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Pittsburgh’s top tech stories of 2021: Autonomous vehicles, public offerings and a new mayor

Technical.ly only started reporting on the city full time in June, and there's been plenty to cover. These are the best-read stories from our reporting this year.

Pittsburgh at night. (Photo by Flickr user ensermac, used via a Creative Commons license)
Reflecting on the top tech stories out of Pittsburgh this year can hint at what the city wants to see in its future.

Technical.ly only started reporting on the city full time in June, and there’s been plenty to cover. Some of the highlights we’ve already pointed out include public offerings, new office openings, changes in city politics and more — and it seems like our readers agree.

Taking a look at our best-read stories out of Pittsburgh in 2021, we see a range from in-depth features to news summaries to short pieces about major company announcements. Dominating the list is one of the city’s favorite tech sectors — autonomous vehicles — followed by interests in the growth of life sciences as well as equitable initiatives around the tech industry.

Note: To formulate our best-read roundups each year, we remove our curated RealLISTs, as they’re often our most read stories but don’t tell us a ton about trends. But it is notable that readers love to know who won in our inaugural Techncial.ly Awards and who made the RealLIST Engineers, our list of influential local technologists. It tells us you want to stay up to date on the “who’s who” and keep an eye on the people on the precipice of real influence.

Now, without further ado, here are the top 10 best-read stories out of Pittsburgh this year:

10. Pittsburgh just ranked on a global list of ’emerging’ startup ecosystems. These local leaders aren’t surprised

This big news for the city’s tech industry came in early fall, and it’s quickly become a top marketing point for Pittsburgh. Ranking in the top 25 of emerging startups across the globe in this year’s Startup Genome report put Pittsburgh on the map in a new way, and highlighted the growing venture capital, entrepreneurship, university talent and more here that’s been building over the past decade. The hope with this ranking is that more investors, founders and innovators will turn to Pittsburgh as a destination and place to grow a company.

“Honestly, as an investor who’s been working here for close to 10 years, it comes as no surprise that Pittsburgh punches way above its weight in terms of opportunities for investors,” said 412 Venture Fund Managing Partner Ilana Diamond in a conference call upon the release of the report in September. “For a city of our size, Pittsburgh has an outsized innovation ecosystem.”

9. Who makes $200K in Pittsburgh? Tech careers, race and economic mobility

This story was part of a series across the entire Technical.ly newsroom based on income data we collected in collaboration with a data journalist. For Pittsburgh, the numbers showed that while the tech industry seems to be yielding higher employee salaries, those benefits haven’t been distributed equally across all demographics.

To discuss the data and its implications for the city, we spoke to City of Pittsburgh Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief Equity Officer Majestic Lane, Meter Feeder cofounder and CEO Jim Gibbs, Pittsburgh Technology Council Director of Talent, STEM and Workforce Innovation Initiatives Marie Pelloni, and Academy Pittsburgh founder and director John Lange. Each shared their insights on which companies are driving salary growth, what needs to happen to increase industry entry points for everyone and how to leverage the growing tech industry to increase economic mobility and opportunity in the city.

Later in the series in Pittsburgh, we dissected the Pittsburgh industries with the most high earners, as well as who can be an accredited investor — and why one local VC says that should change.

8. Medical technology company Smith+Nephew is expanding its Pittsburgh presence with a new office on Robotics Row

This news was popular with our readers this year, likely because it pointed to concrete evidence that life sciences, biotech and medtech companies are starting to look at Pittsburgh. International medtech company Smith+Nephew opened offices in Pittsburgh this year with the intention of developing robotics-assisted surgery technology.

“Pittsburgh is becoming very vibrant in these two economic sectors — healthcare and robotics,” said Vasant Padmanabhan, the company’s president of research and development for robotics, at the time of the new office announcement. “Why would you go anyplace else, when you have a lot of these trends lining up really nicely for our company strategy?”

7. With a new mayor on the way, Pittsburgh faces up to inequity in tech

This early story on Mayor-elect Ed Gainey‘s historic primary win in May covered his plans for the tech industry as shared at a virtual event with the Pittsburgh Technology Council. At the time, Gainey shared his view on finding ways to allow growth for the tech industry that don’t displace or disadvantage anyone, alluding to the gentrification of East Liberty that occurred when big tech companies first started arriving in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh has to become more welcoming, and the business community has to open up to be laser focused and intent — even in the tech community — about bringing in minorities,” Gainey said.

We also interviewed Gainey further about this vision in the fall; here’s his pitch to Pittsburgh tech.

6. IPO roundup: These 3 tech exits will yield big gains for Pittsburgh

If Pittsburgh had a slower year in venture capital funding, it made up for some of that lag with an abundance of public offerings. Three big ones came this fall, with bitcoin miner Stronghold Digital Mining, autonomous vehicle company Aurora Innovation and life sciences startup Cognition Therapeutics all announcing major public offerings, through IPOs or SPAC deals.

This story tracked the details of each and rounded them up for a comprehensive understanding of the wealth they can bring to Pittsburgh, and what having a greater number of public companies means for a growing economy.

5. Aurora makes Pittsburgh its full corporate headquarters, continuing momentum for the local AV industry

Ahead of launching its SPAC deal with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, Aurora announced a long list of company updates, including this news that it would make Pittsburgh its full corporate headquarters. At a time when remote or hybrid work models are still the norm, this physical long term commitment to Pittsburgh provides a chance for the industry to grow here more than anywhere else.

“I feel like we’re reaching that tipping point within the community. It’s kind of central to what our message was in June,” Pittsburgh Robotics Network Executive Director Joel Reed told Technical.ly at the time, referring to the PRN’s prior commitment to make Pittsburgh the robotics capital of the world.

4. Ahead of Aurora’s SPAC deal vote, here’s everything the AV company has done since acquiring Uber ATG

Aurora’s SPAC deal proved a popular topic this year. In reviewing the company’s announcements, from its acquisition of Uber ATG to new industry partnerships to safety guidelines, this story shared an example of the journey a Pittsburgh tech company can take.

Aurora has since gone public and released more announcements, but this piece will always serve as a good refresher of what came before the company’s big financial move.

3. Aurora Innovation makes its debut as the first autonomous vehicle company to go public through a SPAC deal

Shortly after the story above published, we also wrote up this one detailing the results of the company’s share price and other factors on the day of Aurora’s debut. We also dug into the financial plans the company shared on when it expects to turn a profit, and how it will use new funding generated by its public offering.

“Today is a significant step in our journey to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly to the world. It also comes at a time when society needs our vision to become a reality more than ever before,” cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson tweeted at the time.

2. Thanks to Duolingo’s big green owl, the edtech company is now one of the most viral brands on TikTok

A cute owl going viral on a leading social media platform? Of course that’s going to be at the top of our best read stories list. As a branding awareness and marketing effort, Duolingo doubled down on its TikTok presence this fall, moving away from its short lesson videos to ones featuring Duo, the big green owl company mascot.

Since publishing this story, the company’s profile has risen even more in popularity, pairing Duo with popular sounds, themes and other trending topics on the platform.

1.  Big tech companies are flocking to Pittsburgh. The foundation was laid over decades

Technical.ly’s top read story in Pittsburgh this year is one we published last year. As we strategized over what our full-time coverage of this city would look like, we often came back to this evergreen story of how tech even became such a big industry in Pittsburgh, and it seems we weren’t alone.

This story paints the picture of major key players that are still making moves in the tech industry today. It’s the beginning of a story we hope to keep telling in the new year.

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: Smith+Nephew / Cognition Therapeutics / Stronghold Digital Mining / Duolingo / Aurora

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