Making an Impact Through Commercialization

February 18, 2015

Dear University Community,

As a major public research university we strive to make a positive impact through knowledge. One important aspect of that impact is our capacity to move research results from the laboratory or clinic into new or improved products and services in the marketplace. Our success in translating research results into practice not only accelerates the beneficial aspects of our research, but also has a major positive impact on our region’s economy. This is an important role for a university in today’s knowledge-driven economy. Since I arrived here at the University of Pittsburgh, many of you have shared with me your sense that this is one area in which we have an opportunity to do better. We are rightfully proud of our growing leadership at the frontiers of research, but we should also play a leading role in translating that knowledge into use.

There are three major reasons why this is so important to Pitt:

  • Commercialization of research results is a key form of research impact. Research seeks  to advance human knowledge of the world around us, and we rightly celebrate achievements that make new discoveries and advance our understanding. However, knowledge can also be translated into new products and services that benefit our society. Our potential to impact this more practical product of research should be no less than our ability to have a scholarly impact.
  • Commercialization creates economic growth and opportunity. Since the end of World War II, the greatest source of economic growth for the United States has been from the investments we have made in research and development. One of the major public benefits provided by Pitt is the source of new ideas, new intellectual property, and talent that continue to reshape Western Pennsylvania.
  • The business sector is a key participant in research and development. In fact, in the United States, while the majority of research is conducted at universities, approximately two-thirds of all research and development funding is provided by the private sector, primarily by research-intensive companies. Therefore, we need to work with business both for research support, and for collaboration in research activities.

To maximize our impact—to make a difference—we need to embrace this role and strengthen it. In short, innovation, entrepreneurship, and partnership have to be as key to Pitt’s culture as is our commitment to teaching, research excellence, and community service. From my discussions with you over the past several months, I know that the Pitt community is ready. We will begin by focusing on these major areas:

  • Reduce internal barriers to University involvement with businesses by focusing on more effective risk management, not risk avoidance. The University is a public, non-profit institution and is not a business. It is vital that our distinctive mission and role are not lost when we partner with other organizations, and especially with businesses. However, these risks can’t be a barrier or an excuse not to partner. We simply have to manage them more effectively.
  • Support and celebrate faculty and student efforts in this area. The ingenuity and creativity essential to innovation lie with our faculty, our students, and our staff. We must support, nurture, and value these types of efforts alongside other activities such as scholarship, teaching, and research.
  • Expand our partnership “toolkit." Working at the intersection of basic research and applied commercial work will require us to be effective at forming and managing effective partnerships with other institutions, with businesses and employers, and with the community. We must excel at partnerships and be the “go to” university.
  • We must provide leadership in the community to support a vibrant economic “ecosystem." Success in commercialization of research does not depend only on the quality of the idea or the size of the potential market. It requires a complex system of support that includes investment capital, business know-how, suppliers, customers, and employees. Pitt must play a leadership role in bolstering this support system in our region.

Pitt has already taken steps to support its entrepreneurs and researchers. With the launch of the Innovation Institute over a year ago, with new programs to encourage innovation by our faculty and students, and with new research partnerships announced with pleasing regularity, we are already moving toward an expanded role in this area. To accelerate this effort, several more steps are underway right now, including:

  • We are establishing a new, expanded commercialization partnership between Pitt and UPMC to provide a broad set of pre-negotiated terms and conditions for commercializing research results funded by UPMC seed funding.
  • The Provost and General Counsel are convening an ad hoc committee to review and recommend changes to our policies, practices, and procedures to enhance the University’s ability to advance the public good through the dissemination of University-generated technology, to streamline our procedures, and to ensure that our policies and practices are aligned with our goals.
  • The Provost is asking each school and campus to consider the appropriateness of recognizing and rewarding translational research within the context of their academic rewards system, including for promotion and tenure.
  • We are establishing an internal fund, initially with $1 million, to provide grants up to $50,000 to support very early-stage commercialization and prototyping efforts across the University.
  • We are expanding our investment in the PittVentures program to provide innovators with the support of entrepreneurs-in-residence and talented students from across our campus.
  • We are creating a new leadership position, Vice Chancellor for Economic Engagement, to support our community efforts to drive and shape the economic “ecosystem” in our region.

All of these steps are in support of our core mission—making the world better through knowledge. Whether we create that impact through our students, our scholarship, or our research, we all contribute to improving lives and the society around us. When a great university like the University of Pittsburgh tackles a great challenge, the full impact can only be realized through collaboration, partnership, and engagement. I hope you can sense my enthusiasm as we all move ahead in this era of expanded partnerships. We are poised to not just maintain the remarkable record of achievement here at Pitt, but to leverage that success and have an even greater impact. 

Sincerely,

Patrick D. Gallagher