September 18, 2015

Products of 3D printing.

The products of 3D printing company, Piecemaker. Credit: Mary Dooe

On our recent trip to Pittsburgh, we stopped at a former trade school, near the Pittsburgh Penguins stadium. One side of the building seemed abandoned – surrounded by overgrown weeds, and walled off by a stiff gate that we had to push open to get into the courtyard. But inside, things felt surprisingly shiny and new. 

Bob Meeder, the president and CEO of Energy Innovation Center, told us that he "grew up in Pittsburgh; I always said this building has great bones."

The EIC is really a converted former trade school that is now platinum LEED certified. The purpose of the inside-out redesign is to get people interested in trades again - trades that are now a lot more high-tech, clean, and lucrative than they once were.

With partners ranging from Penn State University to the U.S. Department of Energy to private corporations, it’s a collaborative effort to reach out to the underemployed in the city, largely between the ages of 18-35. And the center also hopes to get younger kids excited about learning a trade.

GREAT BONES

Pittsburgh was deflated in the wake of the collapse of the steel industry, and that story has been well told. Now, though, like a number of smaller American cities, Pittsburgh has been working to reshape its economy.

"Pittsburgh is at the confluence of rivers," explains Ann Dugan, the founder of the University of Pittsbugh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, and now a managing director at HEADWATERS.

"The founding of natural gas is driving our economy in many, many different ways. But on top of that we have our educational institutions, as well as our medical facilities. I would say those are the big three that are driving our economy today.

Dugan believes that the city has a lot of geographic advantages and institutions that not only helped it in the past, but will help it again today. 

"I’d have to say it’s undergoing a transformation that is unbelievable. I mean this was a city where at two minutes after five, you'd be lucky to find two people walking through it, as everyone ran for their car to get out. A few years ago, that started to change as young people again wanted to live near where they worked."

But, she warns, there are still issues to be concerned about. 

“There’s two issues that we could do even better with. One is the access to capital,” explains Dugan. We haven’t had a lot of entrepreneurial talent that can provide mentoring and coaching… And I think that’s helpful. It’s a lonely world out there for a starting entrepreneur, a growing entrepreneur."

THE STARTUP SCENE

We went to a few startups to get a bigger-picture view, to see how they are making it work in Pittsburgh, rather than Silicon Valley or New York. Both companies are run by recent Carnegie Mellon grads – and they even share a workspace. 

Solepower creates shoe insoles that harvest energy and turn it into power for your cell phone. While you walk, the battery attached to your shoe charges — then you can plug it into your phone with a standard USB cable. 

The founders are thinking big. 

"In terms of energy we have some huge energy challenges that we face as a global community. Personal energy harvesting isn’t going to be the solution to those challenges," says co-founder and CTO Hahna Alexander. "What we do hope it will do it change the way people think about energy and motion. Essentially when people know how much effort it takes to charge a portable device like a cellphone perhaps they will be more aware of energy usage in general and their behavior and wastefulness.

On the other side of the office, Piecemaker is working to bring 3D printing kiosks to toy stores, letting tweens design and print their own custom action figures, keychains, and more. 

"We want to make products on demand in all sorts of arenas and venues, from your next concert, to ball game, to a trip to the museum, to gift stores, vacations, all the way to when you’re shopping in Target and Wal-Mart, or whatever, or even down the road beyond personalization, I wanna start replacing aisles on Home Depot. Anything that can be made on demand and it makes sense, I’d love to start moving in that direction,” says Arden Rosenblatt, co-founder and CEO of Piecemaker. "I think moving forward it is going to become more of an experience, this whole retail shopping game. Because at the end of the day, I don’t think everyone wants to do everything from their computer."

But even as a city on the cusp, Pittsburgh faces challenges in trying to retain the talent that graduates from universities. Rosenblatt has had good luck in the city thus far, especially capitalizing on resources from Carnegie Mellon and startup incubators in town. But that’s not all that makes a city great. 

"I think there’s very clear attraction here. But I think Pittsburgh’s not quite there yet. I think Pittsburgh’s on the cusp. So we need more young people, more money pouring in,” he argues. “It’s a really positive indicator [that Google now has an office in Pittsburgh] and I think it speaks to a lot of what’s going on under the surface. But, at the same time, I’m very comfortable that it’s not Google that’s going to build Pittsburgh. It’s gonna be organic, just people living in Pittsburgh. That’s really what, I think, adds sustainability to the equation."

Business, Sci and Tech, startup, Pittsburgh

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