The University of Pittsburgh Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship presented its 2022 Celebration of Innovation on April 21, 2022. This event recognizes the achievements of Pitt faculty and student innovators who are seeking to improve people’s lives through the commercialization of their ideas and discoveries.
“Universities are places where new knowledge is developed and disseminated. At Pitt, our faculty and students are passionate about translating new knowledge into new products and services and companies that make an impact on the world and our regional economy,” said Evan Facher, Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Facher added, “The Celebration of Innovation is our opportunity to congratulate those Pitt innovators who have achieved significant milestones on the path to commercialization and to recognize those who are helping them on their journeys.”
In addition to recognizing all faculty and students who submitted an invention disclosure, were issued a U.S. patent or had their innovation licensed, there were seven special awards presented:
Kacey Marra, Professor of Plastic Surgery and Bioengineering
The Emerging Innovator Award is presented to an early-to-mid career Pitt faculty member who has working towards achieving impact for their research through commercial translation, and a dedication to mentoring the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
Dr. Marra is a pioneering innovator around the problem of repairing large gap nerve injuries. She was inspired in this work after receiving funding from the Department of Defense for her research and meeting soldiers who had suffered significant nerve damage from combat wounds. Dr. Marra and her lab have demonstrated in animal studies the ability to restore up to 80 percent of nerve function in large-gap injuries through the application of a biodegradable tube containing a time-released protein growth factor.
During her time at the university, she has submitted 23 invention disclosures to the Innovation Institute, has been issued six patents on her discoveries and has had her innovations licensed six times, including the formation of three startup companies. This puts her in the top handful of women innovators in the university’s history.
Dr. Marra launched her own company, Nerve Repair Technologies, in 2018. She is presently raising a seed round and preparing to hire a CEO to help the company take its next steps toward an application to the Food and Drug Administration to conduct clinical trials.
Student Innovators of the Year
The Student Innovators of the Year are Utkars Jain, Adam Butchy and Michael Leasure, founders of HEARTio. These PhD students are building a digital diagnostics company that brings the power of AI to help emergency providers detect heart abnormalities more quickly, more accurately, and for a fraction of the cost. Their many accomplishments include being granted a breakthrough device status by the FDA in the Fall of 2019 and being awarded first place and $25,000 in the 2020 Liftoff Pittsburgh competition.
HEARTio was also named the “Most VC Backable Startup” at the regional Venture Capital Investment Competition in Chapel Hill, N.C., and was a finalist for the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition in 2019 and were finalists in the Pitt Big Idea Center’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition.
Most recently, they were among the inaugural recipients of an investment from the Big Idea Advantage Fund, a new investment fund established by alumni donors to assist Pitt student startups in the critical period between the launch of the initial idea and when the company begins generating revenue.
James “Chip” Hanlon Volunteer Mentor of the Year
The James “Chip” Hanlon Volunteer Mentor Award recognizes those who freely share their time and expertise working one-on-one with Pitt innovation teams to explore the commercial potential of their ideas or research.
That so many alumni and friends of the university routinely step forward to provide this critical mentorship is a testament to the generous spirit of our university and our region. These volunteers reflect the spirit of the late James “Chip” Hanlon, who was one of the original entrepreneurs in residence when the Innovation Institute was formed in late 2013.
Following a successful career in healthcare and the life sciences in sales and business development and consulting roles, John Inserra embarked on a second career as a teacher – teaching business and computer and information technology at the City Charter High School for seven years before launching his own consulting firm.
He has mentored three teams through the First Gear program with innovations ranging from developing a first-of- its-kind probiotic bacteria that can be trained to consume dietary fats for a novel approach to weight control; a program for helping children in the autism spectrum develop reasoning skills; and developing a 3-D printing system for enhancing dentistry education.
Startup of the Year
For over a decade, Dr. Eric Lagasse has been researching the regeneration of organ tissue as part of the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine. This kind of work at McGowan represents the progression of discovery from the pioneering organ transplantation work of the late Dr. Thomas Starzl.
Dr. Lagasse discovered that hepatocyte cells of the liver, when introduced into the lymph nodes, will grow functional liver tissue. In effect, the lymph nodes become bioreactors inside the body. This opens up the possibility of extending the lives of people suffering end stage liver disease, bridging them to a potential transplant, or even eliminating the need for a transplant.
Dr. Lagasse engaged with Michael Hufford, an entrepreneur in residence at the Pitt Innovation Institute, to begin exploring the commercial potential of his discovery. Mr. Hufford, a veteran life sciences executive and two-time Pitt alumnus, who had several successful startup exits under his belt, was impressed with the solid pre-clinical work that Lagasse and his co-founder Paolo Fontes, had done to lay a strong preliminary regulatory framework.
LyGenesis raised investment rounds totaling $7 million as it performed additional pre-clinical work recommended by the FDA. At the end of 2020, the company raised another $11 million investment round and announced it had been cleared to conduct a Phase 2a study of the safety, tolerability and efficacy of its first-in-class novel cell therapy for patients with end-stage liver disease.
LyGenesis is currently also in earlier stages of development of similar cell therapies for the pancreas, kidneys and thymus, and most recently it has also begun a program for the treatment of inborn errors of metabolism in infants that has demonstrated positive in vitro results.
The company last spring moved into offices in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and is poised for incredible growth, right here in Pittsburgh.
Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator
Eric Beckman, Distinguished Service Professor and the George M. Bevier Professor of Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering
The Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award is given to a Pitt faculty member who has made an impact on the world through an extraordinary commitment to innovation commercialization.
Dr. Eric Beckman has a three-decade track record as an academic entrepreneur that includes the receipt of 39 U.S. patents, with many more pending, and having several startup companies launched based on his research.
IIn 1997, the University licensed his metal solvent extraction technology to a new startup, Normex Inc. Then, in 2005, Northaven Specialty Chemicals was founded based on his monomer and polymer discoveries.
In 2006, he co-founded Cohera Medical around his discovery of a resorbable surgical adhesive. He subsequently took a brief entrepreneurial leave of absence from Pitt to serve as Cohera’s Chief Science Officer.
In addition to the companies he founded, Dr. Beckman has worked effectively with several other companies, having co-authored patents with Lyondell Chemical, Bayer Corp., PPG Inc., and BASF AG. He has also served as a scientific advisor to several startups.
Within a decade of his arrival at Pitt, he was named Chair of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. In this role he received funding from the Heinz Endowments to create a “Sustainable Entrepreneurship” course. He followed that with a three-course innovation sequence.
These courses have inspired numerous student startups at Pitt, including two recent winners of the $25,000 top prize of the Randall Family Big Idea Competition – the annual student innovation and entrepreneurship competition hosted by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Big Idea Center.
Dr. Beckman co-founded the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, with the mission of catalyzing sustainability innovation and education across the University and in the region.
And now, Dr. Beckman has taken on the global problem of plastic waste. With a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and NineSigma, in collaboration with Think Beyond Plastic, he is leading a team to develop innovations that can be marketable at scale to reduce the amount of plastics that end up being burned or buried in landfills, or make their way into the world’s waterways and oceans.
More recently, Dr. Beckman has been instrumental in establishing a new collaboration with Covestro LLC and the Mascaro Center. The Covestro Circular Economy Program represents the first graduate-level circular design academic program in the U.S. to specifically address the challenge of global waste and material use by designing sustainability into new products, from base materials and construction to packaging, delivery, and life expectancy.
Among his many awards and honors are the 2002 Presidential Green Chemistry Award, and three Carnegie Science Awards. Two were in the Environmental Category, awarded in 2004 and 2007, and one in the Advanced Materials Category, in 2012. Earlier this year, he was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.
Small Business of the Year, Revenue $1 Million-Plus
Eat’n Park Hospitality Group
Eat’n Park Hospitality Group has been family-owned since the mid-1970s and is headed by Jeff Broadhurst, a second-generation business leader who took over as CEO from his father, Jim Broadhurst, in 2008. With a business portfolio reliant on dining, the pandemic put its core revenue streams in jeopardy. But Eat’n Park was able to pivot with online ordering and take-out dining with curb-side delivery, keeping customers and employees safe while remaining a strong presence in the communities they serve.
Community is truly at the core of everything Eat’n Park does. In the last year alone it has supported more than 1,600 non-profit organizations, including more than 20 United Way agencies, as well as food banks in every community the Eat’n Park Hospitality Group does business. The company also celebrated the 43rd year of its Caring for Kids campaign to support children’s hospitals in 14 states.
Small Business of the Year, Revenue Below $1 million
Ashlé Taylor’s Collection
Ashlé Hall began her Ashlé Taylor’s Collection of natural hair products in 2020, designed especially for black hair. Her desire to start her business was borne from her work placing children in foster care as a caseworker with Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families following her bachelor’s degree from Pitt’s School of Social Work.
In addition to having her products for sale on Pitt campuses, she is continuing to expand availability with movement toward having her line in local and national stores. She has also collaborated with foster agencies across the state to include her products in their emergency bags for foster children, and has pursued opportunities to have them available for hospital patients as well. Although running a business takes a great deal of focus and effort, Ashlé remains a full-time social worker and is still involved with social welfare organizations, keeping her rooted in the positive purpose from which her business began.