Pittsburgh Sees Transformation into Life Sciences Hotbed

A former steel industry giant, the 21st century Pittsburgh is a global life sciences hub, transforming research, technology and startups into a thriving center for innovation.

Pittsburgh, firmly embedded in the Pharm Country hotbed, is nothing if not a city of revivals.

A former steel industry giant, the 21st century Pittsburgh is a global life sciences hub, transforming research, technology and startups into a thriving center for innovation.

Cutting-edge medical research at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) combines with globally-recognized AI and robotics assets at Carnegie Mellon University to create an advanced life sciences sector unique in the global marketplace.

One Pittsburgh biopharma executive described the juxtaposition of the “old Pittsburgh,” known for its steel industry, with even its NFL football team named as such, with the city’s new identity as a tech hotbed, in particular, in biosciences.

“We’re in a steel mill town,” Keir Loiacono, chief executive officer at BlueSphere Bio told BioSpace. “I can look from my office out of the glass buildings and see coal barges going through, right next to young scientists in lab coats. It’s the old and the new - it’s everybody working together.”

Loiacono points to a real transformation in the town known for its blue-collar workers. Biosciences are one of the beneficiaries of this transformation.

By the 1980s, the steel era came to an abrupt end. This wasn’t a long, drawn-out decline. Instead, it happened virtually overnight; 150,000 manufacturing jobs were wiped out.

Pittsburgh worked to transform its economy over the past two decades.

For the first time in 60 years, 2020 census information revealed that Allegheny County’s population has increased in recent years. What’s more, the population is becoming more diverse and the increase seen in the 25- to 34-year-old population ties directly to tech sector jobs, according to Census data.

4 Core Strengths

Pittsburgh’s vibrant innovation ecosystem of life sciences research, start-ups and established companies builds on its core strengths:

  • Premier research: $714 million in NIH research funding and 1,000 principal Investigators
  • Start-up culture: 56 active venture and angel-funded firms with venture capital investors
  • A growing portfolio of lab and office space: concentrated in the Pittsburgh Innovation District
  • Major life sciences firms: employing more than 1,000 people in the region

Another expert agreed with Loiacono, in terms of the talent pool flooding into Pittsburgh, or at the very least, easily persuaded to join the movement to create a new hotbed of biosciences in the city.

“I think the transformation of the talent ecosystem in Pittsburgh was an academically-focused ecosystem up until very recently, Matthias Kleinz, DVM, Ph.D., senior vice president, translational sciences at UPMC Enterprises told BioSpace, citing academic hard-hitters like Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC.

“Now with new financial support ($1 billion, to be precise) and exciting companies newly formed, we are really capitalizing on the opportunity to attract industry talent.”

Kleinz noted that talent traditionally drawn to the coasts now consider Pittsburgh a real player when it comes to finding a place to grow their careers.

Loiacono concurred, citing the work-life balance available in Pittsburgh, a more affordable city than other coastal hotbeds.

By way of example, he noted that since he’s come on board at BlueSphere, cultivating workplace culture is a top priority.

“When I took over as the chief business officer [at BlueSphere] before becoming the CEO, we put a lot of things in place: unlimited paid time off, full 401K match, paid health benefits for employees and their families,” he said.

It’s likely Loiacono is onto something.

In BioSpace’s own data collection and reporting, highlighting the recruitment market from the consumer and business perspective, work-life balance and work culture frequently outpaced traditional markers like salary, in terms of what employees seek in a workplace.

Pittsburgh Highlights

Beyond that, there are several hard markers to indicate Pittsburgh has earned its place among up-and-coming hotbeds:

Entrenched Bioscience and Startups Abound

  • Consistently ranked among the top five U.S. life sciences clusters, Pharm Country attracts a high volume of dollars.
    • This is not surprising given that its many financial institutions need only look outside to see innovators like Regeneron, Alexion, Pfizer, Amgen, AbbVie, Daiichi Sankyo and CSL Behring.
    • Pittsburgh, too, has seen its own share of large VC investments: fifty-six active venture and angel-funded firms with nearly $1 billion invested to date.

Venture Capital Availability

To wit, Kleinz addressed the boom in VC funds of late.

“We’ve built an extensive network of relationships with more traditional established institutional VC funds right across the country,” he said. “We invest with them, in their own companies, because that’s part of what we do, but [we focus on] relationships that we build there, we have access to them as potential syndication partners.”

Innovation District & Collaboration

  • A growing portfolio of lab and office space: concentrated in the Pittsburgh Innovation District, also in the city’s Oakland Innovation District.
  • Surrounded by prestigious universities, cutting-edge medical centers and world-renowned cultural institutions, Pittsburgh, the Oakland district, in particular, combines the critical mass of talent and amenities to support a next-generation innovation ecosystem.

“I’m sitting in a hotel today that’s equidistant between the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and Carnegie Mellon University, said Loiacono, of the Oakland district within the city. “Isn’t that crazy? From the window of my hotel room, I can see all three of those universities and then maybe a two-minute drive is the Children’s Hospital.”

  • Pittsburgh’s strengths are within its academic research, corporate headquarters, flagship technology firms and high-tech entrepreneurs - all of which are aided by a robust and economic-minded philanthropic sector and a rich ecosystem of civic institutions.

Talent Pool

“You have tremendous access to talent here as well,” Loiacono said, of recruitment and retention. “...It just takes an initiative and people who believe in it to make that kind of magic happen.”

He recalled a recent visit to Pittsburgh by a potential hire.

She said, “You should bring all of your candidates out here” to really show what the city has to offer. It’s not what you think.”

Click here look at current listings on BioSpace for Pittsburgh bioscience job openings.