Smaller American Cities Are Poised For A Second Wave Of Disruption

Smaller American Cities Are Poised For A Second Wave Of Disruption

Why Pittsburgh's resurgence could signify a new creative renaissance in U.S. innovation

Plus Aziz
  • 12 october 2016

A slew of American cities and towns are working to redefine themselves in ways that would position them to compete with larger metropolitan hubs. Although Detroit and New Orleans are part of this wave, we found Pittsburgh to be a case study pregnant with learning lessons and a story that is quickly gaining momentum. According to The Guardian:

“Pittsburgh is now in a position to capitalize on the infrastructure of the past in ways that could not have been anticipated at the depths of its post-industrial depression two decades ago, when the city’s population was half its industry peak and the unemployment rate was worse than in Detroit.”

With high-profile moments like Obama’s upcoming visit at Frontiers Conference and Uber testing their driverless cars, Pittsburgh is a city bubbling with entrepreneurial energy and what seems to be a definitive resurgence. In fact, the city ranks third on VC investment rates.

How did this come about and what will sustain it? What is contributing to shaping the city’s future and what can other urban centers learn?

Optimizing Creative Reuse To Catapult New Ideas

Thrival Fest_Tony_Piscitelli.jpg

Thrill Mill is a nonprofit that has been organizing Thrival Festival (a music and tech conference) for the past few years, and cultivating Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community. As an early-stage accelerator, the organization is supported by foundations and relies on corporate sponsors and other partners to make Thrival Fest a reality.

In our interview with Dan Law, Thrival’s executive producer, he emphasized the idea of creative reuse and how Pittsburgh makes the most of the industrial backdrop of the city.

“It’s in our DNA. Philosophically, the industrial backdrop is who we were but it can also be future-facing. In literal terms, our concert site is a historic 125-foot former blast furnace. Carrie Furnaces employed thousands of people, producing tons of steel and was an important cultural feature of the community. Now it means something very different, still holding value in people’s lives through creative resuse.”

Creative reuse permeates through many great initiatives in Pittsburgh, including Ace Hotel’s decision to house their hotel in an old YMCA building. Delivering on the promise to support neighborhoods and local culture, Ace Hotel hosts events that spotlight local creatives like Creatives Drink, and more experimental, diversity-focused initiatives like VIA.

Thrival Fest Presentations.jpg

Law frames creative reuse as a method to be lean, something he believes is absolutely pivotal in allowing Pittsburgh-born companies to compete with other urban hubs.

“I don’t think it’s controversial to say we’re fairly risk-averse and conservative. You don’t have as much human, political or financial capital. So we have to be lean and sharp. We see this in both lucrative fields like robotics as well as nonprofits. The social enterprises here have to be productive or else they become useless.”

Bedrock Industries & Institutions Make Transitions Possible

Few cities are fortunate enough to have the robust history and collaborative spirit that Pittsburgh houses with Carnegie Mellon (CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Health Alliance is a great demonstration of this. The collaboration, which is centered around unlocking the value of data to improve human health, is comprised of CMU’s Center for Machine Learning & Health, University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data and UPMC Enterprises.


We spoke with Rick Siger, their Director of Strategic Initiatives and Engagement, who spotlighted CMU’s ongoing dedication to brain research and some of the activity we can expect to see from the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship:

“Some 38 startup companies emerged from CMU just last year, and more than $500 million in follow-on funding was achieved from 2009-2014.

Brain research has always been a focus at Carnegie Mellon, and it has never fit neatly into any single academic field. Through BrainHub, we’ve defined the new field of Health Neuroscience, which explores the interplay between the brain and physical health over a person’s life span. By bridging behavioral and health psychology with brain research, health neuroscience is the missing link between understanding how health and well-being are mediated by the brain.”

Behemoths like CMU are at their best when they work with incubators and grassroots efforts to absorb innovative and disruptive thinking. In looking at Pittsburgh’s rising startups, one quickly recognizes that medical innovation is a driving force for the city’s future. In talking with Mike Yeomans of the Pitt Innovation Institute, he confirms the bridge between Thrill Mill and The Innovation Institute:

“Several of our Pitt-developed startup companies have been accepted into Thrill Mill and other local accelerators such as AlphaLab, AlphaLab Gear and Idea Foundry. We foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship within the university, in our region and around the world. That culture is getting stronger, as evidenced by the record number of invention disclosures filed (314) and U.S. patents issued (80) to Pitt faculty and student innovators in fiscal 2016 and the record number of spinout companies formed (25), both based on Pitt-sponsored research and by students pursuing entrepreneurial ideas unrelated to University research.”

As far as startups go, Mike Yeomans also pointed us to SkinJect, a microneedle patch for treating skin cancer that was recently licensed from Pitt/CMU and is about to enter clinical trial:

“Another great example of a direct Pitt/CMU collaboration is SkinJect, which was developed by the Chairman of the Pitt medical school’s dermatology department and a CMU engineer. The universities have been key in building a bridge between Pittsburgh’s legendary industrial past and its emergence as a leader in education, medicine, healthcare, robotics, machine learning, clean energy, advanced manufacturing, etc. in a way that few other so-called rust belt cities have been able to achieve.”

Thrill Mill | Pittsburgh Health Alliance | SkinJect | Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship

Photo credits: Tony Piscitelli, Stephan Kraus

+ACE Hotel
+Creatives Drink
+Pittsburgh Health Alliance
+Thrival Festiva
+University of Pittsburgh
+venture capital

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