Pitt Research update: Door to partnering with Pitt wide open

Pitt Research recently published its first newsletter for the University community. It included a variety of articles, including a perspective on the past year from Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar.

Joe HavrillaThe newsletter also includes a Q&A with Joe Havrilla, who came to the University in March 2020 as associate vice chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and has launched the Office of Office of Industry and Economic Partnerships (OIEP). Havrilla joined Pitt after a 37-year career in the healthcare industry, most recently as senior vice president and blobal head of business development and licensing for Bayer Pharmaceuticals.

OIEP, which is housed within the Pitt Research Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, is designed to be a one-stop shop for industry and venture capital firms seeking to partner with Pitt.

Pitt is already ranked 18th among U.S. universities for innovation impact by the George W. Bush Institute, and Havrilla says his aim is to improve that ranking and the resulting societal impact. The Q&A is reprinted from the Pitt Research newsletter.

Q: What does it mean to partner with Pitt?

Havrilla: Historically, universities haven’t been ideally positioned to get technology to market where it can have the greatest impact, and in the case of health sciences, benefit the most patients. External collaborations can enable the creation of start-ups, advance the science and create a pathway from lab to market. And partnering with Pitt provides external partners access to world class research, researchers, and facilities. The OIEP aligns Pitt's vast research capabilities and world-class expertise with the needs of industry, creating mutually beneficial partnerships that advance important science, solve industry-relevant R&D challenges, and provide channels for the commercialization of new technologies of high value and societal impact. Our goal is to connect scientists in our academic setting with colleague scientists in industry.

Q: What success have we already had from such relationships?

Havrilla:  In 2020, Pitt generated $30 million in industry-sponsored research, covering 611 projects with 375 external partners. To support this, we have helped negotiate numerous Master Research Agreements, broadened our relationships with key partners, and have executed industry Requests for Proposals (RFPs) resulting in funding and advancement of key projects. We’ve also expanded our relationships with venture capital firms, exposing them to the breadth of Pitt technologies and start-up opportunities.

More recently, through the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we’ve established an Advisory Board for the Chancellor’s Gap Fund, which is comprised of external venture capital and industry partners. The interest shown by these scientific leaders volunteering their time to advise us on our efforts validates our assumptions about the potential for Pitt technology and these partnerships.

Q: What’s the upside of partnering? What’s the downside?

Havrilla: The response by our faculty for Requests for Proposals alone shows the strong latent need and desire to create mutually effective partnerships. Working with industry provides access to industry experts and “real world” challenges and projects. Industry is open to sharing their proprietary molecules, drug libraries and related materials for scientific research activities, or as part of a research collaboration. Industry can also provide funding in terms of project sponsorship, gifts and grants.

On the other hand, working with external partners has challenges, including intellectual property (IP) rights, potential restrictions on publication where partner confidential information is included, and structuring the project to meet the partner’s desired outcomes. Our office works with faculty and the external partner to ensure that the needs and expectations of both parties are understood and addressed, thereby mitigating downstream conflicts. 

Q: Pittsburgh is a great place for industry/university partnerships. Why is that?

Havrilla: Pittsburgh has world-class research in the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. We have a vibrant growing innovation ecosystem with a supporting economic development infrastructure. Local foundations like the Hillman and RK Mellon foundations have made aggressive investments and commitments to developing the region and positioning it for future growth. The UPMC health system, centered in Pittsburgh, is one of the largest in the country, providing advanced clinical research. Pittsburgh has all the elements necessary to support industry-university partnerships, including lab and office space, science and technology graduates, local investment and leading research.

Q: What should we be on the lookout for?

Havrilla: The repositioned OIEP has been operating for just under one year. As we move forward and gain momentum, we’ll see increased partnership and partnership opportunity announcements. External, non-government investment in Pitt research will increase along with technology licensing and start-up activity. These activities will provide growth opportunities for Pitt faculty and graduates, and for the region.