There Are No Limits To Innovation In The Steel City14 April, 2016 / Articles
Sometimes innovations come from people and places that might surprise you. Today, I’m in Pittsburgh—a city with a long and storied tradition of innovation. For many, Pittsburgh is most closely associated with a time gone by—the industrial revolution and related businesses that got their start near the turn of the last century, names and brands such as Carnegie, Mellon, Westinghouse, ALCOA and more. Following the rise and dominance of many companies in this sector, as the 20th century drew to a close, Pittsburgh came to represent the fall of a once powerful industry. Indeed, as a result of the decline in the steel industry and the downturn in the national economy, many once-prosperous Pittsburgh communities turned into the picture of urban blight. Until now.
Thanks to a unique combination of incubators, accelerators, universities, tech companies and investors, this steel town is experiencing a resurgence in the form of a technology boom. While Pittsburgh is just beginning to gain recognition as an emerging hub of modern innovation, a new generation of promising innovators are making big bets on Pittsburgh and proving that the next big idea can emerge from anywhere, such as Courtney Williamson, founder of AbiliLife, a biomedical company that engineers devices for Parkinson’s patients, and Matthew Stanton and Hahna Alexander, cofounders of SolePower, a technology that uses a foot-powered energy generating insole that can be used to charge portable devices. Others like Taylor Shearer and Christian Ference, seniors at the University of Pittsburgh, are developing software-based tools for farmers and their local consumers to better establish local food networks. And Vaish Krishnamurthy is helping to take recycling to the next level through her company, CleanRobotics.
Today, I’ll be meeting with some of these young entrepreneurs and many others like them who are proudly committed to advances in innovation in Pittsburgh. And while I admit to being excited to tour the new home to Uber’s self-driving cars testing facility, I’m even more motivated to hear from this next generation of entrepreneurs about what drives them, how this city inspires discovery and what they see as the future of innovation in Pittsburgh and beyond.
Starting today, Pittsburgh residents are being asked by its leadership to “find ownership in the word innovation” as part of its Inclusive Innovation Week. The inspiring innovators I’m speaking with are the embodiment of this advice. We should all claim innovation wherever we are—whether we live in Pittsburgh, Phoenix or Pasadena, or work for a small startup or big corporation. Anyone can adopt the mindset and spirit of an innovator and be a changemaker right where they call home.
While it’s true that high-growth startup businesses are the engine that drives this economy, it is also true that innovation can spring from anyone who is encouraged to think creatively and offered the time and freedom to experiment. Even big companies can play an important role—tech giants like Google and Facebook are already well-known for allowing staff to innovate from within. Other organizations like Deloitte, Accenture and Barclays have developed formal programs to empower their employees to create new roles and projects. And we need “everyone on the field” so that more women, people of color and those from geographic and economically diverse communities find an easy on ramp to bring their best creative ideas and innovations to light.
With so many intractable problems, it is time to think more expansively about who we can tap to solve them—reminding ourselves that great innovators can come from any background, and from any corner of the world.