The University of Pittsburgh Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship presented its 2023 Celebration of Innovation on April 25, 2023, at the Petersen Events Center Campus View Club. The event recognizes Pitt innovators and regional businesses who are creating solutions to difficult societal problems and serving unmet needs through the commercialization of their innovations.
This year’s event included an innovation showcase where nine emerging Pitt innovation teams in the early stages of commercialization were on hand to share their progress on the path from the classroom or lab to market. Several innovation support organizations from across the University and the region were also in attendance to promote their programs and resources for Pitt innovators.
“The culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt is getting stronger all the time,” said Evan Facher, University of Pittsburgh Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Associate Dean of Commercial Translation at the School of Medicine.
Facher continued, “This year’s Celebration of Innovation, in-person again for the first time since 2019, is our opportunity to bring our innovation and entrepreneurship community together to celebrate our successes, while recognizing several individuals and companies that are improving lives through their innovations.
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:
Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award
The Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award is presented to a Pitt faculty member who has achieved a sustained commitment to innovation throughout a distinguished career. William Wagner is director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine as well as Distinguished Professor of Surgery, Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Wagner’s research interests are generally in cardiovascular engineering, with projects that address medical device biocompatibility and design, hypothesis-driven biomaterials development and tissue engineering. His research has generated nearly 50 issued patents and patent filings that have resulted in significant licensing activity and the formation of three startup companies. Among his many honors and awards, he was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2016. Under his leadership, the McGowan Institute has grown into the most prolific research institutes at Pitt in terms of commercialization activity. , McGowan-affiliated faculty and students have submitted more than 1,000 invention disclosures; have been issued 220 patents; and have executed more than 200 licenses, 34 startup companies and counting.
Emerging Innovator Award
The Emerging Innovator Award is presented to an early-to-mid-career Pitt faculty who has demonstrated an extraordinary dedication to innovation commercialization. Leah Byrne is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Her research lab develops gene therapies for retinal disease. Approximately one in 3,000 people worldwide is affected by inherited retinal degenerations. Byrne’s lab engineers viral vectors with improved capabilities to deliver therapeutic genes to the retina that allow for increased precision of gene delivery and protein expression. Additionally, a main focus of the lab is developing and implementing gene editing approaches using CRISPR/Cas9, a powerful and widely applicable molecular tool used to directly rewrite the genome. In July 2022, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche partnered with Avista Therapeutics—a spinout based on Byrne’s work and co-founded with José-Alain Sahel and Paul Sieving—to further develop these therapies. She has had her technology licensed to three other startups.
Student Innovator of the Year Award
Kunal Gandhi is CEO of APEX, which empowers clinicians to improve and expand access to musculoskeletal care using 3-D motion capture technology blending computer vision artificial intelligence with neuroscience to bridge in-person and virtual care. He is a 2021 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh who leveraged the programs and resources of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Big Idea Center in each of his four years as an undergraduate to start on an entrepreneurial path after graduating. During his time as a student, he participated in nearly every pitch competition at the University and was chosen to participate in the prestigious national Rice Business Plan Competition. He also was a recipient of one of the first investments from the Big Idea Advantage Fund, a donor-sponsored fund that provides investments in promising Pitt student startups.
James “Chip” Hanlon Volunteer Mentor of the Year Award
The Pitt Innovation Institute relies heavily on volunteer mentors to assist faculty and students interested in exploring the commercial potential of their innovations to navigate the often unfamiliar terrain of innovation commercialization. Jan Berkow is the program manager for commercialization at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Military Medicine Research, where he is responsible for bringing to market U.S. Department of Defense-funded advanced medical technologies. He previously led InteloMed Inc., a Pitt startup company, as co-founder and chief technology officer. The medical device company leveraged private and federally funded military grants to develop noninvasive cardiovascular monitoring devices. For the past five years, he has served as a volunteer mentor on numerous Pitt innovation teams, helping to guide them through early commercialization exercises in customer discovery and value proposition development as part of the NSF I-Corps First Gear program, as well as assisting teams participating in the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition.
Startup of the Year
Apollo Neuroscience, Inc.
Apollo Neuroscience is a spinout from the University of Pittsburgh that began in 2018. The company has developed a wearable device and software platform technology that delivers patented vibration patterns, Vibes (TM), that are scientifically shown to increase resilience, helping you to relax, sleep well, focus, and stay energized by sending gentle sound waves to any location on the body. The Apollo Technology is based on the research of Dr. David Rabin MD, PhD and Dr. Greg Siegle PhD from the Department of Psychiatry between 2014-2018. Kathryn Fantauzzi, Dr. Rabin’s then-fiancee joined the team as an entrepreneurship mentor to help lead it to an award from the Innovation Institute’s First Gear commercialization program. The team also received a top prize in the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition as well as the second-place prize in the inaugural Performance Innovation Tournament. The team placed as a finalist in the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) in 2016 sponsored by CTSI, only to receive the grand prize at PInCh 2017. Since spinning out in 2018, Apollo Neuroscience has successfully produced and marketed the Apollo wearable, selling more than 100,000 units to date. Apollo Neuroscience continues to be headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.
Small Business of the Year Award (Less than $1 Million in Revenue)
Stories Like Me
Stories Like Me is an independently owned bookstore and community hub promoting equality, equity and inclusion. Its mission is to be the most comprehensive resource for diverse, accessible and empowered children’s literature and to share the stories of the world with a focus on generating empathy and peace through books. It recently opened a new physical bookstore at 4381 Murray Ave. in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood.
Regional Business of the Year Award ($1 Million+ in Revenue)
Founded in 1956 and headquartered in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania, 84 Lumber is the nation’s leading privately held supplier of building materials, manufactured components, and industry-leading services for single- and multifamily residences and commercial buildings. 84 Lumber is nationally certified through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council as a woman-owned and -operated business. It was named one of America’s largest private companies in 2018 by Forbes and a top workplace in the greater Pittsburgh region in 2018 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.