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Darr Made Hotspot Out of RTP; Can He Help Pittsburgh?

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Give Doug Darr a few years, and Pittsburgh could be much more to the genomics crowd than a hub airport for an inconvenient layover. The new CSO for the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse initiative, Darr comes armed with experience that his new city could use: eight years at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center helping turn RTP into the biotech hotspot it is today.

Darr, 47, was raised in Pittsburgh and earned three degrees in biology and physiology at Penn State before leaving in the early ’80s. “Then I went to Duke, and woke up one morning and had been there 12 years,” he says. Opportunity knocked when Darr took a job at the NC Biotech Center as a self-proclaimed “resident science geek.” He filled the role of “someone who understood technology, but someone who understood from the academic side how to commercialize.”

His experience there would prove critical when he considered the job in Pittsburgh. “People have this feeling that RTP has been a hotbed for 20 years and it hasn’t,” he says. “When I went to the center in ’93 or ’94 the landscape looked very similar” to how Pittsburgh looks now.

Immediately after NC Biotech, Darr took a job with a small entrepreneurial company working on planning projects and dealing with financial issues common to the young biotech industry. “I had seen people, friends of mine, whose companies had gone belly-up” — largely due to financial miscalculations or lack of planning, he says. “It was a natural extension to really start to understand what are the project planning steps.”

But Darr couldn’t stay away from his beloved technology for long, so he looked around and chose the Pittsburgh post, aiming to lure people and companies to the area to bulk up its life sciences industry. “The equation for success is time, money, and people,” he says. Because North Carolina started early, the state’s abundance of time made up for not having all that much money. Pittsburgh’s situation is reversed: “If you don’t have time on your side, you’d better have money and people. Here there was a commitment for the money and a commitment to bring in good people,” Darr says.

Most important for Pittsburgh, according to Darr, may very well be the people factor. “We’re very keen on bringing good management people here. It used to be technology, technology, technology. There’s lots of good technology. If you don’t have the people to really understand what you can do with it, it isn’t going to go anywhere.”

The greenhouse initiative kicked off three or four years ago when then-Governor Tom Ridge allotted $100 million to a statewide endeavor to draw biotech in. Pittsburgh’s region snagged a third of that money, and used it as leverage to get commitments for $120 million from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, and other institutions. And Darr feels confident that his group won’t face the dilemmas in other life sciences initiatives, like Michigan’s, which has lost millions of dollars as the state fights a budget crisis. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe there was a reasonable five-year commitment as they’ve stated,” he says. “And in this world, five years is forever.”

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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