Team players: Cleveland Innovation District is a group effort for local healthcare investment

Cleveland’s healthcare prowess is well-known and has the exhaustive media coverage to prove it. What has perhaps been missing is a connective thread among these renowned regional entities, a gap that the recently unveiled Cleveland Innovation District is striving to bridge.

The $565 million initiative, announced in January by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, brings together Northeast Ohio healthcare and educational providers in creation of a brand-new pathogen research center.

Job generation is a project keystone, to the tune of 10,000 employment opportunities in healthcare and IT, as well as another 10,000 indirect positions in support of these sectors.

Officials from five participating institutions—Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals (UH), The MetroHealth System, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), and Cleveland State University (CSU)—believe the district can be a powerful attractor for industry sectors experiencing growth, even in the wake of COVID-19.

David Sylvan, President, UH VenturesSuccess starts with teamwork, a trait Cleveland’s healthcare and education leaders haven’t always been known for, yet one that’s needed if the region wants to emerge as a global force, notes David Sylvan, president of UH Ventures, the innovation and commercialization arm of University Hospitals.

“In Cleveland, we know we have those underlying materials and ingredients,” says Sylvan. “What we’ve never had is collaboration—it becomes death by committee, where we just talk about the good things we’d do one day. It’s just a process map that someone will figure out.”

By harnessing the unique expertise of its partners, Sylvan says University Hospitals can leverage current research projects to identify novel technology for pharmaceutical development.

Innovation in the space includes software tools and applications that improve caregiver decision-making and diagnostic accuracy. Efficiency may not be sexy, but it remains a challenge for all members of the newly minted alliance.

“You hear about science fiction in the operating room and a fax machine in the back office,” Sylvan says. “We need a highly functioning system, or we can’t put our clinicians in the best possible position to serve the population. These are the tools and products we’re looking to accelerate through this collaboration.”

A unique opportunity
To finance the project, the State of Ohio, JobsOhio and the Clinic are committing a combined $565 million, with a significant portion funding the Clinic’s new Global Center for Pathogen Research & Human Health.

Innovative strengths from UH—including emerging infection pharmaceutical development— can prosper under the new platform, remarks Sylvan. Ideally, robust job creation will spin out new companies eager to call Cleveland home.

“People don’t realize that we don’t need to look to the coasts to create incredible outcomes,” says Sylvan. “Our hope is the district shines a light on what we can achieve as a region.”

Joe Jankowski, chief innovation officer at CWRUCWRU’s core competencies around cancer, cardiac, neurological, and infectious disease treatments will only become stronger in concert with its fellow anchor institutions, says Joe Jankowski, chief innovation officer at the university.

Jankowski envisions a future where CWRU’s expertise in neuromodulation—pacemaker-like technology that alters nerve activity—is elevated further alongside initiative partners.

“We joined the district because, while we continue to be a world-class research leader, we also realize there’s a difference between conducting research and having an economic impact regionally,” Jankowski says.

Regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy and virtual/augmented reality are other areas of potential amplification, not only around new ideas, but their transition from the research stage to job-creating products as well. Projects at earlier stages will benefit from the district’s clinical leadership and talent, which could draw much-needed venture capital.

Jankowski asks for patience as the program enters its first year. A measure of success for 2021 would be a collective opportunity that joins two or more district players.

“Case may not develop [a technology] on its own, but because two people met, we have this project that’s being supported by a proactive form of collaboration that hadn’t been there previously,” says Jankowski. “It’s going to take time—even investors know this. This is multi-year collaboration, and we’ll have to have patience and understanding to practice good habits.”

UH’s Sylvan says the excitement and energy of the district’s initial formation won’t mean much without continued accountability and oversight.

“This can’t be a conceptual white paper with everyone going back to five different corners to do their own work,” says Sylvan. “That would be a shame, because there is uniqueness to this opportunity.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.