Startups

What 5 robotics founders say they need to thrive in Pittsburgh

How can the city keep promising startups for the long term? Mostly, tech talent and early-stage funding, local execs told us at the AI & Robotics Venture Fair.

CEO Joe Bartels presents Phlux Technologies.

(Photo by Nick Keppler)

They came to talk about self-driving lawnmowers, virtual reality modules for job training and an AI tool that turns speech into simple cartoony images, alongside what they said were better ways for retail self-checkout, robotic sensing and disease detection.

Organized by Innovation Works and Carnegie Mellon University, the AI & Robotics Venture Fair, held at the Fairmont Pittsburgh on Monday, gave some of the region’s emerging tech companies an opportunity to deliver an elevator pitch in front of investors. Each got five minutes and a chance to answer one question.

A majority of these companies are based in Pittsburgh, with many of them spun out of CMU or founded by CMU grads. With these startups at early or growth stage, Technical.ly asked as few of them why they remain in Pittsburgh and the factors that would encourage them to stay.

Phlux Technologies

Joe Bartels founded sensor maker Phlux Technologies in 2020 after earning his doctorate from CMU.

Joe Bartels. (Photo by Nick Keppler)

“We’re here to stay,” the CEO told Technical.ly. “We love Pittsburgh.” The company recently moved out of Alpha Gear, the shared working space in East Liberty, and leased its own office space. It is now hiring its core engineering team — which has led Bartels to start to think that the robotics talent pool in Pittsburgh might not be large enough to accommodate its growing needs.

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“There’s definitely a great source of talent here,” he said, “and I think that just needs to accelerate more. There’s more and more robotics companies moving into town, and they’re all looking for the same talent. And so I think the talent pool needs to grow a little bit more”

“And other companies seem to stop coming,” he said with a laugh.

Bartels also said Pittsburgh has “an early-stage funding gap,” something that’s been noted by other local startup leaders. “I think there’s a lot of easy — relatively easy — money at the initial onset of starting a company. Then there’s a lot of investors that want to invest in the next stage, where it’s your product and you have a lot of customers.” But for the stage that Phlux is in now, where a company is looking to establish personnel, space, and reputation, funding can be scarce.

Estat Actuation

Based in the Alpha Gear space in East Liberty, Estat Actuation makes actuators, the device in a robotics system that causes it to operate. Cofounder and CEO Stuart Diller developed the technology while earning his doctorate at CMU. When he decided to launch the company, peers and mentors told him to leave Pittsburgh.

Stuart Diller. (Photo by Nick Kepper)

“Multiple people said, ‘You have to go to Silicon Valley if you’re going to have robotics startup,’” he said. But with help from the robotics ecosystem, “we were able to attract talent back from Silicon Valley to Pittsburgh.”

Because the quality of life afforded by people who have ascended to the tech sector, and the city’s lower cost of living, Pittsburgh is attractive, he said. That’s particularly true for potential recruits who lived in the city or attended CMU.

He added that it is important for city to maintain its robotics ecosystem of companies that could be partners, of traditional and nontraditional office spaces, of organizations like Innovation Works, and of manufacturing providers for specialty parts.

“I expect us to maintain at least maintain a presence here for as long as we have the company,” Diller said, “and I would expect us to be headquartered here for a while. We don’t have immediate plans to move.”

Synaptic Security

Synaptic is a cybersecurity company specially designed for attacks on Linux components. CEO Anthony Gadient, who previously founded three other tech startups, founded Synaptic during the summer of 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody’s remote,” he told Technical.ly. “It’s a completely virtual company.” Employees live as far away as Atlanta and San Jose. When he decides to establish a physical office, “Pittsburgh would be one of the top three choices.” The others are Boston and San Jose.

“Pittsburgh is a great location for talent because of the universities,” Gadient said. “That would be the primary reason to set up an office here, and it probably would be an engineering office. I could see doing that and then having a sales office in Boston and or San Jose.”

Anthony Gadient presenting Synaptic Security. (Photo by Nick Keppler)

ARIN Technologies

CEO Vivek Kulkarni left his job at a software company to start ARIN Technologies, which has patented technology for alerting and localization systems for automated machinery, in 2015. He is committed to staying in Pittsburgh for family reasons: “My kids are in school,” he said. “They’ll kill me if we try to move out.”

Kulkarni has recruited a mostly remote work force.

“We’ve been working remotely for a long time, even before the pandemic. For us working remote is almost second nature,” he said, “so we don’t find it hard to work with somebody who’s in India or anywhere in the US as long as we can speak in the same language.”

As for what Pittsburgh needs, the founder mentioned investors who were willing to take a chance on a company without a Silicon Valley street address.

“We could do with more investors, more money flowing into the region,” Kulkarni said. “We could do with more companies being willing to take chances on startups. Again, it comes from being a smaller city.”

Vivek Kulkarni presents ARIN Technologies. (Photo by Nick Keppler)

Thoro.ai

Spun out of Carnegie Robotics about a year ago, Thoro develops mobile robotics systems designed for repetitive industrial tasks. Joe Hosteny, head of cloud and fleet systems, said the company plans to stay in Pittsburgh, but the city needs to grow its talent pool beyond the plentiful population with engineering backgrounds. Tech companies do need other skillsets, he noted.

“I think on the business side, we just need more people who’ve been through large, successful startups and bring more that sort of the management experience, to the sales, marketing, all those types of things,” Hosteny said.

Operating in Pittsburgh presents the kind of challenges “you would expect with a smaller town, especially not a primary tech city,” he said. “It’s smaller, and maybe access to capital is a little bit more difficult.”

However, Hosteny has been working with Pittsburgh startups since 2000 and the issues of talent and funding have improved considerably: “The trajectory is correct. It’s just you need to continue them on that trajectory.”

Joe Hosteny presents Thoro.ai. (Photo by Nick Keppler)

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