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Golden Ladder

Creating Golden Ladders and Growth Opportunities

A technical background provides an invaluable career base for innovation-minded entrepreneurs. How will Pittsburgh retain and develop that talent?

By Allison Sharrow, PhD

I am a Pittsburgh native and boomerang. After 15 years away, I recently returned and was amazed at the birth of a commercial life science ecosystem here. When I left, Technology Drive did not even exist—it was just a driveway. Yet now it is home to many emerging life science companies. Despite all of this exciting progress, the question that naturally follows is, “What will it take for Pittsburgh to mature into a nationally recognized center for life science innovation?”

One challenge that many believe Pittsburgh still must overcome is recruiting experienced executive leadership to enable promising startups to develop into successful businesses.[1] The recent development of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Alliance seeks to tackle this and other regional challenges:

“We are committed to supporting this vision, collaborating to further develop the region’s incredible assets and capabilities, in the pursuit of creating jobs and attracting new capital. Our institutions have each made significant financial commitments to build the physical, human capital, and financial infrastructure needed to support this growth.” [2]

This collective could not have chosen a better leader: Megan Shaw has tremendous respect in the life science community and is felt to be the authority in understanding the challenges and opportunities for the Pittsburgh life sciences ecosystem.

A recent analysis highlights the importance of the technical education and experience held by leadership teams. Nearly three-fourths (74%) of European unicorns have technical founders.[3] The analysis further suggests that the greater commercial success achieved in the United States may be partly due to the United States being home to a larger and more engaged pool of technical founders. According to Antler partner Christoph Klink, “We believe a critical reason that Europe has never produced a tech giant is because Europe has never produced enough technical founders.” [3]

It will be important for ecosystem building efforts in Pittsburgh to consider the technical experience of prospective leadership recruits. While a talent filter would decrease the total available pool of potential hires, it would also improve the pipeline of outcomes. A healthy developmental ecosystem for its part helps feed the end goal of building the size of that pool.

What is the first step for prospective employers?

When I had the opportunity to pose this question to Niraj Shah, the CEO of Wayfair, his advice was that we recruit individuals just below the CEO level. They have a tremendous amount of experience and capabilities and may be hungry enough for their own chance at the top to be willing to consider relocating to Pittsburgh. To reach critical mass as a talent ecosystem we need to gather more chickens or learn to lay our own eggs.


Allison Sharrow, PhD, covers the transition of innovations and professionals from academia to the healthcare industry. As a research assistant professor, she witnessed firsthand the challenges and opportunities in this process. Seen through her eyes, readers will get greater insight into how and why some innovations succeed while others perish.