By Hank Walshak

Five years ago, few would expect that the University of Pittsburgh would be recognized among the top universities in the nation for licensing its technologies and launching start-ups. But Pitt’s administration, seeking to achieve broader impact for Pitt’s more than $800 million in annual research, has done just that.

Since the establishment of the Innovation Institute in 2013, a new culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is taking root at the university, which is reflected in its recently released fiscal 2018 results.

Anne Germain, associate professor of psychiatry, and Bambang Parmanto, professor of health information management at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, developed iREST, a mobile app that connects people with sleep disorders to therapists to allow real-time, assessment and treatment. iREST is one of 23 companies to spin out of the University of Pittsburgh in its recently concluded fiscal year, surpassing last year’s record of 15 by more than 50 percent. Photo by Tom Altany, University of Pittsburgh

“In its first year,” Evan Facher, Director, pointed out, “the Pitt Innovation Institute commercialized six companies that originated from the scientific research of the University of Pittsburgh. In the recently completed fiscal year, the institute will have raised that initial number 400 percent to 23 companies.”

In addition to the record for startups, Pitt also established new records for inventions disclosed by faculty and students (363 – or nearly one per day) and licenses and options (162).

Facher emphasized that this rapid growth places Pitt within the top 10 universities in the United States that are commercializing companies, alongside the likes of the University of California, Stanford and MIT.

“We’ve been able to come this far this fast,” Facher emphasized, “because of the groundbreaking research happening at Pitt and because the most senior individuals at the University support our efforts.” 

Pitt’s commercialization efforts benefit greater Pittsburgh because the companies it commercializes tend to stay in the area, positively impacting the region’s economic ecosystem. Facher said that despite the recent progress, there is still room for growth in Pitt’s ecosystem.

“We will have an even greater impact as we more deeply engage the 5,000 faculty members here at the University of Pittsburgh, and increase interaction with investors, strategic partners and create appropriate ways to unlock the value of their research for societal benefit,” he said.

Facher, who earned a doctorate degree from Pitt in human genetics and holds an MBA from Case Western Reserve University, knows whereof he speaks. He came to the University of Pittsburgh and the Innovation Institute four-and-a-half years ago after 15 years filling a variety of managerial roles with large and small companies.

He pointed out that engaging more faculty and students in commercialization activity is a strategic goal of the Innovation Institute, as it works to develop a customer-centric mentality.

Apropos of this, consider the Big Idea Center, recently created by the Innovation Institute as a forward-looking example of this innovative approach to student life, development and education. The Big Idea Center became a reality on campus thanks to a signature gift of             $2 million from Pitt alumnus and trustee Bob Randall and family.

According to Facher, the Big Idea Center will enhance educational programs, competitions, and resources offered to Pitt students through the Innovation Institute. At the same time, the center will strengthen ties to schools, clubs and other organizations on campus, and in the regional innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“There is a growing hunger for innovation and entrepreneurship among Pitt students. Whether this is an undergraduate developing a world-changing idea in a dorm room, or a graduate student commercializing her laboratory-based research, the Innovation Institution can help them reach their goals,” Fascher emphasized. “We look forward to providing even more students with the skills and confidence to bring their ideas to life through the Big Idea Center.”

The Big Idea Center will focus on five areas, including:

Education: Among other things, the center will offer extracurricular programming that encourages participation in cross-disciplinary teams for students of all levels from across the university.

Events and Competitions: The center will host events year-round, including regional and national speaker visits, interaction with the regional startup community, and competitions like the Randall Family Big Idea Competition.

Funding: Financial support for student projects through the Big Idea Center will include assistance with market research, prototyping and testing to encourage students to take their ideas to the next level.

Opportunity Acceleration: The center’s space is designed to foster innovation, and will be home to programs helping to accelerate advancement of student ideas from concept to new company formation.

Mentorship: The Big Idea Center will serve as the hub for connecting students through the existing program and for connecting them to volunteer mentors from the community and entrepreneurs in residence.

On balance, the Innovation Institute is about more than commercializing companies. The institute will succeed in the next five to 10 years by broadly innovating education, mentoring and funding programs, and evolving its structure and design to more effectively accelerate the growing culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt.