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The future of Pittsburgh life sciences: Success is imminent, but strategy to get there is lacking

Attracting capital to local life science startups will be more difficult than for an industry like robotics. What does that mean for the field's growing prominence in Pittsburgh?

In a lab. (Photo courtesy of the University City Science Center)

This editorial article is a part of Tech + Health Month of's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by the Chesapeake Digital Health Exchange. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by CDHX before publication.

As robotics and autonomy companies build Pittsburgh’s reputation as an essential tech hub, life sciences might soon be the next frontier of progress.

It’s a time of growing excitement for the field in Pittsburgh. Cognition Therapeutics, a drug discovery company based in the South Side, announced plans earlier this summer for an initial public offering of $50 million, which officially launched this morning. And in June, a million dollar grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation brought the formation of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Alliance, which will likely see more news in the next few months.

“We have plenty of technologies that are coming through the universities, but we don’t have enough commercial experience leaders or CEOs in the region,” said Innovation Works’ executive in residence for the life sciences, Larry Miller, to open a conversation on the future of life sciences in Pittsburgh at this year’s 3 Rivers Venture Fair. “Where do we find the CEOs for these technologies?”

The panel, which included speakers from Innovation Works, InnovatePGH, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, focused on why the city seems to be lagging behind despite its medical expertise.

Cynthia Sweet, the associate vice chancellor for economic partnerships at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks one solution is to encourage more students, researchers and other life sciences inventors to think about commercialization as an option when they first develop the new technologies. Establishing early notions of that as a way to make an invention available makes it easier to foster partnerships with accelerators like LifeX Labs earlier in the business development timeline, Sweet said.

That notion was shared by Craig Markovitz, an entrepreneur in residence and distinguished service professor of entrepreneurship at CMU’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Noting that the early days of a life science venture can be some of the riskiest, he said “the passion for assuming that risk and for being committed to the trials and tribulations involved will come from the inventors — will come from the people that are passionate about these ideas at the onset.” Until a more solid culture of commercialization among inventors exists, attracting executives with the business experience needed for growth will remain a challenge.

Success breeds success. But I think one of the keys is, how do we keep talent from the region in the region?

But the need for finding that talent goes beyond the life sciences industry. Ven Raju, the chief investment officer for accelerator runner Innovation Works, commented that one part of the solution needs to be keeping native expertise in Pittsburgh. Pointing to the number of companies that have grown and exited here, Raju said “success breeds success. But I think one of the keys is, how do we keep talent from the region in the region?”

While the panelists all agreed that Pittsburgh has the foundation and potential needed to become a life sciences hub, they couldn’t agree on what sector of life sciences should become the city’s selling point. In other words — what technology will be the autonomous vehicle equivalent for life sciences here?

The answer to that question remained unclear. Though both Raju and Sweet acknowledged the increased resources Pittsburgh has to support young companies in the life sciences, they each hesitated to commit to a certain technology as the driving force of the city’s future in that industry.

“One of the things we lack is the strategy for building up that cluster,” Sweet said, which can make it difficult to pitch the city’s companies to larger outside investors. She also acknowledged that the heavy presence of healthcare companies here has led to some differentiation in the use of artificial intelligence and digital platforms for that sector.

Answering a question about how to attract more capital to local life sciences is more difficult than answering it for an industry like robotics. The development timeline is long and expensive, with a high failure rate that risk-averse investors will avoid. Some of the funding sources that fueled Pittsburgh’s success in computer science and robotics simply won’t be enough to do the same for life sciences, argued Sean Luther, executive director of InnovatePGH.

“Life science commercialization is expensive and time consuming,” he said. “And our foundations — we’re very fortunate for their size — but they cannot single handedly push us across the finish line in terms of critical mass and life science.”

But just because the local foundations don’t have enough money to fully fund a clinical pipeline doesn’t mean they don’t have a role to play in the success of Pittsburgh life sciences, Luther continued, saying he wanted to see nonprofits making Pittsburgh startups more visible on the national and international scale: “What the nonprofit space needs to get really focused on is supporting the business community, and then frankly, getting out of their way.”

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 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: Innovation Works (Pittsburgh) / University of Pittsburgh / Carnegie Mellon University
Series: Tech + Health Month 2021

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