Pittsburgh: Health Care Innovation’s Most Intriguing New Debutant

Translational Sciences UPMC Enterprises

By: Anna Mamo, Director, Translational Sciences

When one thinks of health care innovation hotspots, usually San Francisco, Boston, and New York are the first that come to mind. Historically, Pittsburgh hasn’t been at the top of the list. As a Pittsburgh native, and someone who has spent my career in health care innovation circles within Pittsburgh, I can confidently say that I am living through a change in tide.  

I started out 10 years ago as a bench scientist working on formulation design at a small Pittsburgh biotech that was developing regenerative bone and tendon therapies. The technology was spun out of a major Pittsburgh university with modest seed funding from a local angel group. Yet, from the moment the company received their seed round, the executive group was laser-focused on raising a Series A with diminished attention on running the business. 

The technology pitch and the dog-and-pony shows became a way of life, but with so few capital outlets in the Pittsburgh region, the future looked bleak. This company is still around today, under new management and working to get market approval for a pipeline of products, but is still hard at work building the necessary infrastructure to become a successful biotech. 

Fast forward a few years and an MBA later, I decided to take a role “on the other side” at a local health care accelerator. My focus was identifying the best entrepreneurial health care innovators in the region. Once identified, I supported them with modest funding and assisted in creating business cases and pitch decks with the goal of getting them in front of angels and VCs.

Throughout this experience, I saw some really great science, but the same problems still existed — there weren’t many angels or VC groups around Pittsburgh, we didn’t have extensive networks to money outside of Pittsburgh, and we didn’t have local talent that had the experience to commercialize Pittsburgh’s fledgling technologies. We were trying to accelerate innovation, but it was a slow and arduous slog. While the money was out there, there was little confidence in the technology and companies coming out of Pittsburgh and no strong connections with the Pittsburgh investors that put the initial capital at play. 

Fast forward a few more years, and I took a role in the innovation arm of another health care company in Pittsburgh. It was a big change, going from a small health care accelerator to a large and multifaceted organization. I was well-positioned to have a more significant impact on health care innovation and was fortunate to work with some forward-thinking leaders who understood how to accelerate innovation. That role provided valuable insights and learning opportunities, and eventually led me to seek out a position at Pittsburgh’s largest integrated health system, UPMC. 

And so here I am at UPMC Enterprises. This group has positioned UPMC and Pittsburgh to finally reach the potential that has always existed, but never quite materialized – until now. In the unique ecosystem of UPMC, there are four verticals that could very easily be just that: siloed verticals. But with visionary leadership and the goal of creating life changing medicine, these verticals are connected by the glue of innovation. They include an insurance arm with over four million covered lives, a hospital system that is ever-expanding with 40 hospitals, an international division spreading best practices to owned hospitals internationally, and finally Enterprises, the venture capital arm which seeks to invest in and operationalize therapeutics and digital technologies that will create the life changing medicine of tomorrow.

We’ve recruited incredible talent who have had successful careers in the traditional biotech hotspots and are now bringing that expertise to Pittsburgh. And, we have been provided with financial, clinical, and operational resources to make big bets, which can yield meaningful returns and directly bring about life changing medicine.  

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, UPMC Enterprises has created infrastructure to develop a pipeline of next-gen therapeutics through partnerships with our local universities and collaborators outside of the Pittsburgh ecosystem. We seek out institutions and individuals who are leaders in NIH funding and prolific generators of intellectual property across broad medical and scientific specialties. These individuals are provided with strategic guidance, operational support, and financing to develop therapeutics that mature under careful and commercially focused attention. These therapeutics are eventually integrated into early-stage companies or licensed to other partners that will continue their development into the clinic.

While the innovation process is certainly a marathon and not a sprint, UPMC Enterprises has taken the steps to create infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities, as well as generate local talent to nurture and grow these next-gen therapeutics, to take them through the clinic and to the market. Over time, these actions will create a sustainable ecosystem for innovative health care technology to thrive in Pittsburgh. 

All this hard work and support is paying dividends, as pharmaceutical companies have become close partners and eventual acquirers/licensors of assets in our meticulously curated portfolio. The Enterprises Translational Sciences team has formed close networks and alliances with some of the most renowned health care VC groups in the country, and we have already progressed early-stage academic science into more than five companies formed to date.

Ten years ago, Pittsburgh may not have been on the health care innovation map. Today, all the big players, from big pharma to venture capital know about Pittsburgh…and especially UPMC.   

This blog is the first in an ongoing series where we will explore current trends and topics in the translational sciences. Be sure to check back soon for more!

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