Pitt success story Cohera, maker of tissue adhesives, was licensed 12 years ago but needed eight years and $50 million to get to Food and Drug Administration approval to sell its first product, Malandro says.
“That is a lot different than if you have an app or software to get on the market,” he says.
Another Pitt spinoff, ALung Technologies, chose to sell its artificial lung in Europe first. ALung announced in February it has secured $12 million from investors and will begin U.S. clinical trials next year. It hopes to get FDA approval by 2019.
Yet neither Murphy nor Mawhinney totally accepts the argument that life sciences work takes longer to commercialize than robotics or other technology.
“It’s a different commitment that Pitt and UPMC needed to make at the highest leadership levels, that they’ve not made (before), to create an entrepreneurial culture,” Murphy told NEXTpittsburgh. The presence of venture capital “is fragile in Pittsburgh,” he says. “We need to refocus on that. That means a high-level conversation with business, political, university and hospital leadership.”
CMU counts 30 to 40 startup companies each year—though CMU and Pitt each has 10 to 15 startups yearly through funded research.
CMU eases the way for its startups by granting licenses quickly, deferring royalties for a period, and allowing faculty to be active team members, Mawhinney says. Duolingo is a good example: co-founder Luis von Ahn, a computer sciences professor, incubated the idea and then raised venture capital “very fast, and grew a business here in Pittsburgh that now has 80 employees coming to work every day.”
“Robotics can take a long time” to move to market, Mawhinney says, citing 4Moms, the 2005 company that makes high-tech baby gear. Though not a CMU startup, its founders Rob Daley and Henry Thorne have ties to the university. “It took them many years, from those original ideas, to turn them into real products,” he says.
Sometimes the universities collaborate on research and commercialization, such as with the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance announced in 2015. With UPMC funding, the three institutions will work to advance data-heavy health care innovations that can result in spin-off companies.
“A lot of people like to compare us, but we have very different models,” Malandro says of CMU. “I prefer them to be my partner, rather than my competitor.”
“We can be co-conspirators, but sibling rivalry’s there, right?” says Mawhinney. “We want this to be the brand of Carnegie Mellon, that we start companies that create great value. . . . If Pitt can approach the success of Carnegie Mellon, that will be amazing for the region.”
Malandro sees it happening.
“Reputation follows results,” he says. “People are starting to look at Pitt in this area not from a lagging standpoint but for putting together a lot of programs and really being a force in entrepreneurship and commercialization. I’m really proud of what Pitt’s accomplished.”