Joe Panetta, President and CEO of BIOCOM, Inc

This month, Life Sciences Pittsburgh caught up with Joe Panetta, President and Chief Executive Officer of BIOCOM, Inc. Based in San Diego, BIOCOM focuses on initiatives that influence the region’s life science community in the development and delivery of products, as well as on capital formation, public policy, workforce development, group purchasing, and member services, such as networking events.

Involved in the biotech industry for over 30 years, Joe received a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

[Life Sciences Pittsburgh] What’s your take on the opportunities in Pittsburgh for life sciences? Do you think this region has the right components to thrive?

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[Joe Panetta] I think Pittsburgh has some of the basic foundational elements that it takes to create a thriving life science industry. Some of the elements are there and some of the elements need to be better developed. But I have always felt there are two things that drive the success of a life science cluster. The first is clearly a foundation – a solid foundation - for biomedical research. That one element always comes to the forefront as being the nucleus for creating and sustaining a life science sector. So, does Pittsburgh have that specific component? Without a doubt it does and a very prestigious foundation for biomedical research on top of it! I always tell people “my gosh, here is the place where the polio vaccine was discovered and created, here is the place where some of the first successful liver transplant surgery was done”. There is no question in my mind that that core element exists in Pittsburgh.

The next most important element is the entrepreneurial spirit that it takes to move research into the development and creation of technologies and products. And to me, Pittsburgh is one of the very few success stories of cities that were very heavily ingrained in the old industrial model producing goods like steel, aluminum, paint and chemicals and managed to transition from that basic economy to an economy that has successfully moved in to healthcare and high-technologies. So it had to have taken an entrepreneurial attitude on the part of the culture in Pittsburgh for that to happen. Unity and collaboration are always drivers of success and Pittsburgh does have that culture of people working together.

"Unity and collaboration are always drivers of success and Pittsburgh does have that culture of people working together."

Do you see Pittsburgh’s relatively small geographic size as an advantage or disadvantage?

If you think about the life sciences industry sectors in San Francisco, in San Diego and in Boston, they are not spread uniformly across the entire geography. The life science industry in San Francisco exists for the most part in south San Francisco – at least it existed almost entirely in south San Francisco for years. In Boston, the life science industry developed primarily around Cambridge. In San Diego, for the most part, it developed in North City – on Torrey Pines Mesa – and nowhere else in the city. Two out of these three developed in close proximity to performing biomedical research universities and research institutions. This is a more important aspect than the size of the city itself.

Another important aspect is that millennials make a good share of the staff in the life science industry. And these millennials want to live in urban centers. To continue to attract them, the life science industry needs to embrace this urban trend. So you see it happening in Boston already, you see it in New York with the life science building in lower Manhattan, you see it in San Francisco with Mission Bay, you see it – to some extent – in Philadelphia with the life science sector thriving more downtown.

What challenges does Pittsburgh face in growing its life sciences industry?

I think the big challenge is that you do not have the venture capital, which is kind of similar to what we see in Los Angeles. Now, some venture capital comes because folks have been successful in creating and selling companies and they had the drive and the capital to finance the creation of more companies. And some venture capital comes because you got the ability to attract it from elsewhere. A lot of the venture capital that we raise here – about $600 million a year for life science – does not come from San Diego. It comes from outside of San Diego. That used to be a little bit more balanced but some of the venture capital professionals who started companies here moved on and retired. Nowadays, we must go out and raise that venture capital, whether it is up in San Francisco or abroad. On the other hand, Pittsburgh – like Los Angeles - does have investment capital. There is definitely a group of high net worth individuals who could invest in life science if they were more educated about it and if they were more driven to do so. 

"[In Pittsburgh] there is definitely a group of high net worth individuals who could invest in life science if they were more educated about it and if they were more driven to do so."    
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One of the other big challenges is the development of talent at every level to create and grow companies. “Does Pittsburgh have the ability to create the homegrown talent?” Without a doubt! Pittsburgh has a very successful record in running businesses although they may not be necessarily biotech businesses. Unfortunately, when we created the biotech industry in San Diego, we really did not have a group of businesses here that we could draw from to bring talent in to actually run these companies. They ended up being run by the scientists. I think, particularly in this day and age of life science when life science is not just science but also engineering, Pittsburgh has got some incredible academic resources with Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and the other small colleges around. You have a combination of academic institutions that can deliver talent at every level. “You want a Ph.D. postgrad’ researcher? Or one with an MD degree? Or one with an MBA degree?” Pittsburgh can turn those folks out. “You want someone with an engineering degree in a company that is developing a monitoring device for blood glucose for diabetics?” Pittsburgh can turn those folks out. Pittsburgh has the academic resources and the breadth and depth of the academic resources to be able to do that.

Finally, a big driver for success is the real estate community. You need a real estate community that is willing to make investments in building wet lab facilities for instance. When we started working in Los Angeles three years ago, these real estate firms with a focus on life science did not exist. We worked toward better defining the size of that community and toward creating more visibility for them. And now, we are seeing real estate firms – either firms that already do life science work or firms that have an interest in doing more - that are beginning to come to the table too.

Have you marked your calendar for Pittsburgh Life Sciences Week 2018 (April 16-20)?

Yes! I would be pleased. As you know, I don’t miss an opportunity to get out there! 

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