Once a hotbed of steel mills, Pittsburgh is now making an effort to reinvent itself as a mecca for chemical- and medical-related jobs and technologies.
Three companies--Alung, Fluorous Technologies, and Thar Technologies--are examples of the new kinds of businesses springing up from the intellectual furnaces at institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and with the help of development agencies such as the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. And they cover the range from newly spawned to actively thriving.
||INHALE Alung's Federspiel holds an artificial lung made of microporous polypropylene hollow fibers. PHOTO BY MARC REISCH
"Our goal is to supplement but not replace the lungs" of patients who have difficulty breathing, says William J. Federspiel, one of two founders of Alung, which is developing an intravenous membrane oxygenator. Federspiel, a professor of chemical engineering and director of the Artificial Lung Lab at the University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine, says the artificial lung will free emphysema patients from uncomfortable mechanical ventilators when they need assistance breathing.
Instead, patients will be able to eat, talk, and move around while a temporary catheter, implanted into the vena cava and connected to a mobile unit, substitutes 40 to 60% of a patient's compromised lung capacity. Federspiel and cofounder Brack G. Hattler, a cardiac and transplant surgeon who heads the university medical center's artificial lung program, developed Hattler's original concept at the institute--once the site of a steel-rolling mill.
Alung licensed the patents for the artificial lung from the University of Pittsburgh. As an early-stage company, it has raised $1.5 million from private angel investors and will soon occupy space outside of the institute. The next goal is to raise $8 million in venture financing, part of the $15 million needed to build and qualify the artificial lungs for Food & Drug Administration approval. Federspiel says he is working now to reduce the size of the catheter, which uses microporous polypropylene hollow-fiber membranes to diffuse oxygen into the blood and pull out carbon dioxide.
WHILE ALUNG is not generating revenues yet, Fluorous Technologies expects to see revenues of over $900,000 this year. The two-year-old brainchild of University of Pittsburgh chemistry professor Dennis P. Curran, the firm depends on the unique properties of perfluorinated molecules to speed synthesis and separation of organic compounds.
Fluorous tags of different lengths make it possible to run reactions on a number of starting materials in the same solution. Silica gel beads with a fluorocarbon-bonded phase separate the tagged reaction products.
In January, the company started to sell its fluorous products and separation media to pharmaceutical companies that are looking for ways to accelerate the process of synthesizing, extracting, and examining drug candidates. Curran says the technology "ultimately has lots of potential in chemical manufacturing. But the road to success is through pharmaceutical process chemistry. Pharmaceutical companies are willing to try new and different things."
The company has attracted the notice of some high-profile investors. Aldrich Chemical founder Alfred Bader has invested $350,000 in Fluorous Technologies, while Albany Molecular Research has put in $1.2 million. "We're trying to use Albany Molecular as a model," Curran says. "It started out as a garage operation and now has more than 500 employees." Fluorous has about 10 employees housed at the university's business incubator along with about 100 other early-stage companies.
"The road to success is through pharmaceutical process chemistry."
ON THE OTHER HAND, Thar Technologies has about 40 employees. The firm occupies two buildings and has annual revenues growing 25% a year. Its 2002 revenue projection is $4 million from the sale of supercritical fluid equipment and process development services. Owner and Chief Executive Officer Lalit Chordia, a Carnegie Mellon chemical engineering graduate, says the 12-year-old firm "is making a profit, but not a lot. We are spending a lot of money on R&D. About 30 to 35% of sales goes back into research."
Among the projects under way is an effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, to dissolve the cancer drug paclitaxel in a solvent and then spray it under supercritical conditions--at a pressure and temperature that forces a fluid to exhibit the properties of both a gas and a liquid--to create nanoparticles. The resulting particles could easily enter tumor cells but would be excluded from even smaller pores in healthy tissue.
In June, Thar received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Standards & Technology's Advanced Technology Program. Along with partners Carnegie Mellon and engineering firm CFD Research, the company seeks to develop a tiny device that uses carbon dioxide to cool computer central processing units to subambient temperatures, thus extending their lives. "This is a fluid dynamics challenge," says Chordia, who figures that, if he is successful, he could sell 50 million such devices a year at $50 apiece.
Chordia, Curran, and Federspiel are each trying to develop groundbreaking technologies. In the process, they just may bring back some of the quarter of a million jobs lost in Pittsburgh when the steel industry left in the 1980s.