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Startup Scene: Pittsburgh, PA

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Through the Table Talk Dinner Series, Comcast NBCUniversal’s Entrepreneurial Engagement team takes us across the United States to meet tech entrepreneurs who build innovative products and influence startup culture in their cities. Authentic conversations between founders and product and innovation leaders at Comcast NBCUniversal helped create this series of stories about cities, like Pittsburgh, where tech and entrepreneurship is thriving.

Over the last decade, Pittsburgh has seen an influx in tech resources and talent flooding into the city. From Uber’s self-driving car roll out to Facebook’s local office and the groundbreaking research facilities at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh, the Steel City has shed its industrial veneer for bonafide tech hub status.

Now, drawn by Pittsburgh’s quality of life, talent pool, and alpine cityscape, a new generation of entrepreneurs is piloting Pittsburgh’s future in areas like machine learning, robotics, healthcare, IoT, and cybersecurity. As the city’s tech status continues to grow, local entrepreneurs say they are ready to tackle the challenges that many Pittsburgh startups face.

A group of startup and tech leaders recently gathered with Comcast NBCUniversal’s Entrepreneurial Engagement team in Pittsburgh to talk about the pros and grows of the city’s startup scene. They contend that while the city boasts a wide variety of emerging companies, entrepreneurial networks are often siloed by industry, geography, or neighborhood.

“Pittsburgh is self-segregated,” said Sean Luther, who’s building InnovatePGH, an innovation district in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. “We need more people who can act as a bridge into other industries.”

Kelauni Cook, cofounder of social good organization Black Tech Nation, said that networks are especially important to people of color.

“If you don’t have the proper network, you can’t get anywhere,” she said. “It takes people being purposeful and reaching out to marginalized groups.”

Pittsburgh is home to a young creative class finding plenty of opportunities in the city. With its combination of large influential tech giants and hustling startups, and a growing smart city infrastructure, the Steel City looks poised, with the right strategy, to continue feeding its momentous rise as a tech hub.

“We need more diverse entrepreneurs and less conservative investors for growth-stage capital,” said Luis von Ahn, CEO and cofounder of language-learning platform Duolingo.

Seed funding also continues to be an issue in Pittsburgh. “It’s hard to raise $500,000 to $1 million here,” said Daniel Mosse, cofounder of smart vent and sensor company HiberSense. “Pittsburgh needs a change in mindset for early-stage funding.”

To find that early stage investment and support, Pittsburgh entrepreneurs are open to corporate-startup partnerships.

“A meaningful partnership would take the risk and be the first customer, and help with intellectual capital and technology.” said Joel Johnson, cofounder of BoXZY, a startup focused on real-time transmission of mechanical designs.

With it’s rugged, hilly terrain – and the development of automated vehicles in town – transportation was also a major topic for participants.

“The city has not done a good enough job of selling its transit options to residents,” Luther said.

Despite those challenges, Pittsburgh founders are eager to start coming together to build a more cohesive and collaborative tech economy.

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