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Economy & Business

Pitt Eyes Venture Capital And State Investment For Life Sciences Industry

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Nathan Copeland, who is functionally paralyzed from the neck down, works with researchers while attempting to move a robotic arm with his mind on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016. Medical research such as this would be supported by a new initiative from Pitt.

The University of Pittsburgh is taking steps to promote and grow the region's life sciences industry, which includes medical research, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and information technology.

Vice Chancellor for Economic Partnerships Rebecca Bagley said, despite being among the top five recipients of National Institutes of Health funding, the university has struggled to commercialize the technologies its researchers develop.

Jerry Paytas of Fourth Economy, which prepared a report on the potential for regional growth in the life sciences, said that’s in part because of the nature of the discipline.

“In computer science, you can start up a firm, build the product and launch it in six months,” Paytas said. “You can’t do that in life sciences. It takes a lot longer.”

But Bagley said it’s also because of a lack of a central hub and champion for the industry and sluggish state investment, both of which could serve to entice venture capital dollars and investment by larger, established life sciences companies.

“Public and private investments in life sciences … could drive more innovation, fuel employment, foster the development of life-changing technologies,” Bagley said.

She pointed to states like Ohio and Indiana, which have invested $900 million and $1 billion, respectively, toward supporting entrepreneurship in the innovation and technology sectors. Late last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $650 million to support the life science industry specifically.

“There hasn’t been much investment (in Pennsylvania) over the last six to eight years, while other states are stepping up their investments … so the competitive landscape for investing in these areas really is a call to action for the state as well,” Bagley said.

Pennsylvania does offer a tax credit program for expenses related to research and development. According to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, more than 77,000 people are employed in the life sciences industry in Pennsylvania.

The Fourth Economy report compared Pittsburgh against benchmark cities including Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle and Orlando.

According to the report, each of these cities has found a way to “go big and differentiate.” Paytas said Pittsburgh should do the same as it creates a plan for growing the life sciences sector; a “moon shot,” he said.

“It’s not just, ‘OK, we have a research project,’” Paytas said. “It’s where can we come together around the notion of a real solution, a platform that Pitt provides that could really create a transformational solution.”

Bagley said Pittsburgh already has strengths in personalized and precision medicine, which is the idea that health care should be tailored to each individual, and in health data, immunology, transplantation and the brain-computer interface.

She said Pitt will soon begin working on bringing the disparate parts of the life sciences sector together by creating an over-arching organization that will advocate for the industry.

Major players, in addition to Pitt, include UPMC, Allegheny Health Network, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, ThermoFisher Scientific and The Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Bagley said a thriving life sciences sector will have a role to play in Pittsburgh’s continue revitalization and reinvention.

“We need a diverse economy,” Bagley said. “This is a place in the life sciences where we can really diversify our economy, and it really has jobs for every level of worker from entry-level and lab technicians through Ph.D. scientists.”