Professional Development
Accelerators / Business development / Communities / Entrepreneurs / Funding

Innovation Works CEO Rich Lunak retires after nearly two decades at the entrepreneurship hub

Lunak told about his proudest accomplishments and hope for the Pittsburgh region as he prepares to leave the local seed stage investor.

Innovation Works President and CEO Rich Lunak gives a talk at Nova Place, where the organization is located. (Courtesy photo)
After nearly two decades as the president and CEO of renowned local seed stage investor and entrepreneurship hub Innovation Works, Rich Lunak will retire.

Since taking on the role in 2005, Lunak has helped grow the organization to one of the most active seed stage investors in the country, providing more than $95 million in funding to its portfolio companies and launching the $24 million Riverfront Ventures fund, which provided high potential companies in the IW portfolio and Pittsburgh region with even more funding. Under Lunak’s tenure, Innovation Works also launched three accelerators — including one that just unveiled its physical space last week — that have fostered a startup culture and grown countless companies in Pittsburgh across software, hardware and the life sciences.

“Candidly, I’ve been thinking about it for a few years,” Lunak said in an interview with earlier this week. “But I love what I do, and there was so much exciting going on that I never acted upon it.” Still, with the huge changes to workplace culture and operations that came with the pandemic, he, like many others, took a step back to reassess what he really wanted to do.

“I’ve been a founder and/or CEO for the last 30 years and you make a lot of sacrifices during that time,” he said. “Right now, I really want to focus on family and friends and take time off.”

Lunak said that he doesn’t currently have plans to continue full-time work after retiring from his role, though he admits he’s learned in his long career of entrepreneurship to “never say never.” He plans to stay at Innovation Works through the rest of 2022, where his priority will be finding his replacement and assisting in the transition to new leadership.

Innovation Works President and CEO Rich Lunak (right) talks with PA Governor Tom Wolf. (Courtesy photo)

While there’s a lot Lunak’s proud of from his tenure as CEO, he said, “I would say first and foremost, the thing that comes to mind is having a front row seat to watching Pittsburgh’s transformation into a top entrepreneurial hub has been really gratifying.” After having a dismal startup culture two decades ago, Pittsburgh was just named in the top 25 emerging ecosystems on Startup Genome’s 2021 Global Startup Ecosystem Report.

More specifically, he’s proud of the direct impacts Innovation Works has had on the local economy, through both money and job creation. That $95 million investment across its portfolio companies yielded more than $3 billion in follow-on funding for the Pittsburgh economy. And in total, Innovation Works helped create 20,000 jobs across the local tech industry under Lunak’s tenure, according to data provided by the organization.

Lunak is also particularly proud of the efforts Innovation Works has made to ensure that progress was inclusive. In the past 10 years, 60% of founders that the organization invested in identified as women or people of color according to internal organization data. And while Innovation Works pours a good chunk of money into fast-growing startups, it also launched AlphaLab, AlphaLab Gear and AlphaLab Health (in partnership with Allegheny Health Network) under Lunak to create more onramps to innovation for local founders.

Innovation Works President and CEO Rich Lunak visits SMG Manufacturing in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

In thinking about the search for his successor, Lunak said continuing that inclusion within the job candidates will be a priority. Beyond that, he envisions someone “having empathy and an understanding of the experience that entrepreneurs go through on the entrepreneurial journey and ideally also having experience in other areas that we work in like investment, economic development, community building and other areas.” Still, he and the organization don’t want to be too prescriptive about the role, he said, and encourage people from all backgrounds to apply once the position is posted.

But of course, there are some things Lunak wishes he could have done during his time at Innovation Works, though he stated he has no regrets.

“We certainly have greater demand for our services and investment than we can fill at times and that’s always been hard, because you want to you want to help every entrepreneur succeed,” he said, referencing the common criticism of Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurship ecosystem that there’s not enough funding available for startups. And while the responsibility of fully resolving that issue doesn’t fall on Innovation Works, Lunak is proud of what the organization has done to that end. “We’ve always tried to be good stewards of the funds or investment dollars and make good decisions.”

Following his retirement, Lunak has big hopes for Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial economy even after he takes a back seat.

“I think it’s it’s very realistic that we could be one of the top five tech hubs in the US,” he said. In addition to increased startup activity, the city has seen new office openings, global company locations, higher funding rounds and more signs of success lately. “There’s a lot of really positive momentum to be excited about and I think all of those top goals are really within reach.”

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.
Companies: Innovation Works (Pittsburgh)

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