Startups

Why this longtime startup advisor says the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial ecosystem is a community of helpers

And consider this mentorship-driven tale of some very Pittsburgh growth.

LifeX Labs' South Side office.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by Michele Migliuolo, a commercialization expert with LifeX Labs and managing director at Angel Bridge Partners.
Our region has come such a long way since I arrived in Pittsburgh in 1988.

The South Side used to be the place. Networking lunches were always held at The Double Wide Grill. Coffee was at the Starbucks on Carson and 14th Street. I predicted 20 years ago that Lawrenceville would be next. Who expected the explosive growth of the Strip District as well? Hazelwood is now on everyone’s radar.

Yes, we are currently focused on, and known internationally for, artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous vehicles. However, our region’s ecosystem was built on advanced materials, novel manufacturing methods and life sciences. These sectors will continue to grow as our entrepreneurs continue to look for excellent mentorships from our city’s “giants.”

They are the white-haired professionals who truly care and and serve with love: Frank Demmler, Don Morrison, Larry Miller, Mark DeSantis, Greg Coticchia, Paul Petrovich, Craig Markovitz, Catherine Mott, David Charlton, Kit Needham, Randy Eager, Sree Gadde, Wayne Jones, Afshan Khan, Sean Sebastian, Glenn Watson, and so many others.

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To understand the importance of personal connections in building a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem, consider this story of some very Pittsburgh growth.

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In 2013, while working at Innovation Works, I met David Luebke who was then a technical director at the National Energy Technology Laboratory; I was part of a team helping NETL accelerate the commercialization of its technologies. David was collaborating with Hunaid Nuwala, then at Carnegie Mellon University, and I quickly introduced the two to Matt Bootman, CEO of Crystalplex Inc., because I thought that Matt’s company might be interested in David’s invention. At the time, Crystalplex was the sole tenant of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse wet lab space on the South Side.

Fast forward to 2015: Matt moved Crystalplex to a new facility off the Parkway West and David left NETL to found LumiShield, with Hunaid as a cofounder. The company, formally a spinoff from CMU and NETL, has developed a chrome-free pretreatment process called Lumidize offering corrosion prevention and improved paint adhesion. Matt continued to be a mentor to the LumiShield management team, and as the company grew out of its R&D space and needed to establish pilot production facilities, offered to let LumiShield use part of the Crystalplex space to set up a novel, proprietary plating line.

Fast forward again, to 2020: As part of my duties as a commercialization expert at LifeX Labs, I met Matthew Borowiak, founder and CEO of Workers First. The company’s research and development efforts focus on eliminating the dangers of acids, and engineered a designer polymer that neutralizes acids on contact. The company was a member of the LifeX incubator out of Lawrenceville, prior to moving to U-PARC. Early in my relationship with Matthew, I introduced him to David Luebke. David has since informally mentored Matthew.

One last jump ahead, to 2021: Workers First has secured its first significant commercial contract, and needs to scale up its chemical production line. In a chat, I suggested to Matthew that he tap into David’s expertise. LumiShield had since taken over the whole Parkway West space, after Crystalplex’s departure. The two met again, with evident synergy, and David offered to let Workers First use part of the LumiShield space to set up a proprietary chemical line.

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Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse to Crystalplex to LumiShield to Workers First: This is the Pittsburgh way, where each one of us is a connector. In a few years, who will Matthew wind up helping, when his turn comes? I love my work as a startup advisor; I call it “giving bad advice for free,” making all my CEOs laugh every time I say so. When you make these connections, and other CEOs wind up making a difference to younger entrepreneurs, you quickly realize that the ecosystem is truly a living soul, growing and prospering with time, where each one of us who has had the luck to enjoy success sends the elevator back down.

I encourage you to make a difference today. With honesty, humility and true empathy, start giving bad advice for free.

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