Pitt’s Innovation Institute, now part of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, was formed nearly nine years ago, and yet Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Evan Facher says there are still people on campus who don’t know the institute and its partner organizations — the Office of Industry and Economic Partnership and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence — exist.
Despite that, the offices, which help Pitt researchers take their ideas and inventions into the marketplace and support regional business owners and entrepreneurs, have been racking up accolades, honors and big wins for the University.
- Pitt continues to move up the list — from 20th to 18th — of the top recipients of U.S. utility patents among worldwide universities, according to the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association.
- Pitt has been included in a new National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Hub, led by Cornell University.
- The Institute of Entrepreneurial Excellence received $852,001, as part of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge.
- The Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship is partnering with UPMC Enterprises’ Translational Sciences group, which is offering up to $1 million per year for up to two years of funding for translational research in specific therapeutic areas.
- The LifeX Greenhouse — part of LifeX Global, an incubator established by Pitt — has received a nearly $15 million award from the state to fund life science companies in the region. This will fill a gap in early-stage risk capital to invest in life sciences companies.
Facher also added a new title this year — associate dean for commercial translation in the Pitt School of Medicine — that formalizes the work his office already does with the School of Medicine.
“About 80 percent of our work already covers the School of Medicine,” Facher said. “I think it was important to further demonstrate the commitment that Dr. (Anantha) Shekhar (senior vice chancellor for health sciences) has to commercial translation and to have some direct reporting lines between us.”
The importance of commercialization
“I still think there’s a lot of markets on campus that we haven’t penetrated,” Facher said. “There is still a cultural bias against commercialization. Just because in the purest, traditional sense, if you’re spending time working with us on patenting and commercializing things, if you’re a faculty member, you’re taking away time that you could be teaching a class, writing a paper, getting a grant.”
But from his perspective, the societal benefit of getting research of impact out to the market where it can help society, “that’s kind of the ultimate validation or the ultimate benefit that we should be striving for.”
One area that may be holding back some faculty from pursuing commercialization is that getting patents or starting companies aren’t included in most tenure and promotion decisions. “Historically, there’s this little bit of a friction against the participation (in commercialization),” he said.
The number of faculty working with the Innovation Institute has definitely increased in the past 10 years. “We tweaked the die a little bit and we get a couple percent more; a couple percent of 5,000, 6,000 people is a large number for us to handle,” he said, and there is still a lot of untapped opportunity.
“We still find people that don’t know that these services exist; that our organization exists; that there are opportunities here; that there’s some funding to do this; that there’s education to do this,” Facher said. “We can see a path for how do we be a perennial top 10 in commercialization, and we know we can get there, but we still have a ways to go.”
Pitt’s climb in the rankings of number of patents issued is a reflection of “an awareness of the value of the commercialization aspect of research to have that impact,” he said. Getting a patent is not an easy task and often takes three to five years, Facher said, which means the 2021 numbers are really a lagging indicator of Pitt’s trajectory.
“The U.S. Patent Office is looking for something that’s novel and not obvious,” he said. “And given the amount of inventions that are happening across the world, you have to thread that needle with what you’ve discovered.”
Growing ties to UPMC Enterprises
Facher said Pitt and UPMC Enterprises have had a pretty good relationship for the past several years, “but over the last few years, we’ve tried to enhance that. They are treated as a third party like we would any other big company, because we are two separate institutions. But the volume of activity that we do with them is growing and is more than a lot of our other external partners.”
To make this process smoother, Facher said they’ve worked to “reduce the friction of doing any kind of collaboration with them.” This involves having pre-negotiated, standard legal templates for sponsoring research or getting access to a Pitt-created technology through a license. So far, UPMC-E has provided sponsored research support to more than 40 Pitt projects to translate basic research breakthroughs into clinically and commercially viable technologies, which has resulted in the creation of four companies.
The recent request for proposals to study specific therapeutic areas — including women’s health, autoimmune diseases and rare neurological disease, such as ALS — “really is the first time we’re doing a much more jointly collaborative effort because the rest of the processes have become streamlined,” he said.
The more coordinated program with UPMC-E seeks to identify opportunities that may be of interest to them, Facher said. “Historically it had been more about them walking the halls and finding stuff or us passing stuff to them.”
Facher said the relationship with UPMC-E is very important to Pitt and the Innovation Institute, “not because we share the first few words of both of our names, but they do have an ability to help us realize the societal benefit of technologies that we’re developing on campus — no different than when we partner with Pfizer and Merck and Apple to get technologies out the door.”
Innovation Core hub
Pitt has been involved with the NSF I-Corps program for eight years, Facher said, including being one of the first 36 universities to receive Type 1 grants through the program and one of the first 12 to have that grant renewed.
NSF created the program because it was putting all this money into research grants, but not getting as many things hitting the market or benefiting patients or society as it thought with all the billions that were invested, Facher said.
Universities like Pitt had to demonstrate to NSF the steps they were taking on campus to work with faculty to help them move their ideas closer to commercialization.
Recently, the NSF reimagined the I-Corps program where universities work together versus “doing our own thing on our campus. Now we get to leverage a bigger pool of universities,” Facher said, all under the umbrella of Cornell.
“In the world of shrinking resources on campuses, having the validation from NSF and funding that comes from that program is very helpful to us,” he said. “For us, it just allows us to continue it on at a high level, and probably enhance things given that we’re a member of this broader hub. It also kind of signifies that the University remains at the forefront of the pursuit of new ways to think about teaching commercialization, to engage in commercialization.”
Building back better
The money the Institute of Entrepreneurial Excellence received from the federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge will help it link small business development centers across 11 counties — Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland — and coordinate their services so that entrepreneurs in previously underserved areas can access resources to help their small businesses thrive.
This grant, which is specifically focused on autonomy and robotics, is intended to create a regional ecosystem, Facher said, “that can take discoveries, commercialize them, train workforces to use these things and make sure all businesses small and large have access to these things.”
Pitt’s part of the grant focuses on ensuring that companies and workers are trained to use newer technologies in the area of artificial intelligence. “Our role will be important — to ensure that some of those technologies get into the hands of companies that need them, so that they don’t get left behind as the world continues to innovate in new spaces,” he said.