What does Pittsburgh have that many cities lack? A concentration of research powerhouses — namely Pitt, CMU and UPMC — that share the same neighborhood, Oakland.

Now, an effort led by InnovatePGH called the Pittsburgh Innovation District (PID) is attempting to stitch Oakland’s strengths together into a cohesive whole and turn the neighborhood into an internationally-recognized research hub.

Between 2009 and 2018, Pitt and CMU spent $1.3 billion on research and development in math and computer science and another $960 million in physical sciences and engineering. The Pittsburgh Innovation District is home to 51,705 jobs, with nearly eight in 10 in education and healthcare.

“It’s Pittsburgh’s front door to this really hyper-competitive global innovation economy that we’re moving into,” says Sean Luther, executive director of InnovatePGH.

We talked to Luther about how Oakland will shape the trajectory of Pittsburgh’s new economy in the coming years.

Where did the Pittsburgh Innovation District idea come from?

Our work was really founded in the 2017 Capturing the Next Economy report, which was commissioned by a collection of our local foundations with the Brookings Institution. What that report demonstrated was that we had (and continue to have) all these amazing world-class assets in Oakland, which is a historic, exciting, mixed-use neighborhood. But without a single cohesive way to talk about that energy, we risk damaging Pittsburgh’s competitiveness with our peer cities. So the concept of an Innovation District — this assemblage of entrepreneurship supports, physical assets and capital — is rapidly rising in prominence around the country and around the world. It’s important that Pittsburgh have a platform that we can really position our unique and really competitive strengths compared to that global competition.

What’s the difference between having this in a dense urban center than, say, a suburban office park?

We know that the next generation of skilled talent — and as a result, the companies that want to employ them — are looking to spend their time in neighborhoods and business districts that are not cookie-cutter, that are not full of chain stores and chain restaurants, but are really authentic and urban, accessible by transit, and have safe and comfortable bike infrastructure. The talent wants to be in Oakland, and that’s what sets the Pittsburgh Innovation District apart from other mid-sized cities.

How much development is in the works for Oakland?

It’s $1.9 billion over about the next three years. But that only captures investments happening focused around the innovation economy. That doesn’t include single-family homeowners renovating the beautiful housing stock in central Oakland, new athletic facilities at Pitt or new dormitories at Carnegie Mellon.

Pittsburgh Innovation District. Image courtesy of InnovatePGH.

Does the Innovation District have a role to play in the Covid crisis?

The Innovation District is also Pittsburgh’s hub of its response to the Covid crisis. The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC have a strong role to play in many of those vaccine trials and research efforts. The frontline workers who are day in and day out helping to combat the crisis for Western Pennsylvania, they’re still going to work. The opportunity for problem-solving that we’re seeing in the Innovation District is not a nebulous, theoretical future. We’re really seeing the benefits play out right now, every day.

What industries and companies do you hope to attract?

The industries that we’re continuing to see prominently develop there are those industries that most require frequent back-and-forth visits to campus. So I think you’re going to see a lot of our earliest life science innovation and spinout companies continue to cluster in Oakland. Especially as we see investments by Wexford Science & Technology and Walnut Capital in additional facilities that service them.

We have a lot of folks that we know are positioning Oakland as part of their arrival strategy. There are a number of national names — like Yelp Pittsburgh’s R&D office is in Oakland. There’s a good clutch of companies that are currently looking at the Innovation District as part of their growth strategies.

What is the next big change we’ll see in Oakland?

I’m really excited for the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT), with our final approvals right around the corner and the increased federal funding there. That’s obviously first and foremost about moving people around the city and county. But I also think it’s going to play a really strong role in changing the land use patterns in the areas that the Innovation District is connected to as a result. The ability to get on a BRT vehicle at the Cathedral of Learning, and very quickly — via an electric vehicle — be in places like Bakery Square and Homewood is really going to play a supporting role not just in the innovation economy, but for the places they serve.

It’s no coincidence that the hub of the BRT system is Oakland. It’s really our growth engine in the 21st-century economy, and creating access to those jobs for all residents of Western Pennsylvania is very important.

How does Oakland stack up to other Innovation Districts around the country?

We’ve concluded a really interesting research project with our partners at the Global Institute on Innovation Districts. What we’ve been able to now quantify, is that when you look at levels of corporate and academic R&D happening in the Innovation District, we’re a top 10 center for total R&D consumption. So when you think about some of our competitive cities and how much bigger they are, stacking up against them and in many cases beating them in raw R&D output is impressive and really speaks to the strengths of the Innovation District.

The convergence of really unique industry clusters — engineering, life sciences, mathematics — is more concentrated in the Pittsburgh Innovation District than it is in innovation districts not just around the country, but around the world. The ability to integrate the computer science and robotics strengths at Carnegie Mellon, with the life science and engineering capabilities at the University of Pittsburgh, is a platform that cannot be replicated at any other innovation district in the world.

What is coming through the development pipeline next for the Innovation District?

We’re on the cusp of less than 12 months away from an opening spree of really specialized, really high-caliber developments opening in the Innovation District. Those range from the 5051 Centre complex, which will be home to Pitt and UPMC’s ITTC (Immune Transplant and Therapy Center) complex, that’s being built by Wexford Science & Technology. We’ll see after that a new Walnut Capital complex opening at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, which is a beautiful historic renovation. They just broke ground on their Innovation Research Tower, which will provide more life science collaboration and wet lab space. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Right in the core of the Innovation District, UPMC is getting ready to break ground on their heart and transplant specialty hospital. That’s a just-under-a-billion dollar project. And then at the eastern end of the district, we’ll see the Hillman Cancer Center specialty hospital across into Shadyside.

This interview was edited for conciseness and clarity.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.