Steve Wray and Christian Manders Offer Keys to Elevate Pittsburgh as an Innovation Hub

Pictured: Left, Carnegie Mellon University Block Center for Technology and Society Executive Director Steve Wray, MS, and right, Promethean Life Sciences Executive Director Christian Manders.

Jewish Healthcare Foundation spoke with two longtime collaborators and current members of the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative's Regional Autonomous Patient Safety (RAPS) Advisory Board to discuss the potential for Pittsburgh as a national hub for patient safety innovation, the strength of its research institutions and other facets of the region, and what it will take for the Steel City to continue to evolve into its collaborative best.

Steve Wray, MS, is the executive director of the Carnegie Mellon University Block Center for Technology and Society, a University-wide applied research center focused on the responsible use of artificial intelligence and the future of work. His work there covers a wide range of economic activities and sectors as he works across all seven colleges and CMU's Software Engineering Institute on seed fund projects and examining the public policy and social implications of the use of advanced technology.

Wray earned his bachelor's in public policy analysis at Duke University, master's in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University, and earned his executive education in strategic prospectives in nonprofit management at Harvard Business School.

He returned to Pittsburgh and CMU nine months ago after 28 years in Philadelphia leading a regional economic development nonprofit and as a partner in an economic consulting firm. During his time as executive director at the Pennsylvania Economy League, Wray worked closely with JHF on a Medicaid expansion project in 2014 with the Pennsylvania Health Funders Collaborative, leading the work on the paper that made the case. He also spent 12 years on the board and as chair of the Healthcare Improvement Foundation, an organization dedicated to reducing errors and improving the quality of health care in the greater Philadelphia region through a partnership with the major hospitals and insurers in the city.

"Thinking about technology and autonomy in health care is something that is both really relevant and potentially game changing," Wray said of the RAPS initiative. "Pittsburgh has an incredible group of entrepreneurial leaders. It was a big institution city and a big company city and has had to really reinvent itself in terms of thinking about what the next economy might be, where that might start, and what it takes to make it happen. I think the challenge for Pittsburgh is taking advantage of the assets, connecting it to the people who are here and making the case to the people who aren't here that this is the place to be."

With over two decades of experience developing and commercializing medical products, Christian Manders has served as the Chief Operating Officer of Promethean Life Sciences since 1997, after he earned his bachelor's in history at Yale University. He has served on JHF's Liftoff PGH Advisory Board. When he moved to Pittsburgh over 20 years ago, the life sciences sector was very young. Manders added that it is still young but benefits from Pittsburgh having a wellspring of professionals with science skills.

"If you're going to build a region, you need good engineers and scientists. You want to build with good science, and we have that in spades. Pitt is over $1 billion in science research and number 3 in NIH (National Institute of Health) funding, and Carnegie Mellon is one of the leading AI, machine learning, robotics, and computer science groups," Manders said. "Where we lack is we're not good at translating that basic science into successful companies….And I'm really bullish that we need more management talent, like a thousand people who can do this. It's really hard to do."

Manders said the region's identified weakness is its need – and willingness -- to recruit top notch senior management to run biotech companies. He said he is starting to see this improve in the region, and there have been some recent multi-billion-dollar life sciences successes. He said getting this top talent into the region is what is going to move the needle in Pittsburgh and raise its profile as an industry leader. "The places with the best scientific and business talent win," he said."

He is also working hard to convene and harness the energy around biotech innovation that already exists in Pittsburgh with his weekly BioBreakfast gathering, held Tuesdays from 8-10am at the Rivera Building at 350 Technology Drive, where people interested in life sciences network.

Wray also said Pittsburgh's strengths are the concentration of medical power of both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network and the research dollars they attract. Combined with the technical capacity and capabilities of CMU, Pitt, and Penn State University, Pittsburgh can "punch above its weight," according to Wray.

"Making the case for Pittsburgh as a healthcare innovation city is a new marketing pitch. It's not the historic pictures of molten steel being poured out of a big urn and being turned into ingots. It's microscopic technology, artificial intelligence, data use, innovations in robotic medical devices, and more that can really lead to the next generation of how we do health care not just in America but in the world," said Wray. He added, "Pittsburgh is a gritty but smart town. The healthcare challenges we're facing are not insignificant. It's going to take hard work, diligence, rolling up your sleeves, long hours, and significant investment to take on the challenges of an aging population dealing with communicable diseases, pandemics, all the challenges we face and will face in the future."

In terms of regional branding, Wray added that means talking a little more boldly about our assets and strengths and not being willing to accept that we shouldn't be in the conversation when it comes to leading regions in healthcare innovation and healthcare development. It also means engaging Pittsburghers in a more forthright and forward-thinking conversation about future job opportunities.

Wray said the boundaries between CMU and Pitt continue to blur as the two institutions physically grow toward one another in Oakland, and as they meet up in other physical spaces like Mill 19, Hazelwood Green, or Bakery Square, where both institutions are planning for advanced research solutions.

"It gives us the opportunity to intentionally collaborate. I think in healthcare in particular this is a real opportunity because CMU's advanced work in robotics and data information systems and autonomy and artificial intelligence combines greatly with the work of UPMC and University of Pittsburgh in sciences and the life sciences as well." – Wray "And I think you're starting to see that work happen."

When asked to think about Pittsburgh at its collaborative best, Wray identified Pittsburgh's efforts in the Regional Build Back Better Challenge, an 11-county effort that secured $63 million in funding from the federal government to build the ecosystem around robotics and autonomy in Pittsburgh, including workforce development. At the Block Center, Wray is at the frontlines of this work convening companies, regional nonprofits, universities, and other community partners in a united effort.

"What's exciting about it is there's going to be a lot of different entryways into these fields and we've got to be smart and creative in how we help folks find those opportunities," Wray said.

More generally, Wray said holding on to outdated visions of what the region should be and an unwillingness to accept change and new leadership will impact the region's growth, as well as not making an intentional, committed, and concerted effort to ensure this growth is inclusive, both racially, socioeconomically, but also geographically to include more rural communities which were once thriving industries and have the potential to move into a new economy.

"The ecosystem here has come a long way, but it has a long way to go. We need a cultural shift," said Manders, stressing the importance for the region to be bold and take on more risk while rewarding those willing to take calculated leaps to innovate. "If you're going to form these companies, the risk is that they're going to fail. We need to help incentivize people to take financial risk to support these companies."

"In Silicon Valley they're fighting to get into deals. Here it's like a hot potato being passed around. We need to get some wins and elevate our risk profile so that people are willing to take more risks," Manders said. "We fundamentally have to get better at making money and having successful translations that positively affect patients."

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