In August, I spent four days in Pittsburgh. I had never been. The little I knew about the area was mostly from watching Steelers games and reading a few articles. But I was curious why Pittsburgh kept popping up in lists as a top new destination for businesses.
Every city drinks its own Kool-Aid. Every city believes it has something to offer. It's why Amazon received 238 proposals. But what makes Pittsburgh unique? Why did I leave thinking this is the absolute best city, at this very moment, to start a business?
My experience left me with three reasons:
1. A highly skilled workforce.
Pittsburgh is one of the few cities in America with the means and track record to become the next Silicon Valley. And I know that phrase gets thrown around by dozens of cities but almost all of them don't have the technical assets that I found in Pittsburgh.
"According to CBRE's annual Tech-30 report, Pittsburgh's high-tech talent pool grew 31.4 percent during 2015 and 2016, behind only San Francisco (39.4 percent) and Charlotte (31.6 percent)," said Bill Flanagan, Chief Corporate Relations Officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
The self-driving car was born at Carnegie Mellon University, the nation's leading robotics school, in the late 1970's. Google has a large campus in Pittsburgh. And the people in Pittsburgh lean in to robotics, AI and future tech more than any other place I've been outside of Silicon Valley.
I was able to walk from Google across the street to UPMC Enterprises, the venture arm of a $16 billion integrated non-profit healthy system, one of the largest in the country. Someone who works in Pittsburgh can interact with Uber, Google, AutoDesk, the world's best robotics school and multiple top venture firms within walking distance. Most cities don't have that. And it has created a city full of marker and doers.
The majority of the Midwest and the country is skeptical about robotics. "There is a misunderstanding that robots take jobs away. Come here and see how robotics is creating new opportunities and life-changing solutions that will create an impact beyond our three rivers," said robotics industry advocate Jackie Erickson.
Self-driving Ubers aren't the future, they are an everyday part of life in Pittsburgh. CMU professor Stephen Smith showed me how he has integrated AI in to Pittsburgh's traffic lights to create Smart Traffic Signals, a spinoff company.
2. Access to capital.
Where many cities ultimately fall short is access to capital. Pittsburgh has a rich history of successful founders.
"The 1870s, especially, were transformative," said Flanagan. "George Westinghouse rolled out the railroad air brake in 1869 and revolutionized rail travel. H.J. Heinz started his food business the same year and become one of the first Pittsburgh companies to go global. In the 1870s, Andrew Carnegie brought the Bessemer Convertor to Pittsburgh from England and began making steel rails."
When Pittsburgh's 100-year reign as the steel capital of the world ended, it experienced a downturn like other rust belt cities. But Pittsburgh, once the richest city in America, still had plenty of wealthy descendants. They never left. They invested in universities to make them world-class and keep Pittsburgh competitive.
3. A community that will help you succeed
The former steel city has the sixth-biggest startup accelerator in the country staffed by talented people that have achieved success in Silicon Valley.
Rich Lunak's AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear accelerators now serve as a hub for the region's thriving entrepreneurial community. Pittsburgh would not have reached this point without having something like AlphaLab to "combine Pittsburgh's strengths in software engineering, hardware design and world-class talent pipeline," according to Lunak.
Lynsie Campbell's first company, ShowClix, grew from two to 65 people by building relationships with and recruiting the exceptional talent coming out of Pittsburgh. The AlphaLab mentor is now working there on her second company, LaneSpotter, a website and mobile application that helps cyclists find safe routes.
While these kinds of ideas can die in other cities, I noticed that if you have an idea and you're willing to roll up your sleeves, Pittsburgh will make sure you succeed. They are allowing people to ask questions and challenge the status quo.
"Our generation is asking all of the right questions about the origin of the things they eat, wear, and make," said Kelsey Halling, Director of Sales for Thread. It's this climate that embraces ideas like LaneSpotter, Thread and has produced successful recent startups like Duolingo.
But this seems to be the beginning and not the end of a movement for Pittsburgh. I knew if you dropped me in this market I could network in one week, produce something in six weeks and create a major startup in three years.
Does any other city give you that feeling?