University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s efforts to hotwire the region’s fledgling life sciences industry is getting a spark from a new seed capital fund targeted to helping develop new medications.
The Pittsburgh Revolution Fund is soliciting $200 million, which will be made available in the form of investments in drug research teams with the idea of spinning out companies, said Bill Newlin, chairman, Newlin Investment Co., a seed-stage investment firm in Sewickley.
Mr. Newlin is principal of the fund, which anticipates making the first grant in early 2018.
“Pittsburgh has the mass, people and knowledge to lead to a revolution in patient driven therapies,” he said. “This is all about drug discovery. It’s not like, ‘Let’s get a new idea.’ We already have the scientists, clinicians.”
Mr. Gallagher has been pushing commercialization of faculty research since being named chancellor in 2014, which is a pivot for the university from its risk-averse past. A new Pitt-commissioned study outlined the Pittsburgh region’s potential to become a life sciences powerhouse and the challenges impeding the realization of that goal.
Although the study noted that fewer than six seed-stage life science deals are funded annually in the region, Mr. Gallagher said at a recent conference in Oakland that the economic sector could easily surpass natural gas in impact on the region’s economic future. Working collaboratively, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and health care giant UPMC have the research depth and expertise to realize the vision, he said.
Pitt’s Drug Discovery Institute will partner with the new Revolution Fund in developing medicines through quantitative systems pharmacology — a process that uses interactive computer models and other tools to predict how drugs affect the progression of various diseases.
Fewer investigational compounds wind up getting commercialized, so the quantitative systems pharmacology process is seen as a faster, more efficient way to identify new and effective therapies, said Drug Discovery Institute Director D. Lansing Taylor.
“This is a significant change in the way drug discovery is done and our region is magnificently positioned to do this kind of discovery,” Mr. Taylor said.
The Revolution Fund will target three areas of pharmaceutical research, Mr. Taylor said: breast cancer that has spread; neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, traumatic brain injury from sports concussions and battlefield blasts; and certain liver diseases.
A panel of academic researchers, people from private industry and others will evaluate applications submitted by teams of researchers, Mr. Taylor said, and the funding will complement, rather than replace, other sources of research money such as federal grants.
Traditional government research grants have historically made incremental scientific advances possible, usually through work done by individuals working alone or in small groups. The Pittsburgh fund will target research teams collaborating with private industry.
Those involved point to the basic research, computing and clinical care expertise of Pitt, CMU and UPMC as the region’s differentiating factor when compared to other research hubs, including San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. The Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance, a collaborative effort of Pitt, CMU and UPMC Enterprises, is an example of how the three research institutions can work together to advance life sciences.
The Pittsburgh fund will fill a gap in locally available investment capital, said Rebecca Bagley, Pitt vice chancellor for economic partnerships, a newly created position intended to serve as a liaison between the university and private industry.
“This is a place to really have Pitt, CMU and UPMC come together,” Ms. Bagley said. “My office is to connect academic researchers to the right industry players, then the university can spin out the companies.”