Pitt Innovators Continue Translating Discoveries in Wake of Pandemic
July 28, 2020
Pitt innovators and the University’s regional entrepreneurial company partners had been setting another strong pace for growth when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the later part of Fiscal 2020. Although many of their companies, research programs and in-person activities were stopped in their tracks, they quickly adapted to not only adjust to the pandemic, but to deal with it head on.
Pitt spinout Epistemix Inc., which forecasts public health episodes, engaged with dozens of governmental agencies, health systems, corporations and nonprofits to help them decide how to allocate resources and protect their citizens and employees.
Another Pitt startup, Alung Technologies, applied for and received emergency use status from the FDA for its artificial lung device to treat COVID-stricken individuals as doctors worked to keep them from requiring mechanical ventilation.
Numerous Pitt faculty and students, meanwhile, creatively re-purposed their labs to adapt their work to COVID. What began as a small request for proposals for COVID-related research projects from the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, quickly ballooned into $900,000 awarded to 17 projects as researchers shifted gears to rise to the challenge of confronting the pandemic, including no fewer than three vaccine candidate projects. The raft of COVID-related activity is partially responsible for the record 394 invention disclosures submitted to the Innovation Institute in Fiscal 2020.
At the Innovation Institute’s Big Idea Center for student innovation, the pandemic struck in the middle of the annual Randall Family Big Idea Competition. Faced with postponing indefinitely, or carrying on, the students persevered and completed the competition virtually without a single team dropping out. The winner of the $25,000 grand prize was a group of three School of Medicine students who observed the large amount of biomedical waste plastics generated in hospitals, clinics and university laboratories. They decided to do something about it, and formed Polycarbin, a company that manages the biomedical waste stream to optimize recycling. After winning the Big Idea competition they entered Blast Furnace, the accelerator operated by the Innovation Institute’s Big Idea Center for student innovation and entrepreneurship.
Regional member companies that needed assistance sought out our Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, which provides consulting services to regional small businesses. This team sprang into action to help regional business owners navigate the federal support programs enacted in response to the pandemic, playing an important role in keeping companies in Southwestern PA moving in a positive direction. Over 1,900 companies were assisted by the Institute in Fiscal 2020, a nearly 45 percent increase over the previous year, driven by the demand created once the world changed.
“Pitt innovators, our region’s entrepreneurs and small businesses have a track record of developing solutions to society’s most pressing problems and challenges. Today’s faculty, students and partners are no different, and the way they have answered the call once again is inspiring,” said Evan Facher, Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and director of the Innovation Institute.
Fiscal 2020 by the numbers:
- Invention Disclosures: 394
- Patents: 88
- Transactions: 132
- UPMC agreements: 16
- Startups: 15
- Revenue: $12,375,660
Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence
- 1,900+ businesses received 1:1 consulting
- $25,600,000+ in capital formation
- 8,500+ hours of consulting
- 10,000+ jobs supported and/or created
- 52 startups launched
Some highlights from Fiscal 2020 include:
Genprex Inc. licensed a gene therapy that has the potential to treat Type I and Type 2 diabetes from the lab of George Gittes, professor of pediatrics and surgery and Chief of General and Thoracic Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. In animal studies, Dr. Gittes has used a virus vector to deliver genes to the pancreas transforming alpha cells into functional beta-like cells that can produce insulin while avoiding the immune system. Dr. Gittes recently received a National Institutes of Health grant of nearly $2.6 million to conduct further pre-clinical studies of the therapy. Genprex is hopeful the preclinical results will facilitate the approval of a clinical trial in people within the next few years.
Nerve Repair Technologies
Kacey Marra, Pitt professor of plastic surgery and bioengineering, licensed the patents she has built up over nearly two decades of research into nerve repair. Marra has developed a biodegradable nerve guide that contains a human growth factor protein designed to repair large nerve gaps, such as those endured by members of the military, or incurred in car or other machinery accidents. Marra is currently raising a seed investment round while seeking to hire a CEO for the company.
Maliha Zahid, assistant professor of developmental biology and a practicing cardiologist, identified a peptide that precisely targets heart tissue. Now a new company has been formed around her work, Vivasc Therapeutics, which has been awarded a $327,000 grant from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, to further develop the peptide as a drug delivery agent, initially focused on therapies for heart arrhythmias.
Pitt students demonstrated their resilience this year when in the middle of the annual Randall Family Big Idea Competition, they had to quickly transition the competition to a virtual format because of the COVID-19 outbreak. They didn’t miss a beat. The winner of the $25,000 grand prize was a group of three School of Medicine students who observed the large amount of biomedical waste plastics generated in hospitals, clinics and university laboratories. They decided to do something about it, and formed Polycarbin, a company that manages the biomedical waste stream to optimize recycling. After winning the Big Idea competition they entered Blast Furnace, the accelerator operated by the Innovation Institute’s Big Idea Center for student innovation and entrepreneurship, which has one of its largest cohorts ever despite being conducted virtually this summer.
Building Strong, Diverse Communities
The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence has stepped up its game when it comes to helping regional small businesses succeed, with heightened focus on minority-owned entrepreneurs. Tina Daniels had a side business of small construction projects while working full time as a nurse. In order to take her company, Concrete Rose Construction, to the next level, she enrolled in the Institute’s BizFIT Community Power to Prosper program, which serves minority populations throughout Pittsburgh. She completed the program in June 2020 and obtained financing from Bridgeway Capital’s Covid-19 Response Fund to help cover fixed expenses during the pandemic. She is now ramping up her business as construction begins to pick up.