Academia / Biotechnology / Entrepreneurs / Funding / Innovation

The Richard King Mellon Foundation granted $100M to the University of Pittsburgh to support biomanufacturing

The grant will fund development of the University of Pittsburgh BioForge. Together, the two institutions hope that a new center at Hazelwood Green will spur the commercial potential of Pittsburgh's medical expertise.

View of downtown Pittsburgh from the Hazelwood Green development in 2017. (Courtesy Carnegie Mellon University)
One of Pittsburgh’s biggest philanthropic organizations is betting on the region’s life sciences potential.

On Wednesday, the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced it is providing a $100 million grant to the University of Pittsburgh to advance Pittsburgh’s life sciences industry. The new funding will go towards a research and development center at Hazelwood Green — a former steel mill site that’s quickly becoming the city’s newest innovation hub.

This grant follows another significant one from the foundation in May, when the foundation gave $150 million to Carnegie Mellon University for new centers in robotics innovation and advanced manufacturing. It also comes after Pitt announced the formation of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Alliance this summer, with support from the foundation.

This most recent grant with Pitt will be the largest single project gift in the foundation’s history, a press release said. With the CMU grant, $75 million went to a robotics innovation center and advanced materials and manufacturing institute at Hazelwood Green. This new grant with Pitt will put the full $100 million towards the building of a life sciences research and development center at the site.

That new center will be called the University of Pittsburgh BioForge — “a highly specialized biomanufacturing facility that will help bring new cell and gene therapies and other novel treatments to patients and the marketplace,” the press release said. The BioForge will range from 200,000 to 250,000 square feet, and will be available to both academic researchers as well as commercial partners in the area with need for the lab, manufacturing, innovation and incubation resources the facility will offer. Specifically, the BioForge will offer resources to advance gene therapy, cell therapy, microneedle therapeutics and delivery technology, antibody development and more.

“The Foundation is making a historic bet on Pittsburgh to lead nationally in the life sciences. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that we need to discover and manufacture health care advances right here at home,” said Richard King Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman in a statement. “And we are even more eager to lead in this sector because of its potential to generate family-sustaining job opportunities that are accessible to all our communities.”

This latest gift adds to the growing tech hub at Hazelwood Green, where the entrepreneurship organization OneValley now has a coworking space and innovation hub. While some parts of the complex are still in development, Hazelwood Green has already become a community hub, hosting everything from outdoor neighborhood movie nights to the inaugural United States-European Union Trade and Technology Council meeting in September.

Beyond adding to the fast-growing tech hub at Hazelwood Green, this center will particularly help Pittsburgh position itself as a life sciences leader. That status is a long time coming, given the medical expertise of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and of the hospital and healthcare systems headquartered here like UPMC and Allegheny Health Network. Already, there has been some significant local success in the industry here, including Cognition Therapeutics‘ initial public offering and a massive acquisition of Cernostics earlier this fall.

Small companies, too, have reached significant milestones, with AlphaLab Health startup CytoAgents achieving Phase I clinical trial approval and ALung Technologies receiving De Novo clearance from the FDA for its signature product.

Pittsburgh is poised to become the next global hub for life sciences and biotech, and this gift propels us on that path like never before,” said Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the Pitt School of Medicine, in a prepared statement. “The talent we have in this region is unmatched. This gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation will allow us to create a space-based strategy for all that talent to flourish and engage in cutting-edge research. Our shared vision for building a meds and eds innovation engine with UPMC, industry and the Hazelwood community will spur new solutions and opportunities for generations to come.”

With one of its largest grants ever, the foundation is betting that Pittsburgh can leverage its medical expertise into commercial opportunities, despite lagging behind other cities that have already done the same. But an innovation hub focused on turning academic research into business ideas could be just what’s needed to make the life sciences Pittsburgh’s next entrepreneurship frontier.

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: Richard King Mellon Foundation / University of Pittsburgh

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