Professional Development

Here’s how Pittsburgh’s accelerators helped startups survive the pandemic, and lessons learned along the way

Forced to take their programming online last year, these accelerators learned how to support founders in new ways that they plan to continue even after in-person work fully returns.

Inside the University of Pittsburgh Big Idea Center.

(Photo via twitter.com/pittbigidea; image has been cropped)

Accelerators, like almost everything else, took their programming almost completely online last year, doing their best to simulate in-person innovation over video chat. And while some leaders of Pittsburgh’s accelerators and incubators found that transition challenging, they also learned new ways to build the local tech community that they plan to continue even after reopening.

Because such programs are focused on growth, the typical end goal for a workshop or cohort is a pitch to investors. But Terri Glueck, the director of community development and communications at Innovation Works, said the economic development org’s accelerators soon realized video pitches would require an entirely new skill set.

“Over all of the events we’ve done in the past year, we’ve really been looking at what is successful and what works,” she told Technical.ly. In collaboration with startup founders, Glueck said the Innovation Works staff reexamined presentation timing, slide deck organization and networking platforms during the pandemic.

Innovation Works — which hosts the AlphaLab, AlphaLab Gear and AlphaLab Health accelerators across multiple locations in the city — also hosted online community events offering guidance on productive remote work setups and obtaining financial support from sources like the Paycheck Protection Program. Beyond these workshops, Innovation Works continued to host virtual versions of its usual events, including its third and fourth annual AI & Robotics Venture Fair. The first of the two, in May 2020, attracted about 380 investors, after bringing in only 120 the previous year. In May 2021, however, that number dropped to 200 — a trend Glueck attributes to factors like Zoom fatigue. Still, she said, some highly motivated groups like investors continued to attend events.

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“We did see a sort of bell curve in our general programming,” she said, “and I think we’ll have to learn what our expectation should be in this hybrid world.”

At the University of Pittsburgh Big Idea Center, the school’s center in Oakland for student innovation and entrepreneurship, virtual programming will continue even after in-person work returns.

“What we found, because we were forced to go online last year, is that it was a way more effective program when we transitioned to that virtual space because we were able to be way more accessible to teams,” said Student Program Coordinator Jessica Malandro.

Unlike other accelerators in Pittsburgh, the Big Idea Center operates around student schedules, which often involves study abroad programs or relocation over the summer. The center also has a smaller space than non-student-focused accelerators in the area, and virtual programming allows them to accommodate everyone, said Malandro. She hopes that prioritizing the online approach will also help graduate students, who often have full or part-time jobs outside of their coursework, take more advantage of the center’s resources.

A virtual Blast Furnace event through Pitt’s Big Idea Center. (Photo via Twitter)

Other accelerators and incubators in the area like LifeX Labs on the South Side and Ascender in East Liberty have also taken programming online over the past year, hosting events like community breakfast or investor networking calls over video chat. Ascender, which also operates a coworking space, is currently open to members under a socially distanced protocol.

But while most accelerators, incubators and other hubs of business growth have focused on virtual programming, Oakland-based Idea Foundry chose to operate in person as much as possible.

“We’ve been operating on an in-person level since we went to yellow in the region in spring 2020,” said President and CEO Mike Matesic. “We certainly took applications and evaluated entrepreneurs and had introductory meetings virtually, but nothing really replaces the idea of working together.”

With enough space for socially distanced work, Idea Foundry gave its companies the option of coming in, while still working with them virtually when preferred. Because the accelerator doesn’t host events or educational workshops, Matesic said the focus was on the community and the entrepreneurial environment of working together, motivating him and his team to reopen as soon as possible.

“It’s generally better if they come in, but we’re certainly not going to require it going forward,” he said, emphasizing that virtual options will remain open for those that want them.

While Matesic favors in-person programming for Idea Foundry’s portfolio companies, he also acknowledged that virtual platforms have helped the global reach of their operations. Before the pandemic, the accelerator’s founders would often physically travel to the countries they were working with. Now, those founders are not only traveling less, but speaking with even more countries, too, as online platforms have opened the door to new communications. When convenience or physical distance is a factor in doing business, Matesic sees virtual interaction as a way to help businesses grow to target markets or customers they may not have reached before.

Though he sees limitations to virtual-only innovation, Matesic also acknowledges that “doing things virtually has not been as much of a setback as we would have expected.” Where video calls might not have been an option for business transactions before, he thinks they will now remain a part of some business growth processes.

“Before, it was the exception,” he said. “Now, there’s acceptance.”


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. -30-
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