Swanson School’s Federspiel and others honored at Celebration of Innovation

Pitt’s Innovation Institute continued its tradition of honoring Pitt faculty, staff and students at its 2020-21 Celebration of Innovation on April 22 and debuted several new awards.

The Celebration of Innovation recognizes the accomplishments of Pitt innovators who have achieved important milestones for the commercialization of their work to make an impact on the world and on people’s lives. These include being issued a patent, or having their technology or creation licensed or copyrighted, including the formation of startup companies based on their intellectual property.

“The recipients of this year’s special awards are advancing potential cures for diabetes, a fatal pediatric genetic disease, and therapeutics for fibrotic diseases,” said Evan Facher, vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and director of the Innovation Institute. “They have developed an artificial lung device that has been used to help COVID-19 patients that’s on the brink of FDA approval and are creating a system to reduce the waste plastic stream in the healthcare and laboratory spaces.”

The last Celebration of Innovation was held in November 2019. Pitt innovators and the University’s regional entrepreneurial company partners had been setting another strong pace for growth when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year. Most quickly adapted to not only adjust to the pandemic but to deal with it head-on.

At the online ceremony, there were eight awards presented for outstanding achievements in innovation and entrepreneurship. The new awards are Startup of the Year, License of the Year and Small Business of the Year.

Marlin Mickle Outstanding Innovator Award: William Federspiel, professor in the Department of Bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, and director of the Medical Devices Laboratory at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The Outstanding Innovator Award recognizes Pitt faculty who have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to achieving impact through the commercialization of their research. It is named in honor of the late Marlin Mickle, who was the most prolific inventor in the history of the University and a pioneer of radio frequency identification technology.

In his time at Pitt, William Federspiel has submitted 32 invention disclosures and has been issued 14 patents, with many more pending. He has had his work licensed 11 times. Not long after arriving at Pitt, Federspiel licensed his work on an artificial lung device to form Alung Technologies, where serves as the head of the company’s scientific advisory board.

This time last year, Alung was in multiple clinical trials for its Hemolung Respiratory Assist System to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That work was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic. The company recognized a role for the device in treating critically ill COVID-19 patients and applied for emergency use permission from the FDA, which it quickly received. Since then, more than 75 patients have used the device successfully.

Federspiel also is working on other innovations:

  • Membrane and particle-based blood purification devices for use in critical care settings.

  • Artificial lung platforms combining fiber technology with cellular and biomolecular components to create biohybrid artificial lung tissue; and

  • Improved transport models for drug delivery from nanoparticles and microparticles.

Federspiel is a Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. In 2019 he was elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

Emerging Innovator Award: Cecelia Yates, associate professor in the School of Nursing and program co-director for the Clinical and Translational Science Fellowship

Cecelia Yates has developed the first cellular and molecular laboratory fully equipped for basic, translational and clinical research located within the School of Nursing. Her tissue repair laboratory investigates the chronic and fibrotic responses to injury.

Yates has submitted 11 invention disclosures to the Innovation Institute that have thus far resulted in six U.S. patents and three licenses of her work, including the formation of a startup company four years ago, Ocugenix, aimed at treating macular degeneration.

Most recently, Yates has received a $250,000 grant from CSL Behring, a global biotech company focused on rare diseases, to further develop peptides that imitate the action of proteins that target the underlying causes of fibrosis.

This award recognizes an early-to-mid-career Pitt faculty member who has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to innovation commercialization.

License of the Year Award: George Gittes/Genprex Inc., chair and professor of Pediatric Surgery and director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation Institute for Pediatric Research at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

George Gittes’ research has demonstrated that by delivering select genes to the pancreas via virus vector, the genes will express proteins that transform alpha cells in the pancreas, which do not produce insulin, into functional insulin-producing beta cells. These cells are distinct enough from beta cells to avoid the attention of the immune system.

Last July, Gittes was awarded a grant of $2.59 million from the National Institutes of Health to build upon his groundbreaking gene therapy work toward finding a cure for diabetes.

Genprex, based in Austin, Texas, was founded in 2009 as an immunogene cancer therapy company. The company raised $40 million in capital last year in preparation for two cancer clinical trials it expects to begin this year. The company recognized in Gittes’ research the opportunity to expand its gene therapy platform to diabetes.

Startup of the Year Award: Maria Escolar/Forge Biologics, associate professor of Pediatrics

Maria Escolar is among the world’s leading authorities on Krabbe Disease, a rare congenital disease resulting from a missing gene for the production of myelin, the protective coating on nerve cells.

Standard treatment and care can only briefly extend the lives of children stricken with this awful disease, so Escolar has also been working tirelessly for many years on a gene therapy that can halt its progress. Last year, the founders of Forge Biologics licensed Escolar’s discoveries as the first in what it plans to be several gene therapies for rare diseases. Escolar serves as the company’s chief medical officer.

In February, Forge was granted fast track, orphan drug and rare pediatric disease designations from the FDA for its gene therapy for Krabbe. It is now actively recruiting patients for its clinical trial through UPMC, bringing this potentially life-saving therapy one big step closer to reality.

Student Innovators of the Year: James O’Brien and Noah Pyles

James O’Brien and Noah Pyles are both students from the Pitt School of Medicine who have taken a pause in their studies to pursue entrepreneurship.

Two years ago, they noticed the inefficient handling of medical and scientific waste plastic and began to think about potential solutions. They launched a company, Polycarbin, that is developing a software-enabled platform that helps transform plastic waste into sustainable products. They entered the Randall Family Big Idea Competition last year, which is the region’s largest student innovation competition, and came away with the $25,000 top prize.

From there they participated in the Big Idea Center’s Blast Furnace accelerator program and the Forge incubator program. Last fall, they were selected as one of eight finalists to compete in the Cleantech Open competition. They have recently raised $2 million to help launch their platform.

James “Chip” Hanlon Volunteer Mentor Award: Richard “Dick” Heilman, veteran executive in the glass and fiberglass industries

Volunteer mentors are critical to the commercial translation of Pitt-developed innovations. They assist faculty and students in the often-unfamiliar terrain of entrepreneurship.

Dick Heilman, a graduate of Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business, has held numerous senior national and international roles at PPG Industries, in addition to his own consulting practice. He has mentored teams through six cohorts of the Innovation Institute’s First Gear commercialization program, in addition to two participants in the Kuzneski Innovation Cup student innovation competition, including the 2019 winning team.

The volunteer mentor award is named in honor of James “Chip” Hanlon, who was one the first entrepreneurs in residence when the Innovation Institute first launched in 2013.

Small Business of the Year Award ($1 million+): Coe Distributing / J.D. and Melanie Ewing

COE Distributing is a third-generation family-owned furniture distribution business based in Smock, Pa. At age 19, J.D. Ewing took over that side of the family business and has grown COE Distributing from a $200,000 enterprise to now nearly 500 times that in the 30 years since, with the help of his wife, Melanie. Even with office occupancy dropping 85 percent in 2020, COE Distributing saw its revenues rise. COE also committed to keeping all employees and maintaining their wages, as well as approved additional paid time off for any employee whose family was impacted by the virus.

Small Business of the Year (less than $1 million): Blanket & Board / Tierra Thorne and Colleen Peddycord

Blanket & Board, founded in 2020, is an event planning company co-owned by social workers Tierra Thorne and Colleen Peddycord. They provide pop-up, luxury picnics set in Pittsburgh’s public parks as well as offering private event catering.

As mental health counselors at UPMC Western Psych, they work to ensure their picnics promote self-care, connection with others and nature, and building community. They also use the entrepreneurial platform they’ve created to uplift at-risk populations in the community by highlighting local nonprofits and donating a portion of their proceeds to programs that support equality and human rights.

They won the Invest In Her’s 2020 Pitch Competition, established strategic partnerships with leading local organizations like Henne Jewelers and Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, and offered socially distanced public events to highlight their services to the community.