In a city where robotics is just as important as food, entrepreneurs are putting muscle behind the two industries. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Inc.'s No. 39 Surge City.
An Accelerator for Food Halls
Three years ago, Pittsburgh was crowned America's best food city by Zagat. But even as a growing creative class amps demand, rising labor costs make restaurant startups precarious. Enter Benjamin Mantica and Tyler Benson, former Navy officers inspired by the vibrant street markets of Southeast Asia who, in 2015, co-founded Galley Group, which applies the tech accelerator model to food halls. Galley removes the capital risk for chefs by not requiring them to cover the build-out of their spaces. Instead, chefs spend $10,000 to $15,000, on average, in startup costs, and then 30 percent of their monthly revenue goes to Galley. Chefs get not only space but also utilities, maintenance, POS equipment, licensing and permitting, front-of-house staff, guidance on menu strategy, marketing, PR, and--if requested--introductions to investors and help finding a permanent location. Since the goal is to get them into the community as fast as possible, there is no lease. And while there are no time limits, the average food hall tenure is 12 to 18 months, long enough to test concepts. Since its 2015 launch, Galley has hatched two Pittsburgh food halls--Smallman Galley and Federal Galley--and expanded to Cleveland and Detroit. Says Benson: "We believe this concept can create unique opportunity for chefs in many markets across the U.S."
The Self-Driving-Car Wars
To the outside world, Uber's 2016 decision to debut self-driving cars in Pittsburgh may have been a surprise. But to anyone who knows Carnegie Mellon, says Martial Hebert, director of the school's Robotics Institute, the place "has been a petri dish for the skills necessary for developing self-driving technology." Its lineage dates back to Darpa's 2004 inaugural Grand Challenge, when CMU's car Sandstorm led the pack. Uber's Advanced Technologies Group first landed here in 2015. Since then, veterans of that group--also with deep ties to CMU--have gone on to found Argo AI, the startup with billion-dollar backing from Ford, and Aurora Innovation, which develops software and sensors for autonomous cars and raised $90 million in 2018.
Robotics Roam Steel City
Roughly 60 robotics companies operate here, many founded by Carnegie Mellon alumni. Their robots are transforming the nature of work: doing inventory at Walmart (Bossa Nova Robotics), toting parts around a Boeing plant (Seegrid), scrubbing floors (Carnegie Robotics and Nilfisk). Near Earth Autonomy (self-flying aircraft) still serves the military, while others, like Agility Robotics (bipedal robots), are raising capital. "To use a Lord of the Rings analogy, Mordor's eye was always focused on one area: Silicon Valley," says Jackie Erickson of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network. "But in Pittsburgh, we are trying to solve the hardest problems."
No Innovation Left Behind
To help commercialize life-science and digital health breakthroughs from the University of Pittsburgh's Medical Center, the city's new InnovatePGH public-private partnership is forging connections with the East Liberty neighborhood, home to top accelerators AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear.