For a brief moment earlier this week, it looked like Pittsburgh could be the center of the tech universe. As Carnegie Mellon alum Duolingo announced its IPO. Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey were in town, while Vice President Kamala Harris visited the City of Bridges to talk about infrastructure.
On the morning of TechCrunch’s City Spotlight, the Pittsburgh Robotics Network hosted its own event to announce a new alliance with members of local government and professors from neighboring universities.
“The alliance brings together leaders from top robotics companies, research institutes and universities in the Pittsburgh area including Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Argo AI, Aurora, University of Pittsburgh, Kaarta, RE2 Robotics, Neya Systems, Carnegie Robotics, HEBI Robotics, Near Earth Autonomy, BirdBrain Technologies, Omnicell and Advanced Construction Robotics, ”read a press release. “The Richard King Mellon Foundation commemorated this milestone in membership with a grant of $ 125,000 to support the continued growth of the PRN. “
Our own Spotlight event, which took place later in the afternoon, was designed to highlight the city’s continued evolution. For many, Pittsburgh is still a brave but troubled city, reeling from the deindustrialization of the ’70s and’ 80s, as the factories and industrial jobs that formed its foundation left the city and shipped overseas. The rusty belt plating is hard to leave behind, but the city’s biggest cheerleaders are working hard to transform Pittsburgh’s image into one of robotics, AI, self-reliance and empowerment. other advanced technologies.
Carnegie Mellon has – and continues to be the lifeblood of that Pittsburgh. A world-class research school in every way, CMU is the crown jewel of dozens of colleges and universities in the region. While the University of Pittsburgh is an important driver for the city’s medical and scientific communities, CMU is the reason it can be counted among the leaders in robots and self-driving cars.
Speaking at our event, Farnam Jahanian cited the school’s Swartz Center as a major driver in his efforts to support the startup ambitions of students and faculty.
“The Carnegie Mellon Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship is a system of programming activities that offers a unique journey of entrepreneurship, education, engagement, collaboration and opportunity for interested students, faculty and staff. through entrepreneurship, from the Innovation Scholars program to the Business Startup Lab, to basically garages that students and faculty can basically sign up for to start their businesses, as well as a host of other programmatic things, resources you would need, ”said Jahanian, who was appointed CMU president in 2018.
The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship was founded in 2015, with a donation of $ 31 million from CMU alumnus and Accel Partners co-founder, James R. Swartz. The center built on earlier efforts such as the Carnegie Mellon Center in 2012 and Project Olympus, founded in 2007. The Swartz Center and its recent precursors are among their successes Duolingo, DataSquid and AbilLife.
Dave Mawhinney recently told TechCrunch that he took on the role of executive director of the center in an effort, “to be on par with Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard and other great entrepreneurial universities.” CMU is certainly not outclassed by the above in terms of being a world-class research university, but Mawhinney concedes that the school and the city have always struggled with entrepreneurial retention.
“You can still learn from what you have and build on it,” says Jahanian. “I would like to stress that this is really the whole ecosystem. It’s not just about what CMU does, it’s an essential part. It’s the University of Pittsburgh, it’s other universities in our region that also contribute significantly to our ecosystem.
Mawhinney says CMU’s ability to incubate and nurture tech startups reached an inflection point about a decade and a half ago, as Big Tech grew increasingly interested in the research the school was conducting. in areas such as AI and automation.
“Really, the highlight was when Google opened an office in Pittsburgh in 2006. They have over 1,000 employees,” he says. “Every big tech company – Amazon, Facebook, Apple – has all brought hundreds of engineers into our community, so we’re growing very, very quickly. Artificial intelligence was invented at Carnegie Mellon – and it kind of sparked the robot revolution [ … ] We are now the center of the automated vehicle community. Aurora is co-located here, Argo is here, Aptiv is here. We have a very dynamic community and we want to continue to develop it. “
Building a successful business, of course, requires a lot more than engineers (there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t). Ahead of our event, I asked several interested parties what the biggest obstacle was in continuing to attract and grow the city’s startup ecosystem. The overwhelming answer was simple: venture capital.
“What we need is more capital – angel funds, venture capital funds so that entrepreneurs have a variety of funding sources to turn to locally,” said Next Act’s Yvonne Campos. Fund LLC at TechCrunch. “We definitely need more funding for businesses run by women – women raise about a third less capital than businesses run by men. Not because of the business idea or the leader, but because we invest in companies where we are most comfortable – we invest in people who are like us. Nationally, only 20-25% of all angel investors are women. We need more women to become active as investors.
City Mayor Bill Peduto, who also attended our event, echoes the sentiment.
“I think the biggest barrier is still access to venture capital, especially at this stage. I think we’ve been successful in convincing coastal investors that companies don’t have to leave Pittsburgh to be successful and see their investment pay off, ”he told me in an interview. “However, I think if we had more venture capital coming in here to help start-ups get into this critical next stage of expansion, it would grow and excel significantly in growing the entire business. industrial cluster. “
During our conversation, however, Jahanian brushed aside the sentiment. “I disagree with respect,” he told me. “Funding is important, but great ideas are funded. I’ve seen it my whole career. They are funded at levels that really show that these companies have a chance to really succeed. “
The president of the CMU points to a completely different problem. “You need more than just cool technologies or new research ideas or new concepts or products to start a business,” says Jahanian. “You need a lot more around this. You need marketing, you need product management, you need to be able to develop a business plan. So that’s a big part of the resources that we provide. “
Kleiner Perkins CPO Bing Gordon reflected the sentiment, speaking to me via email. “[Pittsburgh needs] to import CFOs, product managers, ad sales, ”he wrote. Another historical concern for the city is to attract this talent. CMU has not had a problem on this front, as location is less of a major concern for students applying for research universities. When it comes to careers after college, settling down and starting a family, on the other hand, the quality of life suddenly skyrockets.
Jahanian says he has long championed green spaces and other community gathering places in his conversations over the years with Peduto. He adds that the subject should continue to be a priority for the new mayor of the city next year.
“One of the most important aspects of Pittsburgh’s startup and high-tech community is the quality of life for the citizens of this city,” Jahanian said. “I can tell you, as university president, that an overwhelming majority of the professors we recruit want to live in the city and enjoy it. This is an important part. Obviously, there is a lot more going on beyond quality of life. The more the city does to bridge the gap between those who thrive and those who are potentially left behind in the economies that are created, the high-tech economies are important. It is a responsibility of the private sector and the public sector. I am really optimistic that we will have a great partnership with our future mayor, as we have done by previous mayors to catalyze the economy and lift all the boats.