At a recent gathering called Opt412 about optimizing the potential for Pittsburgh, an engaged crowd of several hundred listened to thoughtful conversations about various aspects of the city. When former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy got to the mic, following several other speakers early in the day, he made an interesting observation.

“You know I find it ironic, in the discussion I’ve heard so far today, that we’re at the University of Pittsburgh but it’s never been mentioned,” he said. “The conversation has been about Carnegie Mellon University. Why is that?”

Good question. It’s not unusual for Carnegie Mellon to steal the spotlight, with its stellar reputation for start-ups and technology, robotics, and innovative ways.

As a regional economic engine, the University of Pittsburgh “is really a sleeping giant,” points out Murphy, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in D.C. who lives on the Northside. And while Pitt has been overshadowed at times by Carnegie Mellon University just blocks away, things could be changing.

Worth noting: Pitt gets $800 million annually in research grants, compared to CMU’s $250 million. “So this is for me the sleeping giant—the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC is the next economic driver for Pittsburgh or not,” Murphy said. “It depends, I think, on the community and leadership of this institution to make a difference.”

Pitt is making strides with its policy and culture change on campus begun last year by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher to commercialize more research. That can only benefit both universities and the region, say those involved in entrepreneurship programs.

Gallagher’s open letter to the faculty promising to remove barriers to commercialization “was a flag in the ground that shows senior-level commitment,” says Marc Malandro, founding director of Pitt’s Innovation Institute. “That was not only practically important but symbolically important.”

Marc Malandro of the University of Pittsburgh. Photo by Rob Larson

Marc Malandro of the University of Pittsburgh. Photo by Rob Larson.

Gallagher created a $1 million fund for early-stage commercialization and prototyping efforts, and promised to cultivate partnerships with faculty, students and businesses.

“If they can change the intellectual property policy and faculty participation policy in startups, it will change. Those were the two major prohibitors to Pitt being a great startup institution,” says Dave Mawhinney, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“I think Tom is right and Marc is right,” Mawhinney says. “Carnegie Mellon has a long-term reputation of being an innovation engine and startup factory—we’re known for that, not just in Pittsburgh but around the world. Pitt has not been known for that because of their stringent policies. The good news is, the leadership there is working hard to change that.”

Changing the culture of an academic institution that has emphasized risk avoidance can be slow going, but Malandro cites positive signs:

  • In January, the injury-prevention and rehab-focused technology company Impellia signed a license for PIVOT, software developed by researchers at UPMC Sports Medicine.
  • Pitt is one year into a three-year, $300,000 grant to support innovation and commercialization that came with National Science Foundation designation as an I-Corps site. In March, Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence won federal money to adapt the model for small businesses.
  • The university and UPMC teamed to provide “gap funding,” to advance projects such as a new drug needing testing, while researchers seek investors.
  • The Blast Furnace, begun last year, gives student startups access to mentors, co-working space, and curriculum on creating a business. A crowdsourcing site,, has raised $12,808. (Note: This figure was corrected from an earlier published version.)

“If we measure culture change both from the faculty side and student side, we have large numbers of people wanting to participate—and the number of people participating for the first time, dipping their toes in the water, has increased,” Malandro says.

Pitt is it. Photo by Rob Larson.

Pitt is it. Photo by Rob Larson.

With emphasis at UPMC on life sciences research, Pitt has had a public perception problem when compared to the technology and robotics developed at Carnegie Mellon, Malandro says. And Pitt’s research requiring human trials takes years to boost from the laboratory.

“From a perception standpoint, we know that Duolingo in town came from Carnegie Mellon,” Malandro says of the well-known language-learning website and app. “They do great, interesting things, but it’s a lot different than a drug for bladder cancer. Robots and things you can show on computers really have a different ‘show value.’ . . . Neither is less important than the other.”

Pitt success story Cohera, maker of tissue adhesives, was licensed 12 years ago but needed eight years and $50 million to get to Food and Drug Administration approval to sell its first product, Malandro says.

“That is a lot different than if you have an app or software to get on the market,” he says.

Another Pitt spinoff, ALung Technologies, chose to sell its artificial lung in Europe first. ALung announced in February it has secured $12 million from investors and will begin U.S. clinical trials next year. It hopes to get FDA approval by 2019.

Yet neither Murphy nor Mawhinney totally accepts the argument that life sciences work takes longer to commercialize than robotics or other technology.

“It’s a different commitment that Pitt and UPMC needed to make at the highest leadership levels, that they’ve not made (before), to create an entrepreneurial culture,” Murphy told NEXTpittsburgh. The presence of venture capital “is fragile in Pittsburgh,” he says. “We need to refocus on that. That means a high-level conversation with business, political, university and hospital leadership.”

Dave Mawhinney photo by Rob Larson

Dave Mawhinney photo by Rob Larson

CMU counts 30 to 40 startup companies each year—though CMU and Pitt each has 10 to 15 startups yearly through funded research.

CMU eases the way for its startups by granting licenses quickly, deferring royalties for a period, and allowing faculty to be active team members, Mawhinney says. Duolingo is a good example: co-founder Luis von Ahn, a computer sciences professor, incubated the idea and then raised venture capital “very fast, and grew a business here in Pittsburgh that now has 80 employees coming to work every day.”

“Robotics can take a long time” to move to market, Mawhinney says, citing 4Moms, the 2005 company that makes high-tech baby gear. Though not a CMU startup, its founders Rob Daley and Henry Thorne have ties to the university. “It took them many years, from those original ideas, to turn them into real products,” he says.

Sometimes the universities collaborate on research and commercialization, such as with the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance announced in 2015. With UPMC funding, the three institutions will work to advance data-heavy health care innovations that can result in spin-off companies.

“A lot of people like to compare us, but we have very different models,” Malandro says of CMU. “I prefer them to be my partner, rather than my competitor.”

Carnegie Mellon University photo by Rob Larson

Carnegie Mellon University photo by Rob Larson.

“We can be co-conspirators, but sibling rivalry’s there, right?” says Mawhinney. “We want this to be the brand of Carnegie Mellon, that we start companies that create great value. . . . If Pitt can approach the success of Carnegie Mellon, that will be amazing for the region.”

Malandro sees it happening.

“Reputation follows results,” he says. “People are starting to look at Pitt in this area not from a lagging standpoint but for putting together a lot of programs and really being a force in entrepreneurship and commercialization. I’m really proud of what Pitt’s accomplished.”