Is Pittsburgh an Emerging Hub for Life Sciences Tech?

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Photo Credit: Henry Dixon

Stephanie Kladakis grew up in Burgettstown, half an hour outside of Pittsburgh. But she assumed she’d have to pursue her career elsewhere. 

She moved to Boston for college, and eventually her career in biotechnology. But then she attended a conference in Pittsburgh in 2008 – and was surprised by how different it was. 

“When I left Pittsburgh in ‘92, there wasn’t biotech coming up like there is now,” she said. She realized she could pursue her career closer to home, for a cheaper cost of living. In 2010, Kladakis and her family relocated. 

Today, Kladakis is chief scientific officer of Carmell Therapeutics, a life sciences startup creating products with human platelet-enriched plasma designed to accelerate healing. She’s happy with her decision to move. “It’s very economical to run a startup in Pittsburgh. The cost of living in Boston is 30 percent higher,” she noted. 

Kladakis is just one of many professionals working in a Pittsburgh-based life sciences startup. And the number of her peers may be growing: More life sciences companies than ever are choosing Pittsburgh as their base, and the city may very well become an even larger hub for the field in the near future. 

A Growing Hub

Jessica Gibson is CEO and co-founder of Ariel Precision Medicine, a startup using AI and complex modeling to diagnose, monitor, and treat chronic diseases. She expressed surprise that Pittsburgh isn’t a more prominent life sciences hub. 

“When people think of biotech hubs, they think San Francisco or Boston or San Diego, but economically it’s incredibly expensive to get things there, and it doesn’t necessarily result in a better product,” she said. “In Pittsburgh, you can have a house and a really great food scene, and these elements bring a richness to recruiting.” 

Its institutions bolster Pittsburgh’s scientific prowess. The city’s universities, in particular Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, crank out cutting-edge scientific research. And then there’s UPMC, one of the nation’s top healthcare providers. 

These resources can be vital in a company’s founding. Doug Bernstein, for example, started medical device company PECA Labs from research that he began as an undergraduate at CMU. “The research and medical industries here are world-class, and the concentration of resources is huge compared to the population size,” he said. “Having that environment was critical to being able to build the right team to start the company.”

Companies can tap into Pittsburgh resources after founding, too. Biotech company Cernostics works with organizations across the city and state in developing its technology, which combines AI-driven image analysis with genomics and proteomics to develop novel precision medical tests. Cernostics’ flagship product is its TissueCypher, the world’s first and only test that predicts esophageal cancer. 

“We’ve had very productive collaborations,” said Mike Hoerres, CEO, citing work with UPMC, Allegheny Health Network, Highmark Health’s VITAL innovation program, and more. 

Challenges to Overcome

There are, however, downsides to being in an emerging hub. Established hubs dominate in one key area: capital. “From an early-stage point of view, it’s great,” Bernstein said. “The thing that we need here to take it from an emerging hub from with tons of potential to a true hub … is more of the late-stage resources.” 

Kladakis added that hiring can sometimes be a challenge due to the dominance of hubs like Boston and San Francisco: “For executive-level talent, you have to either be flexible or recruit aggressively.” 

But Jim Jordan, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, believes the wealth of resources in Western Pennsylvania are sufficient to overcome these challenges. “You will hear people say our problem is we don’t have enough venture capital in the region, but in life sciences, this is not an issue,” he said. 

Jordan notes that Pittsburgh-area institutions have received over $800 billion in life sciences funding from the government. “Pennsylvania as a state is ranked in the top five for getting this money,” he added. Meanwhile, the Greenhouse, which incubates life sciences startups, has also had success. Its companies have brought in over $1.5 trillion in equity from across the region and garnered over $600 million in exits.

But the most obvious challenge for life sciences professionals in 2020 is the ongoing pandemic. The crisis has disrupted not only daily workflows, but also the flow of capital. 

Fortunately, this is an area in which some life sciences startups can make an impact. Gibson said Ariel Precision Medicine joined the COVID-19 conversation due to their complex disease modeling, and the company contributed content to a SARS-COVID screening array by Thermo Fisher. 

“The past few months have seen an interesting dynamic shift in how we function as a society, and in the medical technology space, you see a lot of complementary pieces coming together.” Even a pandemic, she said, can “accelerate innovation.” 

Noelle Mateer
Contributing Writer
Noelle Mateer recently returned to her home state of Pennsylvania after six years in China, where she wrote for Wired, Vice, The Economist and more. She’s originally from State College, PA, the home of Penn State, where she’s an alum. She is now studying nonfiction writing as an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. When not writing or reading, Noelle works on her cocktail-making skills. Follow her on Twitter at @n_mateer.