What’s hot at Pitt?

I got a chance to glimpse what’s hot in entrepreneurship at Pitt when I witnessed the Coulter FoundationCathedral of Learning University of Pittsburgh presentations on Monday June 11. 7 very cool commercialization projects focused on healthcare pitched for the next stage of funding as they move forward on the commercialization pathway – from the benchtop to the bedside. Each project presented a biomedical engineering solution to an unmet clinical need – problems that you and I may face around dental decay, cancer detection, joint replacement and more.

The event brought together not only the literati of life sciences entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh but some from Washington DC and the Bay Area: Catherine Mott of BlueTree Allied Angels, Larry Miller of Innovation Works, Nehal Bhojak from Idea Foundry, Craig Markowitz and Jim Jordan, both of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, Mel Pirchesky of Eagle Ventures, Jeanne Cunicelli of Bay City Capital, Bill Westberg from Renaissance Partners, Debbie Parrish of Parrish Law, entrepreneurs Pete DeComo now of ALung , Bob Dickson and John Marous of Cardiac Assist, Dr. Dan Schulz and Heather Rosecrans of Greenleaf Health, a DC-based regulatory affairs consultancy, and more. These advisors voted on which projects should get the next level of funding – high stakes.

We were hosted by UPMC’s Center for Connected Medicine which provided a panoramic view from the 60th floor of the UPMC/USX Tower downtown. From Pitt, we had the man who put this all together, Coulter director Pratap Khanwilkar, along with Harvey Borovetz of the Swanson School of Engineering, Marc Malandro who heads the Office of Technology Management (tech transfer, or OTM), Andrew Remes and Paul Petrovich, both of the Office of Enterprise Development (OED), Steve Badylak, Deputy Director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and others. Mike Gara, Director of Research Awards for the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation presided.

These were no elevator pitches. The presenters were deeply scientific people who had received significant amounts of research funding and who are using the Coulter money to translate their research findings into products that have commercial viability. Most of the projects were years and millions of research dollars in the making. All of them had taken part in my Pitt commercialization class which is put on by the OED, “From Benchtop to Bedside.” “These projects represent some of our highest-profile future spinouts,” says OTM’s Marc Malandro, noting that Pitt generally spins out between 3 and 8 startups per year.

Because the projects are from Pitt, the IP is strong and licensing officers often stood up to answer specific questions about the strength or breadth of particular claims in a patent. The project teams comprised clinicians, researchers, and students, all working towards a common goal of getting the technology into a product to solve a market need. The problems that they outline are significant; the solutions are novel. What is also remarkable is the people involved: they are passionate about their work, committed to solving real problems and helping mankind. Some of them are so enthusiastic about commercialization that we saw them multiple times as several of them participated in more than one project!

Project summaries:

  1. MagniFeel™ Surgical Instruments, George Stetten, MD, PhD; Joel Schuman, MD; and Randy Lee, masters student. This project solves a clinical need faced by surgeons operating in the eye, for example to remove cataracts. The eye is a small space, where the surgeons have no sense of touch. They can see what they are doing but can’t feel. Complications can occur during these surgeries. So this team has come up with a novel hand-held device that they call a force magnifier that is worn by the surgeon and which amplifies feel – pushing or pulling – 10-fold. This gives the haptic sense back to the surgeon when he/she needs it the most – during surgery. Their plan calls for a razor and blade model where they will develop both a device which can be used for up to 10 procedures and disposable tips for various applications.
  2. MatriDisc™, Bryan Brown, PhD; Alejandro Almarza, PhD; and William Chung, DDS, MD. The temporomandibular joint (commonly known as TMJ) connects the jawbone to the skull. These joints play an essential role in eating, speaking, and making facial expressions. The TMJ is one of the most frequently used and complex joints in the entire body. TMJ disorders affect 10-36M people in the US. While there are various treatments for this condition, they are generally ineffective, expensive and do not treat the underlying cause of deterioration of the menisci, which is the cartilage in between the joint. Over a four-year period, with almost $3M of research funding, this team has now developed a meniscus reconstruction device. The device is built upon a scaffold that biodegrades quickly, leaving behind a natural tissue, the closest thing that you can get to an actual and natural meniscus.
  3. ReCapp™, Charles Sfeir, DDS, PhD; Prashant Kumta, PhD; Bernard Costello, MD, DMD; and Abhijit Roy, PhD. This stellar team has invented a new calcium phosphate putty that can be used in craniofacial surgery and dental implants as bone filler. These two markets represent a $10B market opportunity per year in the US. Periodontal bone regeneration for teeth is another $10B market. The ReCapp putty flows easily with a hardening point after 20minutes. The material can be injected and has other qualities that make it easy for clinicians to use. The project is leveraging $5M of DoD funding, plus additional funding from the NIH of $1.2M and another $800K from PA. The putty is unique in that it stimulates bone creation and is resorbable by the body.
  4. OsteoMag™, Charles Sfeir, DDS, PhD; Prashant Kumta, PhD; Bernard Costello, MD, DMD; and Alejandro Almarza, PhD. We’ve seen all of these team members before! They have developed a novel degradable magnesium alloy for bone fixation. Bone fractures cause more than 10M hospital visits per year and the US spends $3B per year for internal fixation devices. 40% of patients have complications, resulting in second surgeries and significant additional costs. Did you know that a bone fixation kit looks like a carpenter’s tool box with hammers, chisels, and of course plates and screws? The innovation here is biodegradable metallic fixation plates and screws which can eliminate the need for second surgeries while providing facture stability throughout healing. The magnesium alloy material is biocompatible and biodegradable so it will naturally and gradually go away.
  5. New drug for gum disease, Steve Little, PhD; Charles Sfeir, DDS, PhD; Andrew Glowacki, PhD student; and Sayuri Yoshizawa, DDS, PhD. This team is developing a new drug to treat periodontal or gum disease. There are more than 78M incidents of periodontal disease in the US. 1 in 3 adults over age 30 suffers from this, and the disease is the leading cause of tooth loss. For the last 4000 years the treatment is about the same – scaling and root planing. 20% of patients are unaffected by current treatment, and fewer than one third of patients comply with recommended procedures (flossing, etc.). The drug’s CCL22 microparticles operate via controlled release, which, in contrast to the current standard of antibiotic, both reduces and resolves the inflammation, treating the underlying cause of the disease.
  6. Nanovision diagnostics for cancer risk assessment, Yang Liu, PhD; Randy Brand, MD; Mike Lang, MBA. This team is addressing the difficulties in diagnosing cancer from pre cancerous conditions such as esophageal cancer which can start with the condition called Barrett’s esophagus (caused by acid reflux). It’s important to find esophageal cancer early because, of the 12,500 cases per year, the 5-year survival rate is 90% if detected early, but only 13% if detected late. Barrett’s affects between 5 and 21M American adults. The diagnosis for Barrett’s esophagus involves endoscopy. If during this procedure we had a better way to detect molecular changes that signify that the patient is at risk for cancer, we could get a lot closer to early cancer diagnosis, which would reduce costs and improve outcomes.
  7. Curionic™ David Schwartzman, MD; Yadong Wang, PhD; and Mike Lang, MBA. This team has developed a method to reduce cardiac scarring which occurs after a heart attack. There is an enormously high unmet clinical need with 30M people worldwide suffering from heart attacks. 70% of patients survive, however the dead heart muscle is generally replaced by a non-functioning scar. If we could reduce the scar, more of the heart would become functional. The current method of reducing scarring is fibroblast growth factor, or FGF. But to work, FGF has to be delivered directly to the damaged tissue. In practice, FGF is delivered too late to alter the scarring process. The Curionic team proposes to give FGF early in the process, within days or weeks, using controlled release so that it can work in the body over time. Their hope is to make the non-functional part of the heat functional once more.


Aethon’s TUG robot navigates its way to commercial success
What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Pittsburgh’s Renaissance
CMU innovation
Heart to Heart: saving lives with Doug Bernstein and PecaLabs