Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the ‘Burgh

You don’t have to spend too much time getting to know me before you learn that I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Pittsburgh. Then, Pittsburgh was a gritty mill town. My favorite field trip was to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which I remember as a stately black stone building. In recent years, the building was sandblasted to its original creamy white. Makes me wonder how much soot went through our lungs in those days.

By the mid-seventies, most of the steel workers were laid off. Steel from Japan was much cheaper. The mills along the rivers stopped belching their smoke and, finally, they were torn down. The air improved, but the economy didn’t. Pittsburgh was an industrial town in need of a renaissance. And, like so many cities across the globe, technology would be the renewal.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and Pittsburgh still struggles to be relevant in the global tech economy, and this despite the city’s claim to two world-class universities – Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh – and proximity to dozens of other top private and public colleges (including my own Allegheny College just an hour’s drive up Interstate 79). Pittsburgh has plenty of engineering talent and an entrepreneurial spirit. But its distance from major technology centers hampers the city’s would-be startups from accessing the financial and mentor capital that accelerates business development in other parts of the country. In fact, for all the smarts in the Steel City, I can think of only a small handful of companies with Pittsburgh roots, most recently mSpoke, which launched at DEMOfall 07 and Sim Ops Studio which I wrote about last month.

In one small but important way, that may begin to change. Innovation Works, a State of Pennsylvania program that makes investment in promising startups, has launched AlphaLab, a program and incubator space to catalyze next-generation software, interactive game design and Internet-related businesses. The program puts up to six young companies through an intensive six month program during which AlphaLab provides funding, office space, access to business advisors and other services all with the goal of helping these companies rapidly develop technology, gain customer feedback, andalpha lab logo move to commercial product launch.

AlphaLab will create an epicenter for entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, an area of the city with the charm and potential of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood.

Carla and I have written about the importance of entrepreneurial communities that lie beyond Silicon Valley. And I’m convinced that entrepreneurship is the surest path to economic development and renewal. In fact, that’s effectively the theme of Guidewire Group’s Innovate!Europe event, held in Zaragoza, Spain, a city that reminded me of my hometown as it struggled to expand its economic base from a single manufacturing industry to a broad information economy.

These transformations take help, nurturing, and support. So when AlphaLab Jim Jen asked me to join the organizations board of advisors, I immediately agreed. It’s a win/win. The entrepreneurs at AlphaLabs will get some (hopefully) good advice and insight, and I’ll get a first look at some new smart companies along with a reminder that such companies don’t all come from Silicon Valley. Present company excepted, the list of advisors and partners is impressive, and again a reminder that lots of talent lies beyond the spit of land that is the San Francisco Bay peninsula.

The program is too new to know yet how the advisory program will work, but I’ll be sure to let you know about the companies I meet in the Burgh. And if you are one of those companies, get hoppin’: Applications for the first class of AlphaLab companies are due by April 1.

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