A Vision for the Future
Late last year, the University of Pittsburgh quietly marked an economic milestone when NanoVision Diagnostics became the 100th start-up company to launch through Pitt’s Office of Technology Management. The promising cancer detection system teams a decade of faculty research with an executive-in-residence, and so far the new company has attracted $1.5 million in investment. Beyond that, however, it exemplifies the goal of a broad reorganization within the university that Pitt officials believe will have far-reaching implications for Greater Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community.
Early in 2012, when NanoVision was still essentially just a good idea in a Pitt laboratory, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson convened a committee of key leaders to think about what the university could do to strengthen its entrepreneurial spirit and increase innovative activity on the campus and in the community.
“It turns out we have dozens of units and hundreds of people in these activities,” said Beeson, who became provost nearly four years ago. “So I charged the committee to tell me what we needed to do to build support for faculty who are engaged in innovation, to engage the students both in educational programs and with faculty researchers and innovators, and to improve the interface with the world outside of Pitt. The whole economic development sector in the city and county are our partners, and we have the opportunity to make an even greater impact in the region’s economic future.”
The committee’s recommendations ultimately culminated in the November announcement of the founding of the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute to advance Pitt’s successes in entrepreneurship, commercialization, and economic development. The Institute consolidates three previously separate Pitt entities: the Office of Technology Management, Office of Enterprise Development, and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. And through this combination of resources under one roof, the university expects to offer greater support for entrepreneurial initiatives on campus and throughout the region.
“It became clearer and clearer to us that one of the best ways to support these efforts was to coordinate them better,” Beeson said. “There’ve been a whole series of changes in the way we do business, based on these intense conversations. We’ve changed some of our types of contracts with companies that license our technology. We’ve changed policies for the involvement of our researchers in start-up companies. It turns out when you have a new technology, it’s not so easy to say, ‘Here’s the technology—you run with it.’ We’ve tried to make it easier for our faculty expertise to move with it.”
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For the institute’s interim director, Beeson chose Marc S. Malandro, Pitt’s associate vice chancellor for technology management and commercialization and director of both the Office of Technology Management and Office of Enterprise Development. Armed with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Malandro is a scientist/inventor/entrepreneur by training, who worked in California’s biotech industry before co-founding biotech company Sagres Discovery, which was purchased by a larger firm five years later.
“It was a great experience, and it gave me the understanding and also empathy of what scientist entrepreneurs are going through,” said Malandro, who joined Pitt in 2004 as a licensing manager, responsible for identifying promising technologies in campus research and helping prepare them for the transition to business, either through partners or in starting new companies.
In the short term, Malandro said, the Innovation Institute’s challenges are administrative: “getting lines of communication drawn between the three groups we’ve brought together. We’re in the early stages of learning how to work better together. How do we market and co-brand? We’re identifying and tallying all the resources that exist on campus, and part of the challenge is seeing what’s there, finding ways of making them accessible, and leveraging them. After we’ve built that foundation, we’ll begin to layer onto it new program developments and strategies.”
Among the immediate tasks is identifying a physical space where the institute’s component programs can be housed together. Another challenge is making the campus and broader community aware of the institute and its work. “How do you connect the university with the regional entrepreneurial community and with regional companies?” Malandro asked. “We need to find out what they need and how they can help us as well. For instance, if the community needs more education in the sources of start-up capital, then those are courses we’ll develop.” Last year, the Office of Technology Management oversaw 155 licenses and started nine companies, but as Malandro said, “This is much bigger than that. We’re looking at all areas of innovation. This is a cultural change on campus, from developing programs for undergraduates up through post docs to the continuing education of the regional entrepreneurial community. It’s really an opportunity to transform the way entrepreneurship is looked at on campus. We want to make it accessible to all schools on campus, from—obviously—the business school to the law school and school of education. At end of the day, the whole activity is also meant to be accessible to students—through traditional learning, experiential learning, and internships. “It’s really a great opportunity, and we’re only bounded by how well we can harvest it and how well we can be focused. Some people look at a 227-year-old state-related institution and think of it as old and conservative. But with the provost, the amount of push, effort and support the university is putting behind this is surprising. We’re at the start of something big.”
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Michael Lang knows exactly how vital the Innovation Institute will be in turning good ideas into commercial enterprises. For the past three years, he’s been an executive-in-residence in Pitt’s Office of Technology Management, identifying outstanding university research, analyzing it, helping to write business plans for viable target markets, and spinning out start-up companies. A few months ago, he resigned that position to become CEO of one of those ventures—NanoVision Diagnostics.
Lang has been working with Dr. Yang Liu, an optics expert with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, on getting the cancer diagnostic methods Liu has developed over the past decade ready for use in the world. Lang expects to be able to provide this diagnostic testing service within two to three years, and he sees great things ahead for other new companies that will come out of the Innovation Institute.
“The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense provide substantial research funding to American universities for basic and applied research, and Pitt is a real leader in this field,” said Lang. “That’s great, but the next step from basic and applied research is product development—turning an invention into a product that works for people in the real world. And there are a lot of moving parts to that. That’s what Pitt has put in place with the Innovation Institute—the infrastructure to bring together researchers, physicians and clinicians, and business people like myself to work together and solve problems.”
Beeson is a regional economist by training, and much of her work after joining the Pitt faculty in 1983 has focused on the impact a university and technology might have on a region. For her, the Innovation Institute is a natural role that Pitt can play, both in raising the awareness and breadth of entrepreneurial possibilities on campus and in helping to advance innovation and its practical societal benefits in the region as a whole.
“The real strength in Pittsburgh is an economy that collaborates, works well together on many levels and between numerous institutions. That’s why we have cities—to provide that incubating environment, in which companies and individual entrepreneurs can all, through close proximity, gain from working together. I think that, as we move forward, the economy is going to be more and more dependent on those sorts of relationships, and Pittsburgh is very well positioned for that. We all recognize that a big part of the economy moving forward is innovation. We have to stay ahead of the competitors—whoever they may be—by finding new products and new ways of doing things. A university plays a critical role in making that economic ecosystem work even better.
“It’s very much part of a cultural evolution, if you will. A lot of what we do here at the university is research and teaching and helping students move ahead. One of the things I see with the institute is getting students engaged in questions of how do you take those ideas our facility’s working on and move them out? How do you create a new company and put it all together? “My sense is we’re going to be changing the way people think about what they do—and in a very exciting way. The thing we have going for us is we’re all about ideas. That’s what a university is. We have so many creative minds in the faculty, students and staff. Sometimes all we need to do is provide the right structure that helps support them and then they just take off. And that’s how I view this: helping individuals express their creativity. And it helps the university have a sustainable impact on the region we’re so proud to be part of and from which we benefit.”