Pittsburgh Tomorrow Podcast: Lynne Porter, M.D., Carnegie Mellon University
Donald Bonk interviews Lynne Porter, M.D., entrepreneur-in-residence for the Innovation Fellows Program at The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. The transcript is abridged and edited for clarity.
“The only thing that is holding us back is angel and venture capital investment. There is no lack of brilliance at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon… And then we need people to invest.” —Lynne Porter, M.D.
Donald Bonk: This is Donald Bonk with the Pittsburgh Tomorrow Project. We’re here at Carnegie Mellon and I’m talking with Lynne Porter, M.D. Lynne, I’m going to turn it over to you to give us a little bit of background.
Lynne Porter: I came to Pittsburgh in the late 1970s. I’ve been here all that time. I am former senior faculty at the medical school here. I’m now an executive in residence at Carnegie Mellon, helping startup companies—both students and faculty—commercialize their products. I grew up on Long Island. It was a sandbar. It’s quite different here. I love it. I’m a big fan of Pittsburgh. But I do think that Pittsburgh is getting short changed.
Bonk: Very interesting departure point. One item I want to mention: You taught at Pitt Medical School. Is that correct? How many years did you do that?
Porter: Ten years.
Bonk: One of the questions I want to talk to you about are these challenges that you mentioned. What would it take for Pittsburgh to be the best city in the world?
Porter: Well, I think I think we have to look at the area that I’m involved with. I think we could blow out the startup science world here. The only thing that is holding us back is angel and venture capital investment. There is no lack of brilliance at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon. We just need more people to help the students. And then we need people to invest.
There are two major angel groups here in Pittsburgh, but that’s not enough. And the investment money has increased, but it’s not enough. So I am hoping that some similar funds can be established. I think that can blow out the economy. It can create new jobs. It will keep people here.
Bonk: And we’re talking medical devices. Are we talking drug discovery?
Porter: We’re talking anything. I mean, I usually work with biomedical companies, but I’ve worked on mentoring students and faculty who have non-biomedical companies. There’s not a lack of creativity. The bottleneck is getting the funding.
Bonk: So you think that that could be a transformation?
Porter: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s so obvious. I’ve talked to a lot of people that I work with and everybody says we need more money. There’s one venture capital group that’s thinking about developing a fund here. And I certainly hope that they do that, but I think that has to be a conscious effort.
Bonk: We have an established medical community here. We have medical research. Pitt’s one of the largest academic medical centers in the world. But what you want to see is the translation of that science in the lab into the marketplace for commercialization.
Porter: I think it’s very interesting and very exciting that UPMC has come up with a billion with a B for investment. That’s a great place to be a game changer. And I think they want it to be a game changer.
Bonk: Do you find that there’s a lot of cross-pollination between what’s happening at Pitt in the medical world and here at CMU?
Porter: Yes, I think there is a very good dialogue. There’s also a very good dialogue between Allegheny General and Carnegie Mellon, particularly in the cardiac space.
Bonk: These are the kinds of things that the audience needs to hear about and understand the relationship between the hospital community and the university community. Well, let me ask you this: If you had the power in whatever form—governor, mayor or just a magical power, even—what would you do to help push Pittsburgh forward into the future?
Porter: I think people go in there too often and pull one lever for leadership. I don’t think they structure their vote. There’s too many people who have never left Pittsburgh. I’d like to see leadership who cares about some of the issues affecting the quality of life downtown. I’d like to have a city council that steps up to a far greater degree.
Now, I think Mayor Peduto was wonderful with Tree of Life. He rallied and supported the whole city in a horrible situation. But the same man says to criticism about the quality of life issues downtown, roughly, if you don’t like the quality of life issues downtown, go to the mall. I think that’s a total abrogation of his responsibility. If they put more patrols downtown and listened to the police who walk those beats, I think things will be better. But, you know, a lot of elderly people go to the shows in the evening and sometimes they’re uncomfortable.
Bonk: Do you think it could have economic consequences?
Porter: Absolutely. I’m sure it’s having economic consequences already. People are concerned.
Bonk: So from your perspective, you’re concerned about public safety and the need for change?
Porter: I actually think there needs to be some new ideas, people who perhaps have a little different approach to how to handle things here. One of the big issues is the public school system. The children aren’t getting educated as well as they should. It’s a very serious issue. Early childhood education is very important.
We need to have a hub at the airport, like we used to have with U.S. Air. I think that’s crucial to make it easier to go in and out of Pittsburgh just for business. If we’re going to blow out the startup community, people have to come in and out of here. They can’t change the weather, but we can certainly improve the airport.
A fast train from Pittsburgh to Columbus or Pittsburgh to Chicago would be fabulous. But our rail system is in shambles. This country’s infrastructure is inadequate. I don’t see how they’re going to put up a train that goes that fast on the present rails that we have.
Bonk: You’re thinking that air is really the solution?
Porter: I think so, if we can get Boeing to stop misbehaving.
Bonk: We identified a couple of different touch points… Are there any other issues that you find animating in terms of Pittsburgh’s future?
Porter: Well, no, I’ve covered the public school system, transportation, infrastructure, safety. One of the things I like about Pittsburgh is the wonderful people here—good, solid, hardworking people. But sometimes I think they accept less than they should. They should demand more. Higher expectations, and I think that’s part of the reason that we have some political issues that are just not being addressed.
I grew up on Long Island until I was in high school. I went to college in Ohio. I went to medical school in Philadelphia. I did my training at Brown University. And then I came to Pittsburgh.
I have my criticisms, but I’ve lived here forever, and I would not move. I love it here. I love the people. I think the reason I’m so vocal about these things is I’m annoyed that Pittsburgh is not getting a better deal.
Bonk: And you feel it could and should?
Porter: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think it can. I think it should. If we work together and stop denying that there are issues, it can be done. The best asset that Pittsburgh has is the people that live here; I want a better life for them. I find it very upsetting that people are leaving, because Pittsburgh has such promise.
One of my sons lives here. He’s grown and has several friends. Some of them have advanced degrees. With an infusion of investment money, we will keep these people here who are educated, employ these highly educated people.
Part of the other problem is, as the younger people leave, we are left with the senior citizen population, which decreases diversity and is also very costly because of their medical needs. Everybody benefits by inter-generational interaction. Interaction keeps everybody sharp no matter what your ages. I’m very concerned about it.
Bonk: We know that the universities here, including Carnegie Mellon, are putting out graduates of unparalleled quality… the same as with Pitt down the street or Duquesne or the other schools here. Obviously it’s in everyone’s interest in the community to absorb all the graduates who want to stay.
Porter: We’re educating them. It’s our advantage if we keep them here. We can employ them here, if that’s what they want.