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Why Pittsburgh’s $62.7M in federal grants for robotics projects is a big deal

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding "is going to allow companies to pivot," Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman said, "to be able to perform and work and thrive in the new economy."

Members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative on the day of the Build Back Better grant announcement.

(Photo via twitter.com/AlleghenyConf)

The Pittsburgh region just got a big funding boost to prepare for a robotics-forward future, with a focus on the people who will build it.

Pittsburgh is among 11 regions receiving $62.7 million in grants from the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge from the US Economic Development Administration, as announced Friday morning.

“The Build Back Better Regional Challenge is centered around a vision that as our economy recovers and modernizes, and [as] science and technology accelerates and changes the way we manufacture, we want small businesses and workers leading this transition and not just being shunted aside,” President Joe Biden said during public remarks about the funding.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative, made up of local universities, private entities and philanthropic leaders in the region, said the funding will be divided between five regional projects designed to bolster the region’s robotics and autonomy industry. Those projects are led by the likes of the local tech stalwarts Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, Innovation Works and InnovatePGH.

"This was about equity and people first. How do we make sure that people are benefiting from an economy and a sector that's focused on the future?"
Stefani Pashman, Allegheny Conference

What does this mean for Pittsburgh? According to Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the co-chair of the collaborative alongside Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian, it means an estimated $550 million of gross domestic product coming to this region. It also means 14,000 workers trained, jobs created and jobs retained in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, energy and agriculture. And it means 750 small and medium-sized businesses and companies will get support to upgrade their existing tech, as well as adopt new technologies for the future.

“It’s going to allow companies to pivot,” Pashman told Technical.ly — “to be able to perform and work and thrive in the new economy.”

The goal is to convene the robotics companies in Allegheny County and the 3,000 manufacturers scattered throughout the 11 participating counties toward a more sustainable future. The funded projects include a focus on equity among underrepresented communities both in urban and rural communities.

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“This was about equity and people first,” Pashman said. “How do we make sure that people are benefiting from an economy and a sector that’s focused on the future? We saw a really great chance to marry what’s happening with our technologists and roboticists with the manufacturers who are looking for a path forward to try to understand how they adopt and adapt and how they can train a workforce for the future.”

Pashman said the five projects were chosen by the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative because they had a track record of producing positive results for the region, and had taken government grants in the past and used them well. In 2021, when the collaborative began the application process, it brought together 200 partners to provide insight on which areas had the most potential for expansion and could benefit from further investment.

In the end, these were the projects that fit the bill, as described by the collaborative:

  • Expanded Pathways to New Economy Careers is led by Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and received $24.8 million to establish a highly coordinated, regional upskilling system serving both robotics technology developers and robotics technology adopters in the long run, opening a range of training options outside of traditional four-year and advanced degrees and ensuring that programs evolve based on industry needs.
  • Robotics Manufacturing Hub is led by the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute and received $14.2 million to de-risk the adoption of advanced robotics and automation technology by small and medium enterprises as well as accelerate the commercialization of robotics technologies in these entities.
  • Robotics Startup Factory is led by Innovation Works and received $12 million to create a globally prominent Applied Robotics Startup Factory that accelerates the formation of startups focusing on robotics and automation in multiple industry sectors, including agriculture, construction, mining, energy, warehousing and manufacturing.
  • Expanded Pathways to Entrepreneurship is led by InnovatePGH and received $6.9 million to increase pathways into the robotics and autonomy industries for underrepresented populations and launching new Minority- and Women- Owned Business Enterprise companies that can support the innovation economy.
  • Small & Medium Enterprises (SME) Robotics Adoption is led by Catalyst Connection and received $4.8 million to focus on boosting regional competitiveness by bringing Pennsylvania’s innovations in robotics and automation to SMEs in other industries like agriculture, construction, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, mining and transportation.

“Manufacturing is a critical capability for many companies, especially in robotics and autonomy,” said Mike Formica, Innovation Works’ managing director of hardware and the org’s AlphaLab Gear program, in a statement. “Partnering with local suppliers enables startups to leverage those manufacturers’ years of expertise resulting in superiority. By working locally product development can be greatly accelerated through close interactions. We are excited to build and scale this model which will showcase the strength of our technology and manufacturing not only in this Pittsburgh region but around the country.”

The recipient orgs and other Pittsburgh leaders took to social media on Friday to celebrate the funding:

Look for more news on the projects’ rollout in the coming weeks.


Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supportedby the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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