Startups and the city: Why PGH Lab connects civic-minded companies with local gov - Technical.ly

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May 30, 2018 4:53 pm

Startups and the city: Why PGH Lab connects civic-minded companies with local gov

The goal is to make the City of Pittsburgh more efficient, transparent and sustainable while giving startups a short-term test bed.

A presentation by PGH Lab co. Global Wordsmiths at Inclusive Innovation Week.

(Photo via PGH Lab/City of Pittsburgh)

PGH Lab’s third class of startups included a farming software company, a lower-cost internet provider, a “compost cooperative” and a company that makes AI-powered sensors.

The startups were all part of the ongoing initiative to connect city government with new technology, and provide a real-time testing ground for companies making products with the potential for civic good.

PGH Lab launched in 2016 with the goal of making municipal government more efficient, transparent and sustainable, as well as giving startups focused on citizen engagement, city ops and the environment a test bed for three to four months.

“This is an effort for the city to take a look at innovation that’s happening outside the sphere of government,” said Nicole Muise-Kielkucki, director of the Impact Innovations program at economic development nonprofit Idea Foundry. The companies, she said, “didn’t start off saying ‘the City of Pittsburgh is going to be my next customer,’ but the program allows them to test and prove within a government environment.”

(Idea Foundry is a “pipeline partner,” Muise-Kielkucki said: It recommends companies that have gone through its own accelerator and other programming as participants, and several of its portfolio companies participate in PGH Lab each year.)

Each company has its unique value proposition, and is paired with a city department or authority, known as a “champion” that will let the company test in a real-time situation. PGH Lab Program Manager Annia Aleman said the program follows the principle of inclusive innovation.

“We’re really looking at how to move the region forward while we’re all collaborating together,” Aleman said. “We want to make sure new ideas can be available for all.”

The companies in the third cohort of PGH Lab were:

  • Cropolis, a software provider for farms, which was paired with the Department of City Planning
  • Global Wordsmiths, which provides language translation and interpretation services and was matched with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh
  • Lean FM Technologies, which uses AI to create building management software and was paired with the Office of Management and Budget
  • Meta Mesh Wireless, which uses mesh networking to provide inexpensive Wi-Fi to communities and was also worked with the Housing Authority
  • NetBeez, which monitors network performance to identify potential problems before they affect users and worked with the Department of Innovation and Performance
  • Qlicket, which makes software for companies to solicit and respond to employee feedback and worked with the Urban Redevelopment Authority
  • Compost cooperative Steel City Soils worked with the Office of Environmental Services and the Forestry Division of the City of Pittsburgh
  • Zensors, which uses AI sensors to provide insights to businesses about how people use their spaces, worked with the Pittsburgh Parking Authority

Muise-Kielkucki moderated a recent meetup where those startups talked about their progress working with PGH Lab and said she came away feeling impressed.

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“These are socially minded ventures and entrepreneurs who care deeply and passionately about the problem their startup is addressing,” she said.

The companies that participate in PGH Lab are at varying stages, but most have been through incubators or other programs.

“A lot of them have tested or proven their companies at other accelerators,” Muise-Kielkucki said, “but this program looks at how the city and authorities could apply the ideas and even pivot them slightly to be applied to a specific challenge.”

"This program looks at how the city and authorities could apply the ideas and even pivot them slightly to be applied to a specific challenge."
Nicole Muise-Kielkucki

For instance, Meta Mesh has already implemented its mesh software in the city’s Allentown neighborhood and the nearby city of Braddock, both low-income communities.

It also received a $120,000 grant from the Hillman Foundation last fall to expand free public Wi-Fi throughout Allegheny County. The network would provide connectivity during emergency situations such as storms that knock out electricity, as well as day-to-day access for people to use their devices without dipping into often costly data plans.

But there is no procurement services aspect with PGH Lab, so the companies aren’t guaranteed a city contract or continued work in local government once their cycle wraps.

However, alumni of the program have gone on to bigger things; there’s Hibersense (cohort 1.0), which uses climate-control sensors to make the heating and cooling of buildings more efficient and was among the startups to present their products to Congress as part of National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer’s University Startups Demo Days, and CleanRobotics’ Trashbot (cohort 2.0), which uses AI to sort recyclables and garbage and was deployed as part of a pilot at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Aleman added that she thinks there is potential for some of the companies that went through the latest cycle of PGH Lab to work with the city again. The program will continue with another cycle in the fall.

“It has been really inspiring to see all the connections made,” Aleman said. “It’s a really good pilot project to find out what’s possible.”

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