Discover Pennsylvania's State of Innovation

World-class research assets spark new breakthroughs in Pennsylvania.

Brittany Anas
On Thursday, March 25, 2021 - 14:22

A few years ago, the language learning app Duolingo put up a billboard in San Francisco. It said: "Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh."

Within a few days, applications started pouring in from Silicon Valley. The affordable cost of living combined with the quality of life in Pennsylvania has given the tech startup a competitive edge when it comes to talent recruitment, says Sam Dalsimer, head of public relations with Duolingo.


Thanks to powerhouse research assets, a deep, diverse industry base spawning new technology-oriented ventures and a talented pipeline and workforce, Pennsylvania has made a name for itself as the state of innovation. From agribusiness to advanced manufacturing to life sciences, Pennsylvania offers tech-savvy talent a world of opportunity — and can do so at a fraction of the price that it costs to live in other hot tech markets.


Top-notch public and private universities known for their research capabilities are an integral part of Pennsylvania's thriving tech ecosystem. Universities throughout the state are collaborators with business, industry and government. They also generate new ventures from the commercialization of research or startups created by faculty members and students.

Pittsburgh-based Duolingo is one of these success stories. The homegrown tech company spun from Carnegie Mellon University, where it was launched by a faculty member and one of his doctoral students. Duolingo has ascended to "unicorn" status, a term in the venture capital industry to describe when a privately held startup is valued at $1 billion or more. 

The wildly popular language-learning platform has experienced tremendous growth in the past year, Dalsimer says, with remote learners making up a big share of the new subscribers. 

"Also, a large number of people have taken up language learning as a hobby during lockdown," he says.

Duolingo continues to innovate, recently releasing a new product aimed at teaching literacy. The company has also created an English exam that allows international students to enroll in U.S. universities to prove their language proficiency without going to a physical testing center. 2,500 universities now accept Duolingo's test.

Carnegie Mellon is one of the several leading research universities that call Pennsylvania home. Other top universities include the University of Pennsylvania, which ranks No. 4 among all U.S. universities for research and development (R&D) expenditures, with more than $1.37 billion in fiscal year 2017.

Multiple leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates in clinical trials incorporate key university-owned intellectual property assets. The University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University combined for nearly $1.8 billion in research expenditures in fiscal year 2017, which underscores the commitment to innovation in Pennsylvania.


A Robust Life Sciences Industry

Pennsylvania is home to more than 2,300 life sciences companies that span a variety of sectors, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, animal health, diagnostics and research. Innovative companies are spread throughout the state, creating career opportunities in Pennsylvania's major metros and smaller communities as well as developing novel solutions for complex health care problems.

Swiftwater, for instance, is a tiny community in the Pocono Mountains that is home to a Sanofi facility that is a major vaccine manufacturing operation. The facility's roots in the region run deep. Pocono Biological Laboratories was founded by Richard Slee in Swiftwater in Monroe County more than 120 years ago to produce a new breed of smallpox vaccine.

Today, Sanofi U.S. is an affiliate of France-based Sanofi S.A., the global pharmaceutical giant. Sanofi employs around 2,400 people in Swiftwater and produces more than 1 billion doses of vaccine products annually, making it possible to immunize about 500 million people globally each year.

Outside of Allentown, B. Braun Medical Inc. produces medical devices and maintains its North American headquarters in Bethlehem. In 2019, the company announced it was investing $1 billion in its facilities, including its Lehigh Valley operation, for new and enhanced IV therapy manufacturing to help meet IV fluid shortages.

In Pittsburgh, Cognition Therapeutics, a company developing a cure for Alzheimer's disease, recently won a $75.8 million grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Innovative Pennsylvania-grown companies are also playing a pivotal role in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

OraSure, a global leader in infectious disease diagnostics headquartered in Bethlehem, helps make COVID-19 testing — and quick results — more accessible.

OraSure got its start more than two decades ago, and the company was nurtured through the tech-based economic development program Ben Franklin Technology Partners. 

OraSure has the first and only rapid HIV in-home test approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the company has established itself as a leader in accurate and easy-to-administer testing methods, says Jeanne Mell, vice president of corporate communications with OraSure.

OraSure is developing a COVID-19 rapid antigen self-test that would detect active COVID-19 infections, delivering results within minutes and without the assistance of laboratory analysis.

"Essentially, it's a lab on a swab that would allow the detection of COVID 19 by anybody, at any time, anywhere," Mell says.

OraSure is also at the forefront of developing an antibody test. In summer 2020, the company was awarded funding through Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development and the Governor's Action Team to assist in the commercial scale-up of the COVID-19 rapid antigen test. The grant and incentives are helping OraSure invest in COVID-19 product growth as well as create more high-quality jobs in the Lehigh Valley, Mell says, with plans to hire 177 people. Hiring began in 2020 and will continue into 2021.

"We are dedicating considerable effort to the fight against COVID-19," Mell says.


State-of-the-Art Beer

Exyn Technologies, which was spun out of the University of Pennsylvania, enabled Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia to create the world's first drone-assisted beer. Dock Street, one of the country's first post Prohibition craft microbreweries, partnered with drone maker Exyn on Dock Street Swarm Intelligence Pale Ale. The two businesses are neighbors in Philly's Point Breeze neighborhood.

Exyn deployed its aerial robot systems, typically used for industrial applications in areas like mining, construction and nuclear power, at Dock Street's brewing operations, where it performed brewing tasks like dropping hops into a kettle.

If you'd like to learn more about the Pennsylvania area, check out the latest edition of Pennsylvania: Work Smart, Live Happy.


Brittany Anas is a former newspaper reporter who accidentally became a federal background investigator before quickly retreating back to journalism.