The life sciences in Pittsburgh: the bright present that’s building the future

Life sciences hubs – from the Bay Area in CA to Cambridge, MA – obtained their status of global excellence by intentionally building into their cities and regions elements that encourage the industry to grow. For an emerging life sciences hub like Pittsburgh, those same elements are in development now, with many on the cusp of opening and coming online. For a place like Pittsburgh, which has a track record of intentionally building industry clusters, the future looks particularly bright in the life sciences.

In 2017 the Brookings Institute released the report, “Capturing the next economy:  Pittsburgh’s rise as a global innovation center”.  This 18-month study determined the life sciences could and should play a key role in shaping the future growth of the Pittsburgh region. While this came as a surprise to some, for those of us at Life Sciences PA it felt more like validation of what we had been saying for quite some time.

Innovation hubs in the life sciences around the globe have typically developed around large academic institutions like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, or large medical centers like UPMC. The fact a hub in Pittsburgh was centered around all three institutions has made it undeniable that something transformative is taking place in the city. In addition to this naturally occurring “innovation district,” Pittsburgh also receives nearly three times the national average of academic R&D funding. The city is really primed for impact. 

While the innovation cluster was organically forming in Pittsburgh, there were some key areas that have more recently received much-needed attention: a lack of laboratory space in Oakland, the innovation district, and a fundamental absence of startup strength. 

There are major properties now being built and/or converted into commercial lab and innovation space by Life Sciences PA members Wexford Science + Technology, Colliers and Burns Scalo. These three companies are changing the landscape in Pittsburgh and have helped to build critical infrastructure the city needs to continue growing its life science cluster.

Impressive incubators and startup support have also gained traction in the past few years. Innovation Works, the largest seed stage investor in the Pittsburgh region, partnered with Allegheny Health Network in 2020 to launch AlphaLab Health, a life sciences and healthcare accelerator. LifeX, the startup accelerator out of the University of Pittsburgh, recently partnered with the Pittsburgh Life Science Greenhouse to create programs for startups in the region. 

In addition to all of this, perhaps one of the most welcome elements of this evolving ecosystem has been the support that we’re now seeing from Pittsburgh’s foundation community. Just this year, the RK Mellon Foundation and CMU announced a record-breaking $150 million partnership. The Hillman Foundation and RK Mellon Foundation are putting financial support behind the efforts of LifeX, and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation has announced its support of innovation in healthcare and healthcare safety. Most recently, the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Alliance has been established to oversee the strategic direction of the life sciences corridor in Pittsburgh and to develop and promote the region’s life sciences strategy. This is precisely the type of central coordinating body that has led to great success in the Bay Area and Cambridge. Great move. 

It’s time the world takes notice of what is happening in Pittsburgh. Every major life science cluster from San Francisco to Cambridge to Philadelphia grew in the way we’re seeing Pittsburgh grow now. It’s inspiring to see what the city is on the dawn of creating, and with entities like the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and UPMC, the future is looking very bright indeed.