Startups

Why startups are testing their tech at Pittsburgh International Airport

While travelers catch planes, startups test products at PIT, thanks to the xBridge Innovation Center led by Director Cole Wolfson.

An Ottobot beverage delivery robot at PIT. (Courtesy photo)

This editorial article is a part of Technology of the Future Month 2022 in Technical.ly's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by Verizon 5G. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by Verizon 5G before publication.

Update: Comment about project funding has been added. (12/5/22, 11:45 a.m.)

Most people would correctly assume that the Pittsburgh International Airport was a place to catch flights. But as of 2020, through the xBridge Innovation Center, it’s also been serving as a mini hub for technologies and startups trying to meet needs related to the airport industry.

If you’re a passenger with some time to kill, you could see Mapless AI testing its remote-controlled vehicles in the parking lot, or on the inside, you could take a look at AlgenAir’s commercial-sized aeriums and learn how they use algae to reduce carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

The way xBridge Director Cole Wolfson sees it, the airport is filled with possibility. Although he hasn’t been at xBridge for its entire run — he started in his role in October 2021 — he thinks there’s an opportunity to use the technology that many companies in Pennsylvania are working on to assist the airport industry.

“The great thing about an airport is it has everything from food to operations to logistics to customer service to security to sustainability,” Wolfson told Technical.ly. “So there’s this huge opportunity for so many different tech sectors of the Pittsburgh startup scene, to have a roll out at the airport.”

Wolfson spent years at Innovation Works, the North Side-based early-stage investment firm, as a business development strategist and later a business development manager. That means he was no stranger to working with startups when he started this job. That previous experience at Innovation Works, as well as his time as a senior program manager of the firm’s AlphaLab Gear accelerator, prepared him to see the airport’s potential through the lens of a startup founder.

Cole Wolfson. (Courtesy photo)

Currently, xBridge — which operates its own 10,000-square-foot facility at the end of Concourse B — is implementing technologies from seven companies, plus 12 that are on their way to being developed, Wolfson said. After that, there are other companies that xBridge is vetting to determine if their products would be a good fit for PIT.

As for funding: “It’s determined project by project based on the goals of each partner, the value that each partner brings to the airport and any financial burden imposed by deploying the pilot. We do pay for both proofs of concepts and pilots, although we don’t release those numbers publicly.”

From his time at AlphaLab Gear, Wolfson brought his colleague Leah Simoncelli, who now serves as xBridge’s program manager. Frequently, the director said, they fall back on connections made during their time at Innovations Works to find companies inside and outside of Pittsburgh to work with.

“From us doing that work for a number of years, we have this pretty massive national and global network of accelerators, venture firms, universities, technologists that we have gone out to and said, ‘This is what we’re doing out here in the Pittsburgh airport come, and be a part of this with us,’” Wolfson said.

Over the past year, xBridge has hosted food delivery robots from Ottonomy, a California-based robotics company, and Azena, which makes AI-enabled cameras for baggage collection and “people counting.” In the new year, Wolfson said the plan is to seek out companies that create a better customer experience, offer different forms of mobility, and offer energy and efficiency solutions.

“We’re trying to develop and integrate new technologies into the operation of the airport going forward as a means of improving the customer experience, and all of the other goals of this new airport that we’re building,” Wolfson said. “So while we are pursuing these efforts, we’re also providing support to all of the companies in our region that are kind of driving our tech sector.”

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.
Companies: AlphaLab Gear / Innovation Works (Pittsburgh)
Series: AlphaLab Gear / Innovation Works (Pittsburgh) / Technology of the Future Month 2022
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