During a week of “coast to coast to coast” travel, catching up with Dr. Woo is no easy enterprise. A CMU alumnus with a PhD from George Washington University and a postdoc from Pitt, “Betty” is now the Vice-President of Scientific Collaborations and Strategy at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
[Life Sciences Pittsburgh]Betty, could you quickly introduce yourself?
[Dr. Betty Woo] I am a native Pittsburgher, at least in close proximity. It’s hard to believe that I am approaching my 14-year anniversary with Thermo Fisher Scientific. That’s pretty amazing. In this time, I’ve gained incredible experience, including the good fortune of working with some outstanding business leaders and inspirational scientists and engineers. I spent most of my time in commercial leadership roles, starting as an industry vice president for the biotech market segment with Fisher Scientific in 2004. I then went on to head our life sciences specialist organization before moving into a corporate account role, shortly after the merger between Fisher Scientific and Thermo Electron. Currently, I’m vice president of scientific collaborations and strategy, and I lead a team focused on external collaborations with our large global clients, all while staying connected with my Pittsburgh roots.
"[...]I’m encouraged that we’re already leveraging our academic centers, hospital systems and local industry partners to form a stronger and more cohesive life sciences ecosystem."
What did you make of the latest Brookings report on innovation in Pittsburgh?
The Brookings report is interesting in that it highlights the challenges and opportunities for Pittsburgh to be a global leader in innovation. Although the authors say there’s more work to be done, I’m encouraged that we’re already leveraging our academic centers, hospital systems and local industry partners to form a stronger and more cohesive life sciences ecosystem. As you know, innovation clusters are cropping up across the country, focusing local resources on industries that promise the greatest returns on investment. There is little debate that life science is one of those industries.
The one element that surprised me with the report was the productivity readout of Pittsburgh: they measured the amount of economic value produced per worker, and, interestingly, it was below the national average for life sciences. The report suggested that Pittsburgh firms are only 57 percent as productive as our peers across the country. I was a bit puzzled by that. But I do think that having a life sciences cluster organization to serve as a central hub and a champion, bringing all of the disparate parts of the ecosystem closer together, will enable the region to attract and train the talent necessary to increase productivity.
We read a lot about Thermo Fisher as a leader in precision medicine. How important is PM to Pittsburgh?
Thermo Fisher Scientific invests more than $800 million annually in R&D, and a significant part of that goes toward precision medicine innovation. The products and services support a global healthcare infrastructure dedicated to prevention, rapid diagnosis and treatment of disease. We enable the entire spectrum, from basic research to development, manufacturing and clinic application. And our collaborations extend well beyond the U.S, where we now play major roles in the Cancer Moonshot and the NIH MATCH program. Today, Thermo Fisher is actively partnering with governments and private industry to advance precision medicine in the Middle East, China, Korea, the EU and elsewhere.
Though many of our collaborations focus on genomics, we are also an industry leader in analytical technologies that enable multi-omic discoveries and applications. Proteogenomics, which unites genomics and proteomics, is a particularly exciting area that is now taking center stage in precision medicine. Lastly, we’re focused on supporting collaborators with data management, platform integration and analysis, which are critical as precision medicine requires big data infrastructure and expertise on a massive scale.
"We look for partnerships that offer mutual benefits and breakthrough innovations for the industry."
Thermo Fisher collaborates with many prestigious academic research institutions. How important are these collaborations and can you give examples in Pittsburgh?
We currently engage in academic collaborations across the world, from the Karolinska Institute to Sichuan University in China and Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pittsburgh is a marquee partnership for us. Pitt is incredibly committed and well-funded across areas such as immunotherapy and precision medicine.
With respect to innovation, I believe the lines have blurred between academic and industrial research. Each is now feeding the other, and Thermo Fisher continues to allocate R&D dollars to external partnerships where it makes sense for both organizations: external sources of innovation can and do stoke our internal innovation. We look for partnerships that offer mutual benefits and breakthrough innovations for the industry.
Thanks to science and technology that continue to spin out of CMU and Pitt, supported by organizations like the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse and the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Thermo Fisher is in good company alongside Bayer, Phillips and other leading life sciences companies. We have already formed the beginnings of an ecosystem. Let me add that Chancellor Gallagher has been incredibly supportive of economic partnerships, encouraging the acceleration of this ecosystem in its formative stages. This is going to be absolutely critical for the future of Pittsburgh life sciences.