PITTSBURGH — Kevin Dowling says he can’t believe how cool this city has become.
After graduating years ago from college, Dowling recently returned to Pittsburgh to be the vice president of engineering at 4moms (www.4moms.com), creators of high-tech strollers and other baby accessories embedded with robotics and other patented innovations.
After years working in traditional tech hubs like San Francisco and Boston, he was lured back to Pittsburgh by a fledgling innovation industry nurtured by area universities, innovation incubators and venture capitalists.
“Coming back to Pittsburgh, I saw a healthy balance of finance, marketing and engineering (at 4moms)” said Dowling, who turned down a job offer with Google to lead the next generation of designs at the small company. “It’s actually a cool place to be now.”
In recent years, numerous small companies started by faculty and graduates of Carnegie Mellon University, a world leader in robotics and computer science, have headquartered themselves in Pittsburgh. In the past, CMU alumni often left the area to pursue their start up dreams – and the necessary capital – elsewhere.
Nowadays they’re staying here due in part to affordable living — particularly compared to other tech-centric cities — and the growing community of innovators and the financial support they attract.
Among the star products of this burgeoning scene is Duolingo (www.duolingo.com), a free app for language learning that Apple anointed with its “App of the Year” award in 2013.
“All this naturally breeds innovation and entrepreneurship,” said CMU President Subra Suresh.
Pittsburgh’s innovators are catching the eye of global investors like Bain Capital, which helped fund 4moms. However during a recent visit to the city, AOL co-founder Steve Case implored the region’s innovators to be more vocal about their accomplishments.
“Pittsburgh has a humility, a reluctance to beat its chest and talk about all the great things you’re doing,” said Case, who is also chairman and CEO of venture capital firm Revolution. “But the story around Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon is not as well understood as it needs to be if this region is going to continue its rise as a great entrepreneurial region.”
Despite a reluctance to brag, Pittsburgh is heralded by many as the success story other Rust Belt cities struggling to reinvent themselves and attract new investment should emulate.
Its transformation to a center for innovation wasn’t easy. When the city’s bedrock industry began to collapse more than 40 years ago, new innovations were just being born in the fields of computer science and robotics.
Through the city’s lean years in the 1980s and ’90s, the first generation of innovators were paving the way for today’s start-ups along with the emergence of new “traditional” economies like medicine and banking, both of which played major roles in saving the city from a plight similar to that of Detroit.
“I was here when the robotics industry started in Pittsburgh,” said John Bares, a CMU graduate and president of Carnegie Robotics, while reminiscing about advent of the industry in the early 1980s.
Back then, his company “spun off” of the university and now designs and manufactures robotics technology for the private and government sectors. The company’s growth has prompted its move to a building that once housed of the city’s most storied steel makers.
“Pittsburgh worked harder to diversify its economy than other cities in the region,” said Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works, a regional investor in tech companies. “It hasn’t been an overnight success.”
Lunak and other’s investment in the start-up industry has seemingly spawned other company incubators like the non-profit Thrill Mill, whose founder Luke Skurman also runs his popular website Niche, a portal reviewing neighborhoods and schools nationwide (www.niche.com), out of Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s important to support entrepreneurs here,” said Skurman. “Pittsburgh is a small city with a really diversified economy that is getting younger and younger.”
Long known for its shrinking and elderly population, Pittsburgh recently posted its first growth in more than half a century thanks in part to its ability to attract young people from out of state and globally to schools like CMU, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and others.
Those who graduate with ambitions of developing an idea and starting their own company are finding the city hospitable to their ambitions. “People want to come here to start a company,” said Bobby Zappala, Thill Mill’s CEO. “If you’re a capable person, we want to help you.”
To celebrate the newfound culture of innovation, Thrill Mill later this summer will host its second annual, multi-day concert and innovation event dubbed “Thrival” (www.thrivalfestival.com), a celebration of the start-up spirit. Judges at Thrival will award start-up funding to the best ideas presented and provide space and access to business advisers to help navigate the tricky beginnings of starting a business.
Among the small start-ups already under Thrill Mill’s wing is DuoScreen (www.duoscreentech.com), creators of a second-screen attachment for laptops designed for engineers and others who work on more than one screen on the office to keeping computing on the go.
“Without this support (from Thrill Mill), it would have been very difficult,” said DuoScreen co-founder Nicholas Greco. “The majority of the people I know were telling me to be happy with my current job and to stop with the madness of a start-up.”
The latest wave of innovation is being touted by Pittsburgh lawmakers as well. “We are far away from becoming a Boston or San Francisco,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto regarding the city’s start-up culture, noting that the both cities have a several decades head start when it comes to attracting and keeping innovators in its midst. “But there is something magical about Pittsburgh.”