Pittsburgh is on a path to become “the robotics capital of the world.”
Or, at least, that’s what the region’s most prominent leaders and companies of the industry want to realize. On Tuesday morning, nearly 100 executive leaders from both the commercial and academic realms gathered for an event hosted by the Pittsburgh Robotics Network (PRN) to announce a formal alliance across the robotics sector in the city. Some of the institutions and companies represented included Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Argo AI, Aurora and Kaarta, to name a few.
“This event is a bit of a reunion for some, and new connections for others,” said PRN Executive Director Joel Reed. The in-person event at Over Eden’s rooftop lounge in Lawrenceville brought together some of Pittsburgh’s foundational figures in robotics development and commercialization, including Martial Hebert, the dean of CMU’s School of Computer Sciences, and Peter Rander, president of autonomous vehicle company Argo AI.
“Today we’re announcing that PRN now has over 100 members working on a wide variety of autonomous solutions,” said Reed.
Though he emphasized that Pittsburgh’s robotics expertise has been a long time coming, Reed also acknowledged that “dramatic shifts in consumer trends and a shrinking labor market” over the last year have accelerated innovation in the field. And while that’s often associated with work done at CMU when it comes to Pittsburgh, Reed pushed to highlight the “lesser known and somewhat under-appreciated scope and scale of the commercial system.”
To date, the local robotics industry employs over 7,000 workers with more than 105 robotics companies in the area. The sector has seen a combined $3.4 billion invested by venture capital or private equity firms since 2012, according to PRN. Those companies span a wide range of sectors within robotics, too, from healthcare and life sciences to mobility to agriculture to commercial space exploration.
Hebert, who also spoke at the event, said that today’s local community of robotics has a long history. One “inflection point” was a Robot Ex Machina career event for CMU students in 2016 that brought together several Pittsburgh-based robotics companies.
“Many students didn’t fully appreciate the size and scope of opportunity in robotics here,” Hebert said.
He went on to describe Tuesday’s event as another inflection point in the industry’s Pittsburgh history — a meeting of the minds to launch the next phase of innovation and business growth.
Rander gave remarks at the event, too, sharing his perspective as the president of one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent automation and robotics companies.
"We tend to do great work in Pittsburgh but we don't tend to get the news out. This network helps do that. "
“I’m often asked, ‘why Pittsburgh?'” he said. “For people who aren’t in robotics or aren’t in the Pittsburgh area, they scratch their heads and wonder, ‘Aren’t there other places?'”
But for Rander, Pittsburgh was always the clear choice, not only because of the homegrown talent coming out of universities like CMU —which still has the number one robotics doctorate program in the world — but also because of the work ethic he saw in those engineers.
“We tend to do great work in Pittsburgh but we don’t tend to get the news out,” Rander said, theorizing that this could be why some still ask about the location choice for his company. “This network helps do that.”
In addition to launching the next stage of PRN, Reed also announced a new grant of $125,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to the organization as part of the foundation’s 10-year Strategic Plan announced in January. Reed said that, in partnership with Innovate PGH, PRN will use the grant to “develop a network of stakeholders and tap into diverse pools of talent.” This grant comes after a sizeable $150 million grant from the foundation to CMU, $75 million of which will go to a new robotics innovation center at Hazelwood Green.
Furthermore, he said that the grant would enable PRN to foster more community engagement and recruiting for companies and other employers within the network.
“[It’s] important that any economic cluster align itself with local communities from the very start, and you can see we’ve got work to do,” Reed said. There are “wonderful STEM opportunities,” he said, “but really the non-engineering jobs are the ones that offer more to local communities.”
Local government officials also attended the event, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
Peduto, who has witnessed and supported the recent growth of the robotics industry as mayor since 2014, said that he “used to think Pittsburgh’s best days were when my mom and dad were growing up,” remembering the steady population exodus the city saw in the second half of the twentieth century.
Now, he sees Pittsburgh as having an international presence again.
"Together in this room is talent that nowhere else in the world can match. "
“Together in this room is talent that nowhere else in the world can match,” he said. And of the long road it took to launch this economic recovery, Peduto thanked “all those people who stuck around and made that investment [in the city] and are here in this room.”
Fitzgerald’s words rang in unison, also referencing his personal history as a Pittsburgher “who grew up here and watched the exodus of young people who left this region not because they didn’t love it, but because opportunities weren’t here.”
Pittsburgh’s best days are ahead, not behind, he said, driving home the event’s motivation in establishing the city as the robotics capital of the world.
“We actually don’t have to say why Pittsburgh anymore,” he said. “We should say why not Pittsburgh?”
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.