Three Lessons for Cluster Development

The Fourth Economy team has had the pleasure of supporting the University of Pittsburgh as they look to advance the life sciences cluster in Pittsburgh to the next level. Our work included researching the predicted next generation industry advances, analyzing the region’s research capacity and influence, location benchmarking, profiling the current cohort of life sciences companies, and discussing what is needed to build on the growing success of the sector.

We were able to provide the life sciences community with specific recommendations and a website to tell their story. The take-aways from our findings for this project are not necessarily unique to this sector in Pittsburgh and should be considered across any industries that a local community is looking to support.

#1: Sustained Leadership is Vital

Cluster development takes a vision and a level of sustained leadership that is able to evolve over a significant time horizon. Even when a region has a strong research base, it takes concentrated efforts by a community-minded intermediary to build a robust industry cluster. This cluster must provide collision points for local and out-of-region industry sector players to build relationships and find opportunities for collaboration. The output of this type of leadership activity cannot be measured in deals or investment, but creates the environment for those things to happen. We see many clusters fail because success is expected overnight, and leadership is not sustained long enough to build the necessary community infrastructure.

#2: Public, Private, and Philanthropic Investments Work

The important work of cluster development requires collaboration between the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to achieve the greatest leveraged impacts. At a time when questions swirl around the sustained commitment of federal research and development funding, it is critical to look at the models that many communities, including Pittsburgh, have demonstrated. Over 15 years ago, the state government, in collaboration with local philanthropy and the region’s research institutions, made a significant commitment to the emerging life sciences industry. The impact of those investments can be seen in the growing portfolio of companies and the position that the sector is in now.

#3: Regional impacts are Spurred by Neighborhood-Level Concentration

Industry clusters are often spread throughout a region both in terms of the location of firms and their employees. As firms mature and grow, they look for their own space, often in locations outside an urban core. But that urban core is vital to creating the density and culture of collaboration needed, especially in research and development-intensive industries. As the current generation workforce has made it known, they are looking for dense urban environments with ample amenities. In turn, the firms that are emerging will look for these locations as hosts for their employees. The Brookings Institute has advanced the notion of Innovation Districts to describe this phenomenon.