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Pittsburgh's Innovation Engine: A Look Under the Hood at CMU and Pitt’s Tech Transfer Efforts

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By Tim Hayes, Contributing Writer

With powerhouse universities, renowned researchers and a growing entrepreneurial spirit, Pittsburgh is solving some of the world’s toughest problems. Novel technology jointly developed at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University is being readied to address the estimated two million new cases of basal cell cancer each year in the United States with more than half of all patients suffering a recurrence.

Pittsburgh-startup SkinJect has secured a licensing deal with the University of Pittsburgh for dissolvable microneedle patch technology that delivers a chemotherapeutic agent to kill an existing skin cancer.

Pittsburgh Tech TransferBorn from an ecosystem that is embracing new models of innovation and partnership, SkinJect intends to offer a cost-effective way to treat an existing cancer and potentially prevent it from coming back again later in life.

That’s the power of technology transfer, and this region has two of the biggest engines running at full-throttle – Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University.

“It is rare for a city to have a one-two university punch as powerful as Pittsburgh does with Pitt and CMU,” said Marc Malandro, Founding Director of the Innovation Institute at Pitt. “More than $1 billion in combined university research funding is attracted to Pittsburgh each year, and our complementary strengths, with Pitt specializing in the health sciences and CMU in the information sciences, makes it natural for us to be collaborative instead of competitive.

“The seeds of our unique strengths were planted decades ago in the 1950s, with Jonas Salk developing the polio vaccine at Pitt while right next door Allen Newell and Herbert Simon were creating artificial intelligence at CMU,” Malandro said. “They embodied the Pittsburgh ethos – people who want to get things done, and who are willing to work collaboratively to do it – that continues to inspire our work.”

Creation of the Innovation Institute about three years ago combined a number of groups at Pitt under one name for a more dynamic, comprehensive and less segmented approach. Pitt’s Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, in fact, as one of his first communications upon taking office a couple of years ago, encouraged the campus to move ideas to commercialization. He backed up that request by establishing a program to help fund promising ideas beyond the typical National Science Foundation funding source.

“Our goal is to build a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt – it’s always been here, but with a higher profile now,” Malandro explained. Some of the results – listed in the Innovation Institute’s 2016 report – have been not only impressive, but some also have set new records, including:

— 314 invention disclosures, defined as when a faculty member or student comes up with a new idea

— 80 U.S. patents issued

— 25 startups formed (13 licensed by Pitt, 12 run by Pitt students)

— $7.3 million in revenue generated

“We offer educational programming, mentoring and funding for both faculty and students to take ideas to commercialization,” Malandro said. “We are particularly excited about the proliferation of student entrepreneurship at Pitt. Last year we introduced our student startup accelerator, called the Blast Furnace. About a third of the participating teams have gone into regional development organizations, like Idea Foundry and others, to help refine and focus their commercialization efforts. We have several pitch competitions, like the Randall Family Big Idea, which attracts approximately 75 student teams each year and awards $100,000 in prizes.

“Our office is the bridge between faculty, students and the outside world to get technologies licensed so they can have impact. We have a talented commercialization staff that understands both the science of our discoveries, as well as the steps necessary to translate a lab discovery into a marketable product. We also have built a deep pool of entrepreneurs-in-residence and mentors, some of whom are embedded in our schools and departments, who can help our investigators navigate the commercialization process.”

A couple of blocks up Forbes Avenue, on the CMU campus, a similar multi-pronged approach to technology transfer can be found, with a handful of strategic differences. The overall goal is one shared with Pitt, however – to bring great ideas into the marketplace, while protecting and promoting the minds that brought them to life.

The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship serves the entire CMU community – departments, colleges, centers and campuses – to accelerate bringing research innovations and promising ideas to the global marketplace and helping all entrepreneurial students, faculty, staff and alumni tap into the “innovation ecosystem.” The Center has a threefold mission:

Defining CMU as the “destination of choice” for all individuals – faculty, staff and students – interested in entrepreneurship;

Fostering an “inside-out” approach to creating winning commercial ventures from cutting-edge research and ingenious ideas for the benefit of society; and

Developing an extensive, vibrant network of alumni entrepreneurs.

And why is such a focused approach needed today? Simple:  success breeds attention.

“The flow of ideas is bigger and faster today – we had 108 invention disclosures at CMU in 2010, and five years later in 2015, that number exploded to 473,” said Reed McManigle, Mentor in Residence and Senior Manager of Business Development and Licensing at the Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation (CTTEC) on campus. “When Luis Von Ahn created ReCAPTCHA and sold his startup to Google for millions, everyone noticed, which helped to increase the participation of researchers in the technology transfer process.”

CTTEC is a complement to, and distinct from, the Swartz Center at CMU, whereby the Swartz Center works across the entire campus, while the CTTEC focuses on commercializing ideas generated by faculty or doctoral students in situations where CMU owns the intellectual property.

“Another explanation for the growth in the number of invention disclosures is the work we’ve done to dispel the popular misconception that ideas need to be patentable to be relevant for technology transfer,” McManigle said. “We do many licenses for software code that is not patent- protected. The ideas don’t have to be patentable inventions, they just need to have some commercial value. They don’t even have to generate revenue to CMU from licensing — we also do many software and research tool licenses at no cost, just to get the tools out to where they can be used. We’re here to help our researchers get their work out of the lab and into practical application.”

Highlights from the CTTEC 2016 report include:

— 257 invention disclosures

— 55 patents issued

— 14 new spin-off companies created (eight licensed by CMU, 6 run by CMU students)

— $16 million in income from licensing

“CMU is world-renowned, attracting faculty and students with different perspectives from around the world – there’s such raw brainpower here,” said Dave Mawhinney, Director of the Swartz Center at CMU. “We are helping to build an ecosystem to help them achieve their dreams. Western Pennsylvania is very lucky to have this resource here.”

As Mawhinney explained, when Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, it stated that, as government invested funds into universities for research, the taxpayer had to somehow benefit. In practical terms, that means that any government-funded research needs to be owned by the university, and the technology transferred to the benefit of society – the driving force behind all of these programs.

“It means we could start valuable companies doing things that had never been done before, like Lycos – the first huge success out of CMU all those years ago. The campus became very entrepreneur-friendly. We went from being a battler to being an enabler, because we’re all in this together and need to do what’s best for everybody.”

Just as at Pitt, the CMU approach helps to demystify how to form a company, which on a college campus can get interesting. Some faculty want to form a company and remain as faculty to do research, while some want to take leave with an option to return, and others want to become full-time entrepreneurs – like the four CMU faculty who formed Fore Systems, for instance.

“CMU fosters interdisciplinary collaboration – all these collisions of super-smart people with dynamite ideas,” Mawhinney explained. “This is a small-footprint campus. You can walk to any academic building in five minutes, so we’re counting on good ideas bumping into other good ideas all the time. Plus, we’ve been able to embrace failure as part of the process – because we fail, we succeed. Years ago, the culture of Pittsburgh was much more conservative, and that approach might not have been as well received.

“One of the most important tools in successful technology transfer, though, is our faculty and students having access to the full CMU network worldwide,” he said. “It’s what makes our university so unique and valuable, with 100,000 living alumni. We need to virtually replicate Silicon Valley because we can’t do it in the same way they did. I believe in this because I’ve been a beneficiary of this system. We can really make Pittsburgh a great center of innovation, like Silicon Valley, New York City and Bangalore.”