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.