think we are seeing firsthand the power of tying regional ecosystem development with locally based tech expertise.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: InnovatePGH / University of Pittsburgh / U.S. Economic Development Administration
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