Celebration of Innovation recognizes those making an impact

The Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s 2023 Celebration of Innovation — on April 25, at the Petersen Events Center’s Campus View Club — recognizes Pitt innovators and regional businesses who are creating solutions to difficult societal problems and serving unmet needs through the commercialization of their innovations.

This event included seven special awards; an innovation showcase where nine emerging Pitt innovation teams in the early stages of commercialization were on hand to share their progress on the path from the classroom or lab to market; and recognition of all faculty and students who submitted an invention disclosure, were issued a U.S. patent or had their innovation licensed.

“The culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt is getting stronger all the time,” said Evan Facher, vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and associate dean of commercial translation at the School of Medicine. “This year’s Celebration of Innovation, in-person again for the first time since 2019, is our opportunity to bring our innovation and entrepreneurship community together to celebrate our successes, while recognizing several individuals and companies that are improving lives through their innovations.

The Innovation Award winners are:

Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award: William Wagner, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine as well as distinguished professor of surgery, chemical engineering and bioengineering

The Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award is presented to a Pitt faculty member who has achieved a sustained commitment to innovation throughout a distinguished career. Wagner’s research interests are generally in cardiovascular engineering, with projects that address medical device biocompatibility and design, hypothesis-driven biomaterials development and tissue engineering. His research has generated nearly 50 issued patents and patent filings that have resulted in significant licensing activity and the formation of three startup companies. Under his leadership, the McGowan Institute has grown into the most prolific research institutes at Pitt in terms of commercialization activity.

Emerging Innovator Award: Leah Byrne, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine

The Emerging Innovator Award is presented to an early-to-mid-career Pitt faculty who has demonstrated an extraordinary dedication to innovation commercialization. Byrne’s research lab develops gene therapies for retinal disease. Byrne’s lab engineers viral vectors with improved capabilities to deliver therapeutic genes to the retina that allow for increased precision of gene delivery and protein expression. In July 2022, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche partnered with Avista Therapeutics—a spinout based on Byrne’s work and co-founded with José-Alain Sahel and Paul Sieving—to further develop these therapies.

Student Innovator of the Year Award: Kunal Gandhi, a 2021 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh

Gandhi is CEO of APEX, which empowers clinicians to improve and expand access to musculoskeletal care using 3-D motion capture technology blending computer vision artificial intelligence with neuroscience to bridge in-person and virtual care. He leveraged the programs and resources of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Big Idea Center in each of his four years as an undergraduate to start on an entrepreneurial path after graduating.

James “Chip” Hanlon Volunteer Mentor of the Year Award: Jan Berkow, program manager for commercialization at the Pitt Center for Military Medicine Research

The Pitt Innovation Institute relies heavily on volunteer mentors to assist faculty and students interested in exploring the commercial potential of their innovations to navigate the often unfamiliar terrain of innovation commercialization. Berkow is responsible for bringing to market U.S. Department of Defense-funded advanced medical technologies. He previously led InteloMed Inc., a Pitt startup company, as co-founder and chief technology officer. For the past five years, he has served as a volunteer mentor on numerous Pitt innovation teams, helping to guide them through early commercialization exercises in customer discovery and value proposition development as part of the NSF I-Corps First Gear program, as well as assisting teams participating in the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition.

Startup of the Year: Apollo Neuroscience, Inc.

Apollo Neuroscience is a spinout from the University of Pittsburgh that began in 2018. The company has developed a wearable device and software platform technology that delivers patented vibration patterns, Vibes, that are scientifically shown to increase resilience, helping you to relax, sleep well, focus and stay energized by sending gentle sound waves to any location on the body. The Apollo Technology is based on the research of David Rabin and Greg Siegle from the Department of Psychiatry between 2014-2018. Kathryn Fantauzzi joined the team as an entrepreneurship mentor to help lead it to an award from the Innovation Institute’s First Gear commercialization program. The team also received a top prize in the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition as well as the second-place prize in the inaugural Performance Innovation Tournament.  The team placed as a finalist in the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) in 2016 sponsored by CTSI, only to receive the grand prize at PInCh 2017.  Since spinning out in 2018, Apollo Neuroscience has successfully produced and marketed the Apollo wearable, selling more than 100,000 units to date. Apollo Neuroscience continues to be headquartered in Pittsburgh.

Small Business of the Year Award (Less than $1 million in revenue): Stories Like Me

Stories Like Me is an independently owned bookstore and community hub promoting equality, equity and inclusion. Its mission is to be the most comprehensive resource for diverse, accessible and empowered children’s literature and to share the stories of the world with a focus on generating empathy and peace through books. It recently opened a new physical bookstore at 4381 Murray Ave. in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood.

Regional Business of the Year Award ($1 million+ in revenue): 84 Lumber

Founded in 1956 and headquartered in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania, 84 Lumber is the nation’s leading privately held supplier of building materials, manufactured components, and industry-leading services for single- and multifamily residences and commercial buildings. 84 Lumber is nationally certified through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council as a woman-owned and -operated business. It was named one of America’s largest private companies in 2018 by Forbes and a top workplace in the greater Pittsburgh region in 2018 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.