They may still show giant furnaces and vats of molten steel when Monday Night Football comes to town until the end of time, but soon Pittsburgh could be known for manufacturing something a little smaller.
OK, a lot smaller.
The Richard King Mellon Foundation has donated $100 million to the University of Pittsburgh to create the BioForge, a massive factory for tiny things.
“This is a specialized manufacturing facility that makes therapeutics to treat disease — but these therapeutics are not chemicals, so they’re not pill-type therapeutics,” explains Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “They are biological entities, things like cells, or viral vectors that deliver genetic material, or monoclonal antibodies or things of that type.”
The plans are to create a vast 200,000- to 250,000-square-foot facility at Hazelwood Green that’s able to carry out the most advanced biomanufacturing projects. This $100 million gift is the biggest single-project donation in the R.K. Mellon Foundation’s history. Combined with another recent R.K. Mellon Foundation grant to Carnegie Mellon University ($150 million for several projects, including a $45 million Robotics Innovation Center at Hazelwood Green), and the former steel mill property could start to resemble the ambitious plans set forth for it decades ago by the Almono partnership.
“When we rolled out our 10-year plan to commit $1.2 billion over the next decade in the region, we wanted to invest in some very bold ideas,” says R.K. Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman. “The foundation is making a historic bet on Pittsburgh to lead nationally in the life sciences. If Covid-19 taught us anything, it’s that we need to discover and manufacture healthcare advances right here at home.”
Exactly where it will be located at Hazelwood Green, how many people it will employ, and what it will look like all are still to be determined. However, it’s expected to be fully operational in five years.
Demand for office space has slipped during the pandemic, as people continue to work from home, but life sciences is an exception. The specialized spaces needed for biotechnology research and development — “clean rooms,” laboratories and advanced machinery — are hard to find, and tend to fill up quickly.
A number of Pitt research teams will relocate to the BioForge facility, working on things like gene and engineered cell therapy, microneedles and other novel therapeutics and delivery technologies, and the development of micro- and nano-antibodies. It will also be a hub for life sciences startups and established companies that want to bring their supply chains for production closer to home.
“It’s typically used as a contract manufacturing facility,” says Gallagher. “So other companies that have ideas for therapeutics basically rent manufacturing time. And one of the things that these facilities do is specialize not only in the production of these materials but doing so at extraordinarily high quality so they can be used for patients and clinical environments.”
Though the BioForge is expected to create plenty of highly skilled jobs itself — the initial estimate is “several hundred” — the facility is expected to have a multiplier effect for a local life sciences sector that is already growing fast.
Combined with Pitt’s own financial commitment and funding from industry partners, the BioForge is designed to make Pittsburgh a global destination for life sciences investors and innovators.
It’s going to require specialized expertise, but Pitt has the right tools for the job, says Gallagher.
“It is one of the leaders in the country — [Pitt] ranks in the top five or six for NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding of all universities in the United States,” Gallagher notes. “UPMC, our affiliated partner, is one of the largest — if not the largest — academic medical center systems in the country.”
Certain new biological advances have become household names during the pandemic, like Messenger RNA vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments. There’s also been an ongoing revolution in immunotherapies for treating cancer. The need for places to manufacture new therapeutics at scale is enormous and growing.
“They’re not like pills; you want to be able to take tissue from patients, modify them in the laboratory, produce them at this clinical quality and get them back to the patient here,” explains Gallagher. “And this is one of the few places where you have the research and the clinical (expertise) — and the insurance apparatus — to operate at full market scale.”
Hazelwood has long suffered from the fallout of the LTV steel mill shutting down along its riverfront. Hazelwood Green is being designed to connect to the existing neighborhood and provide opportunities that have been missing for decades. And, of course, there is now plenty of public park space to connect Hazelwood to the river.
“We’re looking to make sure that this is a development that’s unlike any other brownfield development that’s ever happened in the city,” says Reiman.
“We were very intentional about making sure that we don’t repeat some of the mistakes that were made in the past at other sites, where there was a sense of urgency — ‘We just need to do something!’
“The difference is that we now have the benefit of having seen what works and what doesn’t, and how do you make sure that this does in fact benefit the people that are part of that community.”
Going back to the Salk vaccine for polio, Pitt has long been a leader in cutting-edge medicine. In the past five years, Pitt researchers, faculty and students have launched 87 startup companies based on university technology alone, were granted 503 U.S. patents, filed 1,768 invention disclosures and obtained $46.7 million in revenue from technology transfer activities.
“We are convinced this project is a generational opportunity to create shared prosperity at scale for the people of Southwestern Pennsylvania and to cement Pittsburgh’s status as a national and global leader in one of the most important economic sectors of our time,” says Richard A. Mellon, chairman of the Richard King Mellon Foundation Board of Trustees & Officers.
Much of the region’s innovation has happened — and is still happening — with support from the R.K. Mellon Foundation, the largest foundation in Western Pennsylvania.
They have helped expand or launch the Center for Energy, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (now UPMC Hillman Cancer Center) and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (a joint program with Carnegie Mellon University).