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Once a steel manufacturer, Pittsburgh site will soon produce gene therapies

Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Local and state leaders held a press conference in Hazelwood Green Thursday to announce that ElevateBio would become the anchor tenant of Bioforge, a new biomanufacturing hub at the site.

The banks of the Monongahela River in Hazelwood will again be growing its economic footprint.

The University of Pittsburgh announced ElevateBio would be the “anchor tenant” for a planned $250 million facility in Hazelwood Green. The Massachusetts-based company signed a 30-year agreement to occupy around half of the space. The company will manufacture cell and gene therapies that can be shipped worldwide.

The 250,000-square-foot facility will be the first at the Hazelwood Green site that goes beyond the reconstruction of the historic manufacturing facilities, said Sam Reiman, the director of the Richard K. Mellon Foundation. The Mellon Foundation announced a $100 million donation to the University of Pittsburgh in November 2021 to create BioForge, a biological manufacturing center, with the intention of attracting companies like ElevateBio to occupy it.

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About 175,000 feet of the building will be usable space, and ElevateBio will occupy 80,000 square feet. The company will share in the use of 50,000 additional square feet of space, according to a Pitt spokesperson, meaning the company will be using around two-thirds of the new building space.

The new facility is being funded with $860,000 from the state, at least $35 million - $40 million from the company itself and a “sizable portion” of R.K. Mellon’s $100 million gift. The rest of the $250 million will be raised by Pitt and its partners, including developers, according to a spokesperson for Pitt.

The new facility will be built to comply with stringent regulatory requirements for genetically engineered cells in both the United States and Europe, said David Hallal, the chairman and CEO of ElevateBio. This is the first manufacturing facility located outside of the company’s headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts.

The announcement was made on the tenth anniversary of the invention of CRISPR, which allows scientists to genetically engineer cells. Anantha Shekhar, the dean of the University of Pittsburgh school of medicine, said he expects it to become a $100 billion industry in the next two decades.

“The value proposition” for ElevateBio, Shekhar said, “is that Pittsburgh is a great academic setting. It's got Pitt and CMU, really in many ways the equivalent of having Harvard and MIT. We have high-end health care facilities as well. We have the full-scale opportunities and future similar to Boston, but we are essentially 50% of the cost of something like that in Boston."

The new facility will be located on 3.5 acres “very close” to where Advanced Manufacturing Research Center is currently located, Shekhar said. The new facility will start construction in 2023 and take 3 to 3.5 years to complete, he said, with the goal of the company starting its manufacturing in 2026.

Mayor Ed Gainey noted the symbolic significance of this new biotech facility being located along where steel used to be manufactured. “This is no longer what we consider the new economy. This is Pittsburgh's economy now,” he said. “It is a tech town. It is a tech region. It is a bio town. It is a bioregion.”

Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf listen to speakers announce ElevateBio's plans for a new gene and cell therapy manufacturing facility at Hazelwood Green.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the long-term investments that have developed the Hazelwood Green site over the past few years have paved the way for today’s announcement. “You've got to have the infrastructure in place to be able to attract companies,” he said.

Today’s announcement further propels the Hazelwood neighborhood toward the kind of prosperous turnaround seen in Lawrenceville, Fitzgerald said, where a manufacturing hub was turned into a robotics and technology hub. About 30 years ago, Fitzgerald said, there was an investment in a robotics facility in Lawrenceville that propelled the neighborhood into what it is today.

“I see that's where Hazelwood's going to be going in the coming decades,” he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf said there were no specific parts of the agreement today that would ensure this new development would benefit the current residents of Hazelwood or Pittsburgh, though he did say the area is poised to benefit.

There is no written contract on that. And there is no written guarantee,” he said. “But if companies like ElevateBio want good employees, we have them. They are right here."

Hallal, the CEO of ElevateBio, said the company had committed to employing around 170 people to run its new manufacturing company, about half of which, he said, would only require a community college level of certification. The construction of the building itself will also bring about 900 jobs, he said.

“This is not a kingdom of Ph.D.s and M.D.s,” he said.

The University of Pittsburgh will be sending workers to Boston to get trained before the new facility opens, Shekhar said.

“So that when we are ready to open the doors in 2026, we will have a workforce that is specifically hired to come back to Pittsburgh,” he said.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.