Meet LifeX™: Pitt’s new Life Sciences initiative

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On Monday, the University of Pittsburgh announced the launch of LifeX™, an initiative that will provide expertise, capital and working space to new companies addressing the most complex challenges facing modern medicine. To be located in the Strip District, the organization will be headed by its founder Dietrich Stephan, PhD, Professor and chairman of the Department of Human Genetics. Here is an extract of the interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Life Sciences website (click here for the full interview).

LifeX™’s first cohort of companies includes:

 

What is LifeX™?

[Dietrich Stephan, PhD] LifeX™ is a set of infrastructure, expertise and capital to bridge the gap between academia and solutions in the marketplace.  And those three things are absent at scale in Pittsburgh, and need to be filled.

Infrastructure:  In January we’ll be opening up the first of our buildings.  It’s a 20,000 square foot facility with wet lab and dry lab space.  It will have equipment in it that biotech companies can use, so they can build in a capital efficient way.  So they can pay for a sequencing run or a mass-spectrometer run, instead of buying a million-dollar sequencer.  And that kind of infrastructure doesn’t exist in Pittsburgh. Why is it important to have a center of biotech activities to anchor the region?  It’s important because those companies can share knowhow; they can share networks.  We can create a world-class culture as to how you build biotech companies, which is non-trivial.  And it’s a place where external stakeholders and funders can plug in.  This (combined with the weekly Bio Breakfast) suddenly anchors all of the biotech activities in Pittsburgh in one location.  And they’ll be located in the Strip District for the first building.

Expertise:  That’s the second moving piece.  In contrast to Boston or San Francisco, we don’t have scores of experienced biotechnologies executives here: board members, investors, management.  And so within this LifeX™ Labs facility will be a team of a dozen people that will have deep experience in all of the operational areas, to help these companies be successful.

And the third is capital.  So we’re raising our first venture fund – first of two.  The first is LifeX™ Seed: a seed-stage fund.  And that we hope to close in 2018 and that money will be deployed into the portfolio companies that we invite.  And that’s an important term – invite into LifeX™ Labs.

So those are the three things that we’ll be doing.  And we will start with about 12 to 15 companies that we have hand selected that we believe can truly be world-class.

Tell us about Life X, what inspired you to create LifeX™ and how long have you been working on this project?

[Dietrich Stephan, PhD] It was supposed to take one year to launch this, and I agreed to imbed it within the University and then launch it from that position.  We’ve now precisely reached the four-year anniversary.  So it took longer than expected, because the University required a culture change: change in policies and procedures, change in leadership at the highest levels, and required a change-management process to understand the benefits and the investments required to launch this.  So it took longer than expected, but we are now at that point where we are launching the external infrastructure to be able to unlock the innovation and form new companies around it that can be born and grow here in Pittsburgh; as well as, secondly, to practically partner with large companies to co-develop solutions in healthcare.

So the process in designing this customized solution for our unique asset base was as follows:

Part A was learning what was present here in Pittsburgh. Therefore, I scheduled a 100 days of listening and learning when I first got here, to deeply understand some of the innovation base: to understand what nascent infrastructure existed, to translate what types of capital were present here, what types of companies had been born here, what types of corporate strategies were here.  So basically, to deeply understand our ecosystem.

Part B was to study the solutions that had been built for other geographies (for example: in San Francisco, Boston, San Diego, Atlanta, Houston) and understand how universities catalyze those solutions.  So why do they do it, how much do they invest in building those, and how much did they benefit from those solutions?

Part C was crafting that customized solution, and we’ll talk about the moving parts in a second, but that was really done in collaboration with thought-leaders around the country.  It wasn’t just me.  It was getting together with, for example, Doug Crawford who leads QB3 in San Francisco, which (in my humble opinion) is the premier incubator and associated fund with Mission Bay Capital.

And then Part D was socializing that solution with regional stakeholders, including the University.  And launching the Brookings study, catalyzed by Rebecca Bagley (Vice Chancellor for Economic Partnerships) at the University of Pittsburgh, was the final phase of that fourth step in socializing, where we really (at the announcement of that) brought everyone together and got everyone aligned on what we needed here in Pittsburgh in biotech.