In the latest move to link Pittsburgh’s tech community with global networks, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurship platform is bringing space and connections for local startups.
On Thursday, OneValley hosted a grand opening of its new innovation center Thursday inside the Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green. It was the culmination of a series of expansion activities: Along with launching OneValley’s physical presence in Pittsburgh, the event concluded the months-long Pittsburgh Startup Challenge, with seven companies pitching in-person at the center. In April, OneValley also established the Pittsburgh Entrepreneurship Platform — a Pittsburgh-specific online community powered by the company’s software, called Passport.
OneValley’s arrival in Pittsburgh is yet another recent sign that interest in Pittsburgh is heating up as pandemic-related economic concerns begin to cool down. Like a spotlight event from startup news site TechCrunch last week and the news of Duolingo‘s impending IPO, OneValley’s presence will bring international attention to the work going on in the city. While the platform will help to further consolidate an online community for Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurs, the innovation center will offer them a place to work, interact and attend community events. The 26,000-square-foot space has areas for coworking, workshops and more.
This week’s event was one of the first at the newly developed Hazelwood Green site, a location that will also host innovative robotics and manufacturing centers associated with institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and companies like Catalyst Connection. The Roundhouse and surrounding structures at Hazelwood Green are part of a broader effort to redevelop the steel mill that was once there, and repurpose it for Pittsburgh’s growing tech economy.
“This site is a manifestation of the history of Pittsburgh as well as the vision for the innovation ecosystem that’s emerging here,” said OneValley Ventures Managing Director Alec Wright. Combined with the several new modern features of the Roundhouse’s redevelopment—materials for which were sourced from local Pittsburgh artisans and manufacturers—are remnants of its past life, including a large industrial crane and the original turntable and operator cab.
Before starting the final startup challenge pitch competition, OneValley CEO Nikhil Sinha detailed some of the future plans for the new innovation center.
“For many decades, Silicon Valley has been synonymous with innovation,” he said. But recently, he’s noticed the emergence of new centers of that entrepreneurial spirit across the United States. “We believe Pittsburgh is one of those centers.”
In addition to the new space at Hazelwood Green and the Pittsburgh Entrepreneurship Platform, Sinha said that OneValley has plans to make further investments in the area and build the company presence here.
“We see a remarkable opportunity to create momentum around development of what we believe will be one of the most exciting innovation hubs in the country,” he said.
Part of that future will be shaped by Nehal Bhojak, the new OneValley general manager for Pittsburgh. Formerly the director of innovation at Idea Foundry and managing director of the Pittsburgh CREATES innovation center, Bhojak brings a wealth of experience in entrepreneurial community building to the new position — something that leaders said will be vital to attracting local talent to OneValley.
"We see a remarkable opportunity to create momentum around development of what we believe will be one of the most exciting innovation hubs in the country."
A resident of Pittsburgh for 20 years now, Bhojak called the city her “adopted home,” and noted that “the Pittsburgh today is definitely not the Pittsburgh I saw when I moved here,” saying she didn’t expect to stay for long. Now, as she and others like OneValley have seen more potential in the tech economy here, she’s committed to building it further.
“I don’t think we are at our best Pittsburgh yet, and I’m excited to be part of the group that’s going to continue doing that,” she said.
As with many recent developments in Pittsburgh tech — including new efforts from the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, the launch of coding bootcamp Resilient Coders and a massive grant to CMU for robotics innovation — OneValley’s work here was helped by funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Foundation Director Sam Reiman briefly spoke about the long process behind the construction of the new site and the full launch of OneValley in Pittsburgh, echoing Bhojak’s sentiments that “it’s hard to imagine we would find ourselves in this place even a few short years ago.” Nonetheless, he looked ahead to a brighter future for Pittsburgh tech, thanking OneValley and others in the room like Ascender, the Hazelwood Initiative and representatives of additional foundations, for their work in “reinventing the entire culture of how the startup community operates in this city.”
Reflecting that new community were the seven finalist startups in the competition. Judged by Bhojak, OneValley Ventures Managing Director Juan Scarlett, TechStars CEO David Brown and Sequoia Capital Financial Systems Manager Chris Nguyen, each startup pitched its idea and commercial progress to the room. Ranging from robotics to agricultural tech to life sciences, the final seven competed a total of $50,000 in non-dilutive funding.
The first place prize of $25,000 went to AI-driven farming startup Bloomfield Robotics; CEO Mark DeSantis told Technical.ly this week about the company’s camera tech and progress. The second place prize of $15,000 went to communication feedback platform TalkMeUp, and third place prize of $10,000 to robotics actuator and clutch developer ESTAT Actuation. All three teams also received one year of free access to the Pittsburgh Entrepreneurship Platform and Roundhouse.
The full list of participating startups is as follows:
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.