Pittsburgh Biotech Firms Partner To Create Incubator, Bolster The Industry

Jun 13, 2017

A deal that is expected to grow the region’s biotech sector has been inked by established biotech firm Helomics and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.

“We did a survey… and one of the things we recognized is the scientific community [in Pittsburgh] is missing an incubator where diagnostic people, pharmaceutical people and biotech people can get together,” Pittsburgh Life Science Greenhouse President and CEO James Jordan said.

The company and the nonprofit will work together to create that incubator using space in the new Helomics headquarters in Lawrenceville.

“We would have the technical piece, the scientific component, along with the physical space that they could use really at a reduced cost,” Helomics Vice President- Scientific Strategy Technology and Research Donald Very said.  “The whole idea is for them to take the seed money that they have and allow them to advance their technology or their company as far as they can without having to spend a lot of the initial seed money on capital equipment and lab infrastructure and things like that.”

Jordan says it’s not enough to just get the scientists together in an incubator-type setting. He said they also often have to educate university professors about life outside the lab.

“They come out and think the technology is everything. Well, it’s really about the reimbursement; it’s really about the regulatory matters,” Jordan said.  “We need them to be able to work with more sophisticated people and Helomics has commercialization activities going on daily and they’re interacting with the market and they’re the best to start with that.”

Helomics recently expanded its business from just providing lab services to its customers to also offering consulting on how to improve developing technologies.

The company could interact with each of the startups differently.

“Some of them may just need physical lab space that they can use.  Some of them may need advice either on the commercial side or the scientific technical side to get it from, ‘hey this is a great idea or a great assay to a product,’” Very said.

The financial arrangements could also look very different for each participant.

“Maybe they just pay us on a rent basis or it might be that we would put what we call sweat equity into it where we work side by side along with them to help them,” Very said. “For certain projects that we really like we might want to take an equity position.”

The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse will continue to choose which start ups it wants to support. Helomics also has the option to invite companies into the space.

“And so I guess there could be a point in time where it fills up,” Jordan said.

“That would be a great problem to have,” Very said.  “I expect that it will fill up very quickly and that soon we will be looking for additional space to expand into.”

There are ways to encourage successful startups to leave the incubator when they begin to grow both in size and in budget. The greenhouse has done that with the incubator space it has managed in the past.

Jordan and Very agree the focus is to build a “critical mass of intellect” in the space.

“It’s much harder to do science if you are working in isolation,” Very said.  “You know, one or two people in a lab without the access to the other scientists that can provide input, criticism and cross-fertilize ideas.  Just in conversations at lunch or around the coffee machine.  That, I think, is the critical scientific value of the incubator.”

The goal is to have the first startups moving into the space within a month.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • The City of Pittsburgh, along with several authorities, has launched a second round of its PGH Lab program. The program allows startup companies to test their products for up to four months while working with city and authority staff.  Five companies were chosen from 30 applications. Among the technologies to be tested is a robot that can sort recyclables from trash, and a set of hardware and software that can create 3D digital models by scanning a site while walking, driving or flying through it.
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is getting a $140 million donation from an unnamed former student. Officials at the school say the gift is unrestricted, meaning it can be used in any way the school wants. MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif says donations of this type are "the vital fuel that helps big ideas take off."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.