When most people think of factories, places that produce physical goods likely come to mind.
But soon, Innovation Works (IW), a North Side-based early-stage investment firm, will instead build a “factory” for applied robotics startups. That’s thanks to a $12 million injection of funds from a Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant award — a federal program aimed at jumpstarting regional economic development following pandemic hardships.
The Robotics Startup Factory, which has no specific location announced yet, will provide local companies with physical space and guidance in fostering partnerships, performing rapid prototyping and harnessing small-scale production onsite.
“We’re going to create companies that are developing products that can be produced in Western Pennsylvania — not just produced in China, and not just produced somewhere else,” said Mike Formica, managing director of hardware and AlphaLab Gear, IW’s hardware accelerator program. Formica is also leading the Robotics Startup Factory project.
Typically, by the time a company makes its way to Innovation Works, it’s seeking funding, but Formica envisions helping build participating robotics startups from the earliest idea stage until the point when founders are ready to send their products off to be made. This includes working with researchers, assisting with fundraising and doing “matchmaking” to establish potential partnerships between technologists, entrepreneurs and other industry players who could potentially work well together.
From his perspective, there’s no better time for this Robotics Startup Factory. One of many vulnerabilities COVID-19 illuminated, Formica said, was how “fragile” the US supply chain is. During the height of the pandemic in 2020 — due to a combination of labor issues, transportation shortages and increased demand — companies struggled to get their products out into the world in a cost- and time-efficient manner. Formica recalled products the public relied on being hard to produce, and thus hard to obtain, which made more people aware of how important it was to invest in local manufacturing. After years of manufacturing jobs declining in the states, Formica said, the public’s renewed awareness of the topic provides the opportunity for companies to create systems where they’re never unable to meet consumer demands.
This is why the Robotics Startup Factory wants the companies it’s advancing to be built around a culture of self-sufficiency: for the sake of both the startups and manufacturers in the area.
“I want to get them ready for that big growth phase, which is ultimately going to drive wealth and prosperity in the region,” Formica said.
The goal, he added, is to help the local industry evolve from a science-adept one to one that creates companies capable of producing products based on those scientific discoveries. Furthermore, the Robotics Startup Factory will offer its participants resources like a production-grade prototyping shop that a company in its infancy might not ordinarily have access to.
“The most important thing is we’re trying to create a culture of innovation that’s not just about creating science but about creating science that’s going out into the real world — and that those products that we’re creating from that science are going to be manufactured right here in Pittsburgh,” Formica said.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 supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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