Singularly Transformative

Tech Consulting

A Spaniard, a Mexican and a Brazilian Walk Into a Bank. The branch manager asks “Habla English?” They answer “Yes, habla English, Java, Scala, Ruby, Swift, C#, Agile, Python, PHP...” 

Transformative technologies have become one of the most popular buzzwords in recent years, but in Pittsburgh, they are about as germane as french fries on a salad. Most of them come out of highly specialized startups in robotics, AI, machine learning or natural language processing, but have not quite been the domain of the big five consulting firms or their clients. It is only fitting, then, that when Sngular, a foreign, nimble, specialized transformational tech consultancy sets up shop in the U.S., it happens to land in Pittsburgh.

It wasn’t by design, but born out of client demand and referrals that this Spain-founded international company opened its doors downtown. About four years ago, Daniel González Rico, Head of Talent & Culture, was tasked with an ambitious pitch for a Pittsburgh-based financial client. The client asked for a proposal, he and the CTO (now CEO) got to work and… be careful what you wish for! They won the process and had to scramble to hire a team of 20 specialized techies in 20 business days. We talked to Daniel and two of his colleagues, Scrum Master Gabriela Arriaga and People Manager Aline McAdams to hear the story of how this tech firm set up shop and expanded in Pittsburgh.

Upon winning the bank’s project, Daniel recalls “we weren’t expecting things to move that fast, but we started hiring local people in Pittsburgh, and we brought in talent from our offices in the US, Spain and Mexico. A lot of talent abroad want to come to the U.S., but there is only one thing that can be a detriment to move to Pittsburgh: the weather,” he comments with a chuckle. He had to play tourist guide for a bit, taking foreign candidates to Mt. Washington, shooting pictures around town and eating pierogies. “People started saying Pittsburgh was like a smaller version of New York, with a beautiful skyline, great food and great people. They were getting excited about news of the new Pittsburgh gig and it was very well received in our offices around the world.” 

Daniel Gonzalez

Sngular was founded in Spain with offices in Europe, the Americas and Asia/Pacific. They deliver innovative, custom tech solutions to clients in finance, healthcare, retail, telco and other industries. Their value proposition is bringing last-generation solutions with specialized skills that often clients cannot staff internally fast enough. “Our business analysts are not just business people, they have a comprehensive knowledge of the latest technologies and the business acumen, which is not very common,” comments Daniel. 

Gabriela, a cybernetic engineer, points out that most of their projects consist of back-end as well as front-end development projects, data engineering and devops, and their teams have cross-disciplinary experience. “You can see people that can be the tech lead but they are also focusing on the business issues, doing negotiations with the key stakeholders or other tasks, we are all working together in synchrony to meet client needs.”

This specialization and level of service has helped the company grow predominantly through word of mouth; no advertising, no cold calling, mainly customer referrals. “That made us jump from Spain to Mexico for one of our largest clients, BBVA (one of Europe’s top 20 banks) and eventually to the U.S. with the same client,” Daniel adds. They first opened shop in Birmingham, AL and it was a former client who would eventually invite them to participate in the Pittsburgh project. The rest is history, and today Sngular has a headcount of 750 globally with 100 in the U.S., half of which are in Pittsburgh. 

While the Pittsburgh office is currently focused on finance, there are big opportunities to get into other areas of Sngular’s expertise, particularly healthcare and education. Aline explains that “we collaborate with Pitt, we have meetings and office hours with students and we want to keep the collaboration and start hiring people fresh out of college and do a boot camp with them. We want to have a positive impact in the community.”

This is not your typical CMU-incubated story. Pittsburgh is not known for having a widely international community; just about 3.3% of the population in the metro area are foreign born. And when you look at the Spanish/Hispanic population, that number drops to 1.3%. So we wanted to learn a bit about how three tech expats from the Latin part of the world felt in the Burgh.

It’s not often you hear anyone say anything positive about Pittsburgh weather, but Gabriela explains “I grew up south of Texas, where there’s warm weather, then warm weather with rain and then some more warm weather. I personally didn’t know the real four seasons like Spring with flowers or the colorful changing of the leaves and I do like the weather here.” Aline partially agrees “I’m from a place in the northeast of Brazil where it’s the same weather every day, and I wanted to experience the four seasons.” 

Aline McAdams

Aline moved to Pittsburgh several years ago for an exchange program that eventually landed her in Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she obtained her BS in Human Resources. Coming from Brazil’s northeast coast, she misses the sea and finds more pleasure in the social scene than in the three rivers. “I miss the beach. Being so far from the beach, on weekends… I wish I could get in a car and spend a weekend at the beach. However, Pittsburgh was going on the right path before the pandemic, with lots of festivals and festivities on the streets and I really enjoy that! One of my favorite memories from Pittsburgh is that it was the first place where I was in a movie, in Carnegie, since they shoot many films in town. I find Pittsburgh very livable, it’s low cost compared to others. And I love this little Brazilian restaurant, Casa Brasil in Highland Park, they make traditional home food like Feijoada, which is homemade from scratch.”

 

Gabriela Arriaga


Gabriela moved from Guadalajara, Mexico, to join Sngular’s Pittsburgh office a couple of years ago and her experience was very welcoming. “I like the people in Pittsburgh. My neighbors were very welcoming, they knew I wasn’t from here and they were very friendly and went out of their way to be helpful. My only issue is with public transportation. I live in the suburbs, which I love, but there’s only one bus that goes downtown, and if I miss that bus I have to wait 40 minutes for the next one. I like to run without my mobile so I get lost all the time, and I find a lot of interesting places getting lost around. During the pandemic I find myself ordering UberEats regularly, and you’ll often find me ordering from Patrón Mexican Grill on Fox Chapel.”

Daniel, who got things started about three years ago, likes to compare Pittsburgh to Spain’s Bilbao. Incidentally, both are sister cities. “Bilbao is pretty similar to Pittsburgh. It’s cold, rainy, it was industrial with a huge steel industry and there is a huge river there. And it’s changed a lot in the last ten years, becoming a technology hub with a lot of culture and great food. But what I like most about Pittsburgh is the people, that feeling of a big neighborhood, I think we all felt it and I really like it. I interact with my neighbors almost every day. There’s even a cat in the neighborhood that is common to the entire street and he comes and goes as he pleases. I also like that Pittsburgh is changing and you can see it. You see new buildings, new initiatives, companies coming to the city. I like that attitude of the city. I’m a big fan of chef Justin Severino and love his restaurant Morcilla and charcuterie store Salty Pork Bits; I often shop there to make a Fabada, which is a traditional dish from my region of Asturias.”

We all like to brag about Pittsburgh being one of the top tech hubs globally, and a great place to live. And in all modesty, it is both. But it’s nevertheless a strong testament to the local tech ecosystem to bring innovative companies and new people from different geographies that are willing to push themselves, and us, outside of everyone’s comfort zone, and together keep raising the bar.


See career opportunities at Sngular >>

Taking the Law Into her Own Hands

Block & Associates Team

It is refreshingly timely to hear Beverly Block’s story as we enter Women’s History Month with a new administration characterized by diversity and with the first female vice president in US history. Beverly is not a politician, she’s a lawyer. And it seems finding female leaders in the country’s top law firms is still more challenging than finding female leaders inside DC’s beltway. Beverly is making it her mission to change that.

Born and raised in Detroit, Beverly moved to Pittsburgh to join her then boyfriend, now husband, who had no intention whatsoever of leaving town. “I came to Pittsburgh kicking and screaming, but in a very short time I realized why he loved it so much. Once I started working and we started building our lives together, I really didn’t want to be anywhere else.” 

Right out of law school, Beverly joined a large international law firm, Dewey & LeBeouf, when the firm was the outside general counsel for Alcoa. This lasted through 2006, when Alcoa decided to move its business to another international law firm. From there, Beverly had the great privilege to work as a clerk for a federal judge, which fed her passion to grow as a litigator. “I realized through that experience that I didn’t want to sit on the judge’s side of the bench; I wanted to be on the other side, advocating for my clients in court.” After her clerkship, she joined a regional law firm, Sherrard German Kelly, where she worked for eleven years. To Beverly, SGK is a firm steeped in tradition and there were a lot of wonderful things about that. She grew tremendously there and credits SGK with providing her with an environment to build a strong client base, among remarkable attorneys and staff. But she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit that kept her wondering if there was a different way to do this. “I’m sure management at all of my former workplaces would call me outspoken. I will admit that my outspokenness coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit kept me wondering if I’d ever fit into a traditional environment. The statistics around lawyers and gender paint a clear picture – individuals other than white males have a hard time getting into leadership positions in law firms. And it’s particularly pronounced in cities like Pittsburgh, which celebrate tradition.”

Much as women have come a long way to crack the glass ceiling from corporate America to public office, the reality is there’s still a long way to go. And this certainly applies to the legal field. A 2019 study commissioned by the American Bar Association revealed that women constitute only 20% of equity partners in law firms. That percentage is lower, likely around 15%, in Pittsburgh. “As I started to have children, the uphill battle became more pronounced. I began to better understand why success can be more elusive for women in this profession. Financial success in the private practice of law is directly linked to how many hours a person can bill in a day. There is a premium placed on billable hours, which disincentivizes efficiency, well-roundedness, and authenticity. Instead, attorneys are incented to sit behind a computer for hours on end, close the office door and bill the heck out of a situation. This leads to a very homogenous group of people. To me, that is not what the practice of law is about. The practice of law is about helping your clients solve problems. I can solve problems, relate to my clients, dig deeply into their business when I have the time and flexibility to invest in who they are as individuals, to see what their businesses are really doing, and to learn their short and long-term goals without the constraints of billing software clicking away in the background. If law firm leadership remains focused on how many hours I can put on my timesheets, I’m not going to be able to grow to be the type of professional that I want to be and the type of professional my clients need me to be. So, I decided to study the business of the practice of law and learn about the drivers that make law firms successful.”

Big law firms, like big corporations, carry immense overhead costs because there is a premium placed in large fancy offices, golf outings with clients, year-round tickets to the theater and sports events, etc. “To me, big, fancy offices are something of the past, and I felt this way well before Covid hit. I would ask the folks I was building relationships with, ‘what’s most important to you?’ And they would tell me ‘being able to call you and get quick and practical solutions to our problems.’ It certainly wasn’t hosting them in a fancy office. So, I was ready to make a change, and it focused on decreased overhead and incentivizing individualized well roundedness.”

Setting up shop in an affordable office space and investing further in better understanding client needs was half of the equation and what often makes boutique shops effective in finding niches the big players can’t cover. But Beverly’s mission went far beyond, as she wanted to set up a more inspiring and accommodating work arrangement for herself and others. “Approximately 50% of US employees are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, and less than 75% of employees are paid during that leave. This means that not only do many women not get time off when they have babies, but most of them don’t get paid time off.” Over the past ten years, Beverly has worked to encourage local law firms to adopt paid family leave policies and incorporate measures to encourage women to ease back into the practice after parental leave. “Firm leadership must recognize that incorporating these policies are vital stepping stones to retaining and promoting female legal talent.”  So many employers, including countless local law firms, do not prioritize either of these measures. “While educating others about these issues is deeply important work, I felt like I needed to go one step further and create a law firm where these values are engrained into the culture of the firm.”   

Team at Block & Associates

During the process of creating her firm, many felt that the idea of a 40-year-old mother of three starting a law firm from the ground up seemed as crazy as it was frightful. The fact is most people aren’t successful launching their own law firms and often fold and end up going back to a larger firm several months later. But Beverly decided to take the law into her own hands, so to speak. “In the end, I decided to take the leap and build a firm based on a different set of values. At our core, we are in the client service industry, so instead of asking, ‘what works for me,’ and how many hours can I bill in a week, or a month or a year, we must work every day to deliver customized legal service that works within our clients’ business structure. It’s incumbent on us as lawyers to say to our clients ‘We are here as your business partner, not just as your lawyer. What is important to you? How can we best advocate for you and what you’re trying to accomplish?’ Our firm is based on those priorities without being slaves to the billable hour. And without a doubt, being a woman and a mother of three make me a better listener, a strong multi-tasker, and an all-around highly capable attorney.”

Beverly’s bet is paying off. As Pittsburgh’s tech scene thrives with growing startups with general counsel needs and no appetite for fat overhead leading to higher hourly rates, Beverly’s firm, Block & Associates, is doing just that. “We are the firm you call when you want a partner for your business. We’re not just engaged in one matter, it’s more of a holistic relationship. We have been privileged to represent many tech startups and early-stage companies who are looking not just for a lawyer to defend them in a lawsuit, but a lawyer who is going to stand beside them from day one. In those early meetings where they’re looking at their initial funding, how many employees they should have vs. independent contractors, those really early-stage questions, we make clear that we want to grow together, which has been really wonderful. I’m a small business; I’m growing a business right alongside my clients. It’s such a collaborative and rewarding opportunity to be on that journey together. When Covid hit we were all in a holding pattern. I wasn’t just advising my clients based on reading articles in the Wall Street Journal, I’m advising them because I’m living it and I have to dig into what Congress is passing and what the PPP loan forgiveness rules are because I’m going to need it for myself.”

The tech growth has been a blessing for her business, and as she sees it, a blessing for the entire city, one that didn’t seem quite fathomable only a few years back.  “I think it’s fantastic, I think the city deserves it, and it makes sense. We have these amazing universities. What has been remarkable about the tech space in Pittsburgh is that we have these universities graduating these impressive individuals in countless fields and we’ve built an infrastructure to support those students after graduation. The innovation is great, it’s the right thing for Pittsburgh. If you asked me the same question ten years ago, I would have said ‘that’s never going to happen.”

So, for someone who moved to town kicking and screaming 20 years ago, Beverly has certainly found a new home here. “I’ve done a total 180. I am a poster child for Pittsburgh. I love everything about Pittsburgh. Living where we live (Squirrel Hill) in a very walkable part of town, I’m raising my children in a place where they can be independent, walk to school, meet their friends for ice cream, bike uptown – that’s how I was raised.  I live equidistant between Schenley Park and Frick Park and I explore those parks a lot and I try to remember to practice gratitude. I find myself at the intersection of luck, privilege, and hard work. I pinch myself. It’s where I want to be.”

One might argue Beverly should pinch herself harder for what she’s accomplishing professionally. Building a refreshed and challenging model of a law firm in a city and in an industry that both show strong respect for tradition, while successfully growing alongside her clients. What Beverly has accomplished is no small feat. And an inspiring story for many to take matters into their own hands. 

Food for Thought

Leah Lizarondo

One in nine Americans struggles with hunger and over 14 million American households are food insecure, according to a Feeding America Hunger study. These stats become all the more chilling when you consider that about 40 percent of all food in this country goes to waste. Let that sink in - 11 percent of Americans go hungry every year and 11 percent of American households feel food insecure, while a staggering 40 percent of the food we produce and distribute ends up in landfills. Now here’s some food for thought, how do you figure out a way to redirect all that good food to those who need it? That’s exactly what Leah Lizarondo, CEO of 412 Food Rescue, set out to do when she co-founded the tech non-profit. 

Leah started her career in consumer packaged goods working for Colgate Palmolive in New York when suddenly she saw the first dot-com boom happening before her very eyes and decided to switch to tech joining a software company in a product management role. “That’s when I first learned about product management in the software sense, which is different from the product management in packaged goods. I loved how quickly technology can move. I decided to transition to technology and that’s when I decided to go to Carnegie Mellon. I also wanted to focus on technology for good, so I went to Heinz School of Public Policy instead of Tepper.” While raising her kids in Pittsburgh, she took a little time off and then moved into the non-profit sector. “So I now had experience in packaged goods, technology and non-profit, and 412 Food Rescue is kind of an agglomeration of the three.”

Around 2012 the National Rescue Defense Council published a report called “Wasted,” and that was the tipping point for Leah to build and launch a new, more agile model that would leverage technology to address an issue food banks across the country were struggling with. “All of us have this idea that we’re wasting food but don’t know the extent of it and this was the first report that basically said we’re wasting almost half of our food supply. For me, that was extremely shocking and it was an interesting problem. Why is food going to waste? Where is it going to waste? Why is it not getting redirected? After looking at it, I really understood it’s a big logistics and distribution problem. A new model had to be built to make it cost effective. Uber and ride-share services were starting with the technology that supports these big fleets of vehicles without any physical presence. You don’t have to have a lot, you don’t need to check in. So we decided to take the model, if you can mobilize hundreds of thousands of cars and drivers using technology we can do the same. And lo and behold, delivery services are now the biggest segment of these platforms, so 412 Food Rescue functions the same way but for a different cause.”

While the non-profit started in Pittsburgh, they built a platform that could be licensed and leveraged elsewhere. “How do you build this volunteer network and ensure that it’s reliable enough for stakeholders to depend on? Like when we order using DoorDash, we know it’s going to come. So we want the same reliability. It’s about understanding how to raise awareness, how to drive consumers to opt in and actually participate. That’s truly the magic of the platform, which is called Food Rescue Hero. This differs from a traditional food bank model, where you have a fleet of trucks and a warehouse delivering large orders to a finite list of designations. Our platform, with no warehouse or fleet of trucks, allows them to distribute an exponentially higher number of destinations, not limited by a truck.”

412 Food Rescue’s proprietary app, Food Rescue Hero, is also operating in 11 other cities including Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Vancouver, B.C. Each city operates under its own brand, but uses the Food Rescue Hero platform and 412 Food Rescue is a licensee to all the other operations. “The difference from a DoorDash and our operation is that we work directly with nonprofit organizations. So using the app, our volunteer drivers will pick up from Whole Foods and drop off to the nonprofit organization, and they will distribute to their clients.”

We asked Leah how friendly an environment Pittsburgh was to launch a non-profit tech platform like this, which requires tech talent and a critical mass of volunteers in order for it to scale to a meaningful level. “Access to philanthropy in Pittsburgh is beyond compare in terms of innovation. I don’t think this would have grown as quickly if it was in another city. Pittsburgh has a great philanthropic community and a lot of them are working with us; we are really lucky to have that. Pittsburgh also has that ‘Mr. Rogers spirit’ and it’s very real. Between the funding and the volunteers we’ve been able to prove this concept which was a dream. And allowed for other cities to see it and say ‘yes, we can do that too.’”

But while raising philanthropic funds is friendly in town, it’s still a challenge to a non-profit anywhere, especially in the tech industry. The licensing fees are kicking in, but supporting the development of the technology is costly. “We have to fundraise from a nontraditional philanthropy that understands that technology is part and parcel and central to what we do and there’s not a lot of technology non-profits. So therein lies the challenge, we’re not a traditional food bank.”

Finding tech talent as a non-profit is also no walk in the park. Many tech folks are interested in joining a disruptive unicorn that is going to change an industry and deliver a high financial return. “It’s not that easy to find talent. It’s a tight market. We have a great in-house team, but it’s a challenge. Not a lot of technology talent is willing to take that jump into nonprofit.” However, that hasn’t stopped Leah from growing and scaling. Today 412 Food Rescue has 20 employees and 10,000 volunteers who have delivered almost 15 million pounds of food over the past six years. If you count all nine cities using the platform, that’s 40 million pounds of food and 170,000 miles covered over the same time period – that’s about seven trips around the world, by car, delivering free food that would have otherwise gone to waste to those who need it.

Many operations, companies, universities, institutions and non-profits have suffered the perils of the current pandemic. How has this affected 412 Food Rescue and what have they learned from it? “In no way did we ever foresee anything of this scale happening in terms of crises, but this is exactly the kind of crisis our model is designed for. We’re a distributed network that is highly resilient, this is like the internet, if one node goes down another one goes up. We don’t see any of the food that we transport. If one driver cannot make it today, there are a number of other drivers that can, so that delivery will not be missed. If a truck breaks down, it’s done, which means that all other nonprofits and pantries will have a hard time getting to that food. So, it’s a network designed for disaster. It was very impressive to see it working during the crisis. It’s also a very contact-less method of volunteering, you pick up the food, you drop off the food and you see no one; it’s extremely safe. So it has endured and grown in this crisis.”

Always interested in our protagonists’ connections to our city, we asked Leah, how does a Philippines born immigrant to New York end up in Pittsburgh? While she initially came to attend CMU, she returned to New York until she started a family and it was back to Pittsburgh. “I had kids, not easy to raise them in New York City. Pittsburgh is a great place to raise a family. It has all the amenities, our museums, our parks and how easy it is for kids here in Pittsburgh. The sense of community is really fantastic. That’s really hard to replicate anywhere else. This collegiality and just lots of mutual and peer support everywhere. It’s a small town and it feels like home. You can pretty much know everyone; there are like two degrees of separation.”

It’s not often we read ‘high tech’ and ‘non-profit’ in the same sentence. And it’s not often you see ‘female CEO’ and ‘immigrant’ in the very same sentence either. Leah’s victorious story is nothing short of inspiring and exemplary of how far our leaders are going in this region, which has earned her among many accolades a well-deserved seat in Pittsburgh Business Times’ 2021 Power 100 list. She’s certainly empowering thousands of people in our region and beyond.

 

See career opportunities at 412 Food Rescue >>

Uncomfortable with Comfort

Majestic Lane

In early 2019 there were five Offices of Equity in the entire United States and one of them was right here in Pittsburgh. That was due to the commitment of Mayor Bill Peduto and the man that runs the office, Chief Equity Officer Majestic Lane, to pursue much needed systemic change. Majestic is on a mission of pushing all of us outside our comfort zone to get things done, and you can often find him wearing a baseball cap with the initials GSD, which stands for Get Stuff Done - you are welcome to replace “Stuff” with a more convincing four-letter word, but the meaning doesn’t change. You could say Majestic is uncomfortable with comfort in a way that he’s dismissive of comfort, perhaps largely because it gets in the way of GSD’ing, and he’s all about not just talking, but getting things done.

We spoke to Majestic to learn more about his vision for Pittsburgh equity and how business and tech can help make Pittsburgh a better place – i.e. a more equal place – for everyone in the city.

“You hear a lot about equity but as far as being institutionalized at a municipal level, it’s relatively new. It goes from the government talking about equity to trying to operationalize it. Equity is the issue of our city, the issue of our country, it’s a global issue and the issues of inequality have large and lasting impacts. Equity is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic imperative, as the conditions of the last four years and last couple of months, in particular, have shown us. It’s really about how a city government leads and has that discussion centering on all of our residents, no matter race, gender, orientation, age, or country of origin to actually make sure that everybody feels healthy, safe and that they belong in the city. That’s not only a good civic and moral duty, it’s an economic imperative as well.”

This is a tall order and quite a challenge, we were intrigued to learn what the major roadblocks of his job are. “Going from individual activity to systemic change. People can identify that lack of equity is wrong, but trying to change the systems can accompany discomfort in some of the changes and lack of understanding of how systems either act in vicious ways or virtuous ways. So the challenge of poverty, the challenge of exclusion, they’re punishing challenges but they’re often subtle. How do you get people to realize it and realize their role in it? But then for them to take a positive stance in being able to change it versus admonishing it. And create the enabling environment to be a part of the growth of all of our citizens.”

The current climate is certainly heated around racial issues in this country, how does this impact what his office is trying to accomplish? “Over the past six months in particular, we had a national conversation on race and dialogue about race and what that means and how that impacts so many other elements of our society. We’re at a place where we’re beginning to have those conversations, but cities, I would argue, as the laboratories of innovation that we speak about so much, have also the ability to be the laboratory to talk about issues of race, poverty and inequity in ways that can set the precedent for the state and national governments and actually internationally to talk about what this means.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Majestic moved to town to attend the University of Pittsburgh and ended up falling in love with the city. But he recognizes some weaknesses and is challenging all of us to step up to the plate. “I think Pittsburgh is really segregated. I want to see more places in Pittsburgh where more people can meet people that are different than them. I think that’s a big challenge. Our physical civic commons is not like Bryant Park in New York City, or the Bean, our civic commons is the Steelers, if you will. That’s the place where we all connect and then go home and are separate. So I do think we need some opportunities to break down a bit of the segregation in the city. I would say that’s something that becomes not a force multiplier but sometimes becomes the gift that keeps on giving. When you see these opportunities to have diverse engagements you just see new opportunities emerge. You see new restaurants emerge, you see new business opportunities emerge. But as long as folks stay segregated in what is comfortable we’ll continue to get what we have been having.  The other thing I’ll say is that Pittsburgh has to continue to grow, but also think about who’s being impacted in the growth. We want to continue to see companies come and flourish, but we also want to continue to see if there are folks from the region, folks from the neighborhoods, folks from the suburbs and the exurbs who can also benefit in that growth and where’s that pathway to figure out whether it’s in education, whether it’s in the workforce, whether it’s in investing, whatever it is, that we can really get behind our companies in the same way we get behind our sports teams. 

Majestic often talks about empowering communities to rise to the occasion and to their potential, but this is not a one-way street and requires effort from all sides. “It’s a unique environment we’re faced with that on one level it has to be from the community. Communities have to feel like they’re helping like they feel safe and like they belong and are empowered to be a citizen. And if you don’t have that you have isolation, which gives way to segregation, which gives way to civic breakdown. You have to have a bottom-up sense of empowerment, and equality and engagement and voice. But at the same time, we need leaders to acknowledge that the costs of inequity are too high for our cities and to lead by setting the standards in doing things in policies, procedures and programs that foster equity in their own institutions. As a guiding light for other folks. You need two triangles intersecting, if you will, you need a top-down approach where stuff is coming from the top and you also need the bottom-up approach.”

We were curious to hear if cities across the country are working together or learning anything from each other. “I’m a part of a cohort of ten Chief Equity Officers, the other CEOs as people say now, across the country and what we’re learning is that every city is unique but obviously every city has very similar if not the same challenges, so learning about the unique contours of individual cities and their enabling environments can help you recognize what’s possible in your own space. Cities like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Louisville have helped us see the arc of the possible and under the leadership of the Mayor really making this a priority for our administration and making sure we’re taking a collective and equity focus lens on making sure that people are doing better.”

There are a number of successful city initiatives that are paying off, one such example is the local non-profit Black Girls Code, which helps young African American ladies learn how to code. “If you introduce an industry to people and they see success and they see a pathway to success, and you can minimize the roadblocks to that success for them, they’ll become good at it. There was a time that African Americans played baseball and not basketball. What does that tell you, that at some point there’s a basketball court everywhere but you need nine people to play baseball, it’s a little different. As you reduce the roadblocks and you create more spaces showing success, it makes sense that people gravitated to that pathway. So if we know that’s how that happens, how do we start to create examples of people who are succeeding in tech? How do we make coding accessible? How about knowing what’s behind the curtain? When you look at the use of technology, black and brown children over-index on the use of it and purchasing it. And actually being influencers of engaging with it. But not necessarily the creation of it. So it’s really just a shift. In most industries, it kind of takes the time of a lifecycle to shift what you’re doing and how you do it. That’s what we have to be thinking about. It’s about examples and reducing the roadblocks to engagement. On a local level the city has hired someone to deal with digital equity in our department of parks and recreation and what he’s doing is setting up spaces that are rec centers to actually teach coding. So again, breaking down the roadblocks. He also does weekend classes for young people who want to learn. Actually, my son has participated in it and was beginning to learn the basics of coding. So this is someone from the city, from the neighborhood, having the experiences, who then decided to come and actually teach and can communicate the reality of coding in a way that folks can relate to. So we see classes of young African American females who had never been exposed to coding and weren’t particularly good in math or science who now have started to develop this interest. We now have classes in our rec centers that are overpacked, where we have to tell young people to come back next week because so many young people now want to start thinking about what this looks like. We’re going to be modeling this and really think how we can have rec centers be open-door to innovation and technology starting at a very early age. Just as we have-open door to summer camps, open-door to athletics, there should also be an open-door to technology.” 

To Majestic’s point, the impact of such initiatives on innovation go far beyond civic duty and ethics but can have significant economic benefits for all involved. We know innovation benefits largely from diversity, with different approaches, lines of thinking and skills making the end result larger than the sum of its parts. “If you look at the cities who are burgeoning now and their innovation in tech and folks that are globally are leading in innovation, they’re not just monochromatic, and we see it, and we see the benefit of it. If we see places that are monochromatic and folks have the same perspective and the same mindset eventually the same kind of thinking kicks in which is really antithetical with innovation. If you have the same kind of thinking, you’re not going to get outside the box that you have to get out of to actually create a new idea. But often if we’re bringing everyone together that went to the same schools, have the same experience, play the same videogames, eat at the same places, we’re going to get more enhanced cycles of whatever we have. So it’s like innovation or tech has to use the same lens that it talks about in its structure about how we do things differently in its own ecosystem. That’s been the most difficult thing, so tech in that sense, is no different from government, tech is no different than business, tech is no different than all these other institutions that at some point have become victims of the same people doing the same things. So it’s really the mix of folks in tech looking at social innovation also thinking about what this means to take the lens and apply their lens to broader issues and then bring that lens that they kind of touched on and bring it back into their systems. And lead by example not just with hiring, but also with engagement. So you lead and acknowledge that talent is equally distributed but the opportunity is not. So if you operate from that maxim, you know that the next possibility usually isn’t in your space. That the next possibility is in the space that you’re not in. We’ve seen economically so many ways where that is actually the case.”

Majestic is very involved with the Pittsburgh tech community and sees a lot of opportunities of how the community can further help the cause. “We’ve had conversations with the Tech Council, but I think there’s still a process for folks to understand how they can engage and how they engage in ways that are comfortable to them, and part of it is that we have to get out of this space where it’s comfortable and kind of engage in a way that is not comfortable because that’s where the opportunity is. This opportunity is not in what we’ve been doing, the opportunity is how do you build relationships with connectors and influencers in the city that can actually take tech companies to communities to watch young people begin this process. Thinking about sponsoring a rec center where once a week or once a month somebody from the company comes and speaks and works with the young people. The Mayor had an idea that instead of community businesses sponsoring the sports leagues in our communities, what if Microsoft sponsored one of our youth football teams. And then part of the process of sponsoring is also engaging that particular team and that community. Again we want to normalize the idea of tech and not just being only someone buying but also engaging.”

We wanted to know why a Philadelphia native fell in love with Pittsburgh? What are things about this city, physical or cultural, that made him fall for it? “The history of the city, the neighborhoods and how neighborhoods feel distinct, the character of the different neighborhoods but also the close-knit nature of the city and the ability to feel like you’re in a place of community. In the Lincoln Lemington neighborhood, there are three houses that were developed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright that are totally unique to any other houses I’ve seen in Pittsburgh and they built them in the forest so that architecturally they would look different. It’s  hard to find it and it’s harder to still get out of it once you find it, but they’re three houses built by acolytes of Frank Lloyd Wright that are some of the most unique dome-shaped houses that I’ve ever seen. It always goes to show to your point when we stay close and go far, we have a close-knit place here, but the impacts of what happens here have had a global impact and so that’s one thing I tell people you’d be surprised by the architecture you’ll see here if someone tells you about it.” 

We couldn’t agree more and as a closing remark, asked Majestic to share his thoughts on his reference to getPittsburgh’s tagline of ‘Stay close. Go far.’ “It really underlies the ethic of what happens here. It underlies the possibility of a community that can actually develop a business or take an idea not just around Pittsburgh but around the world. That’s an example of that closely curated network of community members that are all here to do something interesting; it is what allows Pittsburgh to punch above its weight, proverbially, and really create things that have a global impact.”

 

(Photo by J.L. Martello /18ricco)

 

Mapping Out Mapping

Emily Mercurio CivicMapper

Countdown on the loudspeaker: ten, nine, eight… and all the way down to one. That was the signal for Emily Constantine Mercurio to put her head down and cover her ears as she felt her school shake and tremble from the nearby explosion. This was no terrorist act, but a routine blast from the coal mine next door. It had become so natural in her upbringing, she was under the impression it happened in every school in America and never thought much of it. Yet, it would be the detonating event that launched her career as a geologist and eventually turn her into the co-founder, CEO and majority owner of CivicMapper, a tech startup offering geospatial technology solutions.

Emily grew up in a farm house near the town of Claridge, PA, where she went to school with all the sons and daughters of the nearby coal mine workers. Growing up there “definitely left an impression on me, but the one interesting thing that came out of that experience was that they would bring in fossils that they found when they were stripping coal and that’s when I decided to become a geologist, I was six years old.” While most of us were occupied thinking about the contents in our lunch box, Emily was looking at scientific career choices. “I didn’t know that you could do that as a job, study rocks. I’ve always been interested in the environment and science and the effects of human activity on the environment, that stuck with me from that experience and here I am.” 

She left Pittsburgh to attend college and spent about 15 years in California and New York working as a geologist and a mapping specialist in geographic information systems. She returned to Pittsburgh in 2007 to get her PhD and after that worked at an oil and gas company as an exploration geologist, but five years into that job she realized she was ready to move on. “That’s when we formed the company with my two co-founders,” her husband Matt Mercurio and Christian Gass who met at a Code for Pittsburgh event. “Matt and Christian started talking about creating a tool and calling it CivicMapper to map civic infrastructure, so six months later we all started this together.”

The company started with a focus on stormwater projects, where there is a greater need for data visualization and a better understanding of environmental and monitoring data. Climate change has brought more frequent and more severe rain events and it’s really taken a toll on our stormwater and sewage infrastructure. “So we started working with Three Rivers Wet Weather and developing the sewer atlas, which is a unified map of all the sewage and stormwater infrastructure in the ALCOSAN service area.  We pull data from 83 municipalities, brought it all together into this one unified connected networked data set that contains attributes of each piece of infrastructure, like the size of the pipe, the material, which direction liquid is flowing in those pipes, all of the pump stations, all of the pieces of the sewer network. And that is used by ALCOSAN to do a whole lot of different kinds of projects, by the municipalities within that service area and by PWSA. 

“We create geospatial software and custom scripting and tools so people can integrate with them and bring their APIs into their platforms. Everything we do has a geospatial component, any kind of data that has a spatial tag we can use to create these things. This is of utmost importance because as we get these rain events that are overwhelming our system they can use the sewer network to model and understand if the region is adequately sized for the amount of rain that is projected to be falling because of climate change in the next five, ten, twenty, fifty years. So it helps them plan. Not getting this right could cost the region some significant damage in flooding or sending sewage into our rivers. Even if it rains an eighth of an inch, that’s all it takes, that can be enough to overwhelm the system and put raw sewage directly into our rivers.”

And from that CivicMapper created a lot of interesting apps; one example is FlushMap, which allows you to type in your address and see the path that your flush takes from your location to the treatment plant. “People loved seeing where their flush goes.” We couldn’t resist and had to try it; within seconds we found out our flush takes about five to ten hours to travel some seven miles to the treatment plant and see all its twists and turns. While this sounds like a playful tool, ALCOSAN Industrial Waste can use this in reverse when they’re on the field,  if they hear complaints of chemical odors coming from the sewer, they can use the tool, click on the manhole where they’re standing and it’s going to show them all the businesses that are connecting to that point and then that reduces the time they’re on the field and the time to understand where the violation is coming from.

But stormwater projects was just the beginning, CivicMapper is making waves in the transportation space and elsewhere. “We’re starting to develop some expertise in transit, there’s a huge amount of data that you can pull in from cell phones, like ‘where are people going?’” which eventually resulted in technology for transportation authorities called SurveyMap. 

So what keeps Civic Mapper in Pittsburgh? “The amount of innovation happening here, we would be stupid not to be here. And to be close to talent is so important. Being in Pittsburgh was smart because of this access to innovation. If there’s a researcher at CMU working on something I’m interested in, I can email them and we can talk about it. It doesn’t feel strange. That level of access to experts and their willingness to engage, because it’s a small town, it’s extremely favorable to businesses.”

And what about on the personal front? “I love it. During the 15 years I was gone, it turned into a different city. There’s so much to do around here… museums, places to hike, parks, lots of outdoor recreation and a lot to do with your family here. We really like the Carrie Furnace site. It’s so cool there, and so representative of Pittsburgh, this kind of abandoned industrial area that they’ve turned into this amazing art space. We’ve gone to several events there, like the Thrival festival and this night time art installation. It’s really special and it’s so Pittsburgh.”

We’ve heard similar stories before… “I left and couldn’t wait to leave and then came back and it was totally different.” Today there are no schooltime blasts, only their echo which prompted a young lady to start a path that has led to another inspiring story of a female entrepreneur that is changing the map of Pittsburgh’s technology. 

Billboard for Tenacity

It’s refreshing to talk to someone with the sheer exuberance and kindred spirit of Ingrid Cook, founder and CEO of SHzoom, a tech startup with a state-of-the-art photo app that allows users to “Snap A Pic” and “Get A Quote” from nearby auto repair shops. No more wasting time driving from shop to shop or waiting hours or days for a single estimate. Her patented technology saves drivers and insurers a lot of headaches and time with electronic repair estimating.

Ingrid spent many decades in the insurance industry, but it was a cocktail napkin moment that inspired her to bring the idea to fruition. “After graduating from college, I went straight to Progressive Insurance, where I worked for nearly two decades. I often traveled up and down the East Coast for work and got used to dining alone. I would often eat at the bar because that is where I tend to meet the most interesting people.  One day, I met one of the co-founders of FedEx, who said, ‘Ingrid, one piece of advice if you start a business, do it in the arena where you are the expert in the field.’ This is when I started to ask myself, what problem can I solve in the insurance industry?”

Ingrid founded SHzoom in 2014 and today it’s recognized among the Top 50 women-led organizations in the USA, Europe the Middle East and Africa. That’s a long way to go for a young lady who grew up in the small steel mill town of Monessen, PA and who sees herself as “the billboard for tenacity.” She left Monessen to attend college at the age of seventeen.  She was convinced she would never return. Fast forward 20 years, and she would come back to Western Pennsylvania because of her ailing mother who was given 6 months to live. When her mother’s health improved, her father got ill and then, here, she met the love of her life. What was supposed to be a temporary stay took a different turn to the billboard of her dream.

While taking care of her ailing parents, she joined the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which contributed to her start-up success when enormous support from the Council, its Chairman Jason Wolfe and CMU’s Craig Markovitz poured in. On top of that, both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh paid their students to intern at SHzoom. “Nothing compares to Pittsburgh. There’s great support and an overflow of talent here.”

But she concedes that it’s not all rosy and there’s work to be done. “In order for the talent to stay, we need to change. Pittsburgh is certainly not a DC, New York, or Atlanta, it’s hard to attract minorities to Pittsburgh. There are not enough opportunities for minorities here.” She further points out the lack of equity is a big issue. She is a proponent of implementing accountability measures to begin moving the needle in the right direction. “The average income for black people in Pittsburgh is barely above the poverty level. This economic disparity blows me away, and since I’m here, I ask ‘what can be done and what can I do?’ I sat on the PTC’s listening sessions which were led by Audrey Russo and Jason Wolfe, among other CEOs, and I was a big proponent of reaching out while kids are young because exposure to the table is so important. The PTC exposed me to things that I needed to see as a technology business owner. Now I’m giving back and mentoring girls on what we do, day-to-day.”

SHzoom is one of Pittsburgh companies working with The LAUNCH program, started by Fortyx80, the nonprofit arm of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, that transforms high school girls into a voice of leadership in the STEM disciplines through mentorship. “In Pittsburgh, we talk a good game and the initiatives are there but where is the accountability and how can we truly move the needle? If we could implement those ideas and put measures in place to hold people accountable, I think we will slowly go in a better direction.”

As for her own commitment, Ingrid is giving back through her involvement with numerous community outreach programs and non-profit organizations. She claims Pittsburgh needs to increase minority-owned businesses, while also increasing the level, size, revenue, doing business with other businesses, and more contracts to do business with women and people of color. 

So, what is next for SHzoom? “Our latest product, Uptime, was developed using collaborative feedback from our innovative partners in the public sector to create a one-of-a-kind user experience.  Police Departments utilizing Uptime to create crash reports say it now takes them an average of 10 minutes to create and deliver crash reports as opposed to 14-30 days. During this crucial time with COVID-19, we are very focused on touchless accidents from the time of report until the vehicle is repaired or replaced and back in the hands of the driver.”

We asked Ingrid about her interests outside of work, and were surprised to learn she is an accomplished alto saxophonist. She tells us in her perfect FM announcer tone she was a former DJ for “Reflections of Jazz with Ingrid on WUMR on U92 FM.” Her favorite jazz joint? “I used to frequent a jazz club called James Street Café to hear live music and the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival is amazing.” Perhaps when COVID-19 is over, we can convince her to dust off her saxophone and tell us all about her progress with SHzoom backstage after a nice jam.


See career opportunities at SHzoom >>

Young Turks

Locomation

Well beyond its historic and political meanings, the phrase “Young Turks” has been used colloquially to describe people with an itching determination to implement change and reform and a small tolerance for patience. Self-driving vehicles are full of promising changes ranging from increased safety to higher efficiency, but largely bottlenecked in red tape, testing and a still undefined regulatory environment. This brings us to the Turkish brothers, Çetin and Tekin Meriçli, two of the co-founders of Locomation, an autonomous driving truck startup with a robotics rock star team and a game-changing technology that shows little patience for implementing radical change.

There are various companies playing in this space, including some of the Goliaths like Alphabet’s Waymo, Tesla, Volvo and Daimler among others. But putting the first self driving truck on American highways is probably close to ten years away. Locomation is not looking to wait that long, they have developed an autonomous relay convoy platform that allows a driverless truck to closely follow a truck with a driver in front of it. And the rubber will meet the road in some 18 months.

We spoke to Çetin, who is also Locomation’s CEO, to learn more about why and how two robotics engineering brothers from Istanbul ended up producing self driving trucks in Pittsburgh and why and how they’re planning to disrupt the space.

Pittsburgh clearly has become the place to be for self-driving vehicles, but why trucks? “Trucks make a ton of sense as the first target for autonomous driving from many angles: a massive market, a very ineffective and archaic industry ripe for disruption, and a significant qualified labor shortage are a few top business drivers,” he commented. The trucking industry is approaching the $800 billion mark and employs close to a million drivers, so the impact is no pocket change. “Our convoying technology enables delivery of two times the cargo, two times farther and twice as fast, while significantly improving the overall safety via autonomy sensors and algorithms. From a cost perspective, our system reduces the operating costs per mile by about 30%, and even after Locomation gets paid, the customers realize an additional 15% to 20% savings, which is a game changer. Our approach also aims to improve the driving comfort and make the convoy driving a premium job.”

The convoying technology still requires one driver in each truck, but the driver in the back truck can be sleeping allowing both drivers to take turns and reach the destination faster and better rested. Plus reduced aerodynamic drag delivers some fuel efficiency, so the benefits are multiple. Çetin further points out that “ample space and power on the trucks, being able to justify a significant hardware cost in exchange of reduced transportation costs, and inherently more tractable operating environment on the interstates make trucks very attractive platforms for self-driving.”

But there’s a lot at stake in terms of safety and the technology is not simple. However, and perhaps in a counterintuitive way, self driving trucks are poised to deliver higher safety to drivers and pedestrians alike. “Specifically, in the self-driving vehicles case, the main challenge is to identify the other actors and furthermore predict what they will do in the next couple of seconds. However much one can control the amount of uncertainty and unpredictability in the environment, the easier it is to build and validate a self-driving system. In our particular case, Locomation initially focuses on an autonomous convoy setup consisting of a human driven lead truck closely followed by a self-driving truck. The human driven leader acts as a buffer between the open world’s chaos and unpredictability and the self-driving follower truck, effectively reducing the prediction complexity.”

Locomotion already has prototypes piloting around Pennsylvania, Ohio and other parts of the country. The commercial rollout is planned for mid-2022 and the company already has a nine-figure contract with Wilson Logistics, a large fleet operator with 1,120 trucks.

So ‘why Pittsburgh?” we asked, almost rhetorically. “That was a very organic decision for us as we already were in Pittsburgh and deeply connected to the CMU ecosystem here, with team members having families with job and school ties to the city. We are staying in Pittsburgh because it is the best place to build a cutting-edge AI and robotics company. It is also significantly more affordable than most alternatives. To be honest, we haven’t even thought of not staying in Pittsburgh so it was mostly a decision by omission.” He elaborates “it is in Pittsburgh’s DNA to build things with your bare hands. The ecosystem is very conducive to starting something new, and the rather small professional circle enables one to meet with almost anyone relevant in record time. I often think to myself ‘this is how Silicon Valley in the ‘70s must have felt.’”

So what made the two brothers leave their beloved Istanbul, a metropolis of some 20 million people, to the “miniaturized big city” of Pittsburgh, as Çetin calls it? He explains “I did not know much about Pittsburgh other than knowing CMU is in Pittsburgh, it is a smaller city consistently in the ‘most livable cities’ lists, but I did not care all that much because I was laser focused on being at CMU,” he comments. “My first year or two were very joyful as I discovered the American way of living, but was mostly confined to a very limited set of friends and CMU campus. As Pittsburgh transitioned from being ‘home away from home’ to just ‘home,’ it started growing on me and to date, I am perpetually mesmerized by how uniquely beautiful it is both from a physical point of view and also lifestyle-wise. I just love Pittsburgh.”

It’s now been several years since he moved to town, so other than all the cool robotics tech and innovation, what keeps him here? Like many of us in town, Çetin enjoys the parks, bike trails, cool bookstores, and especially the food. He shared a long list of favorites, including Lucy’s Bahn Mi “a must try,” Espresso A Mano “the coolest coffee place I know,” Umami, Morcilla, Driftwood, Noodlehead and Colangelo’s, calling chefs like Justin Severino and Roger Li “national treasures.” He elaborates “having all or most perks of a big city in a smaller footprint with more space, more greens, and an ease of day to day living is just the perfect combination. After a lifetime of planning and struggles of daily minutia like just getting to and from work, it is inexplicably relaxing to live in Pittsburgh, but still breathe that big city air.”

If there is one thing he could change about Pittsburgh, we asked him, what would it be? “The weather!” Well, he’s got his work cut out for his next disruptive startup. Until then, Çetin, keep on truckin’.

 

See career opportunities at Locomation >>

Making Herself Useful

alison-alvarez-blastpoint-ceo

What motivates entrepreneurs? What makes them do what they do and endure the hardships of starting something from nothing? There are about as many answers to that question as flourishing startups, from the eccentric to the passionate to even philanthropic ones. But it’s not often you hear the word “useful” come up. Alison Alvarez, founder and CEO of BlastPoint, would safely qualify as a pretty smart person. With a degree in computer science, studies in Japanese and an MBA under her belt, we’re not willing to bet otherwise. Yet, "smart" doesn’t seem to be high on her agenda. “I don’t want to be the smartest person, I want to be the most useful person,” she claims with a certain air of nonchalance.

Alison grew up in Georgia in a blue collar neighborhood and is the daughter of a Cuban refugee. “My dad worked at the airport picking up bags from the planes and putting them on the conveyor belt. We were from a blue collar background. I’m the first one in my family to go to college. I came from people that left their business, their home and their full life behind. When that happens, ‘what do you have as a person?,’” she asks herself. “The knowledge you develop when you need to start over, when you need to learn as you go. You develop a different kind of smart, not just book smart, but useful smart.”

And useful she has become, building a provider of AI-powered customer intelligence solutions that optimize revenue growth. Since its launch almost five years ago, BlastPoint has been helping companies in retail, energy, enterprise, and nonprofit organizations “discover, target and engage the humans in their data.” In the current environment, this past October they helped Duquesne Light Co. to strategically address unpaid bills due to the pandemic, helping both the utilities provider and homeowners alike. The company has a client concentration in the midwest and the south, but operates nationwide and recently announced that it has reached break even point.

Alison graduated from DC’s George Washington University and moved to Pittsburgh to get her MS in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon and then returned a few years later to get her MBA at CMU’s Tepper School of Business. Interestingly, BlastPoint started as an MBA project there. “I had previously worked at Rhiza Labs (a Nielsen company) and learned a lot from them on big data. I saw opportunities in the way you analyze data and think about data in a different way.” And Pittsburgh opened its doors to Alison in numerous other ways. “I would summarize Pittsburgh in one word: ‘opportunity.’ I’m nobody,” she claims with a humorous tone. “I don’t come from money. I don’t have connections or that great uncle with a checkbook. I never could have imagined when I moved here I would end up here. I’ve been given a lot of trust. CMU supported us. Friends, family and fools supported us. A lot of people in Pittsburgh provided that support.” 

And to support their growth, BlastPoint is often looking for new people. “It’s been really nice here to have the ability to snap up great talent. I have hired before in Silicon Valley, and never want to do that again in my entire life. It is remarkable the quality of people we’ve been able to hire. To that end, I have found the Pittsburgh Technology Council particularly useful in the entire hiring process.”

You don’t find a lot of successful young female CEOs of Latino origin, so we asked Alison how she feels about the diversity of Pittsburgh’s tech ecosystem. “As a female entrepreneur of Latino origin I have felt very welcome in Pittsburgh and have found numerous networking opportunities. That said, I recognize that many Latino students that come to Pittsburgh get their degree and then leave. We need to get people to stay. I wish we had more Latino founders that stayed here.”

The reasons that have kept Alison in town go far beyond the land of opportunity that opened up to her. “Pittsburgh has changed night and day from when I first came here. Having lived in DC I found Pittsburgh really cheap and accessible. I could actually own a house here!” she exclaims in surprise. “As an adult it can be tough to make friends and I don’t feel that way about Pittsburgh; I feel like part of the Pittsburgh community. One of the things I love about it is that every neighborhood has its own personality. Depending on where you live, you’ll have arts festivals, block parties, community events, farmers markets with local fruits and vegetables. Have you tried the elotes at Alquisiras Paletería,” she asks rhetorically with enthusiasm, “they are the best I’ve ever tried.”

For someone who came from “nothing,” it’s refreshing to see her determination has been paved by a seemingly smooth, bump-less road. But surely there must be something in Pittsburgh she’s not a fan of, and we asked her. After a long pause, all she could come up with was “fewer potholes.” We’re pretty sure she wasn’t being metaphoric.  

 

 

See career opportunities at BlastPoint >>

Look Ma, No Pilot

Look Ma, No Pilot

Autonomous vehicles have been the talk of the town for many years now, the “town” being Pittsburgh, given the concentration of autonomous robotics development in this city. Driverless cars, cabs and trucks have been cruising local streets and across highways all over the country in the pursuit of a safer and more efficient future in transportation and delivery. But there is a Pittsburgh native company, Near Earth Autonomy (NEA), that is taking this very concept to the skies.

Robotics is in Pittsburgh’s DNA, and one of the people responsible for this is Near Earth Autonomy co-founder and CEO, Sanjiv Singh. Sanjiv moved to Pittsburgh in the pre-Web era, specifically in 1985, at a time when robotics as we know it today was in its infancy. Back then he was introduced to robotics guru Red Whittaker, who offered him a job at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in what became the very first self-driving car project.

Ten years later Sanjiv had obtained his PhD in robotics from CMU and was now part of the faculty at the Robotics Institute. Fast forward to around 2012, and Sanjiv had co-founded Near Earth Autonomy, the company building the present and future of autonomous flying. 

 

Autonomous flying is yet another player in what’s called field robotics, which relates to robotics in largely uncontrolled environments. Unlike a warehouse, a living room or a hospital, field robotics are in uncontrolled habitats, subject to influences outside the robot’s control such as weather, pedestrians, traffic, light conditions, emergency landing surfaces, etc. The challenges in field robotics are much larger because a robot needs to identify objects that may interfere with its course, classify what these objects are – e.g. a person, a cyclist, a mailbox or a drone – whether the object is moving and if so in which direction and at what speed. “The complexity of field robotics scales with how much or little structure there is,” adds Sanjiv. “The environmental conditions also make a big difference. Imagine a self-driving car where one day it sees the lines of the road and the next day it’s all covered by snow and you don’t see any lines or markers. The more environmental change you have the harder the problem becomes.”

 

One would expect the complexity to intensify with flying vehicles. But Sanjiv sees it differently. “The problems in many cases get better. When you’re flying, you have a three-dimensional problem, there’s a lot more room to maneuver. And the sky is sparsely populated. If you get 300 feett above ground level, the amount of stuff that’s up there is 0.01% of the space up there.” Jokingly, he adds “it’s really hard to hit something up there even if you try.” In addition, it turns out most self-flying vehicles land in extremely structured environments, like a heliport or the roof of a warehouse. 

 

However, it’s not all good news. Sanjiv is quick to point out that “gravity is not your friend; it makes the energetics very difficult. Plus smaller self-flying vehicles can be seriously affected by turbulence and winds, effectively reducing its progress; if the vehicle is moving at 50 miles an hour and you have a 50-mile-an-hour wind in the opposite direction the object is going nowhere.”

 

So what are the business motivators to develop such challenging technology? One of the key drivers is transportation – whether it’s cargo or people. Within these, there are two branches, one is the military, with very clear needs and large scale projects; this is clearly an area of focus for NEA. The other is the commercial side, which is surrounded by regulatory and liability issues. “Many things can fail with a self-driving vehicle,” claims Sanjiv. “Not just autonomy, but a motor, a sensor or the power supply can fail. The way a large aircraft works around this is with redundancy, but that gets very expensive for smaller vehicles.”

Sanjiv explains that “the reason why drones are so popular is because they are low cost, but precisely because they are low cost they have a high incidence of single string failures. They cannot be as reliable as commercial aviation is. From a regulatory point of view the FAA is trying to figure out what is acceptable, as they have a responsibility to keep the sky safe and also the people on the ground safe because you can’t have these objects fall into dense urban areas. This is what is limiting the adoption rate on the commercial side.”

As for NEA, Sanjiv points out that “we’re trying to find use cases that meet three requirements: they are feasible, desirable and economically viable. The market for flying taxis and drone deliveries is not a real market today. It’s a conceptual market, but it doesn’t exist today. When I came to Pittsburgh in 1985, the first question people asked me was ‘how soon before these robots are commonplace?’ It’s been 35 years since and we’re starting to see robots like Roombas or security robots proliferate. The question is when is this next generation of use cases going to be developed?”

There’s yet another application for autonomous flying vehicles, which is what is called the inspection area. It’s about getting data you cannot get from the ground, data about tunnels, storage vessels, or about any kind of high-value asset that needs to be inspected regularly. The FAA allows this today and the liability is manageable.

“There’s no end to the kinds of things we can do even beyond line of sight that may not be in the national air space,” continues Sanjiv. “We may be able to fight forest fires with a fleet of helicopters. Manned versions of K-Max helicopters are fighting fires today. We’re looking to use the K-Max for moving cargo. When you want to move a few thousand pounds, how do you move it? K-Max is one part of that answer, especially if you want to think about maritime environments like from islands or from ship to shore.” NEA recently signed a deal with Kaman to develop autonomous systems for their K-Max helicopters, which can lift payloads of up to 6,000 lbs.

Sanjiv continues on a roll… “The other thing we can do is disaster relief. You don’t want people to go to hazardous places, you want to send robots there. When I came to CMU we were building robots to go into Three Mile Island to do the investigations. You can send people in to bring in wall samples with radiation or you can build a robot to do it.”

The sky being in this case literally the limit, we asked Sanjiv about outer space. “There is an intersection between what we do and the space world, called EDL (Entry Descent and Landing) which is the last part of a vehicle that needs to land on some surface. The velocity and approach angles are somewhat different, but it’s the same function. So if you have a vehicle that’s flying autonomously, in an emergency situation it has to be prepared to land somewhere. It has to have a plan for a secondary or tertiary landing site. If that place is not controlled it has to have the intelligence to tell ‘is that a good place to land?’ or move over a bit, or find a better place.”

Near Earth Autonomy is yet another great story of a Pittsburgh company in a transformative industry that is quite literally changing the way we work and live. NEA is a Carnegie Mellon spinoff, so it was founded in Pittsburgh. Surely there’s plenty of opportunity and talent in plenty of other US cities. We asked Sanjiv, beyond the robotics local talent, why stay in Pittsburgh, and this is what he had to say: “If you look at some of the urban centers, it’s easy to find talent but it’s high-cost. If you look at some of the low-cost areas it’s very inexpensive but there’s nobody there. Pittsburgh is a sweet spot between the two extremes. All the basic infrastructure is here – excellent schooling, excellent medical facilities, excellent cultural offering and low cost of housing. There’s a quality of life thing about Pittsburgh that makes it very attractive.”

Sanjiv continues, “there’s another thing about Pittsburgh that is harder to explain. At CMU and Pittsburgh in general, there has been a sense of a culture to help each other. When you want something from the community, when you want to do some testing, generally the answer is “yes.” When I was with a previous startup, Sensible Machines, and we were building autonomous mowers and looking for places to test our mowers, we called Heinz Field and said ‘we have a mower that drives itself, can we bring it to mow your grass?’ and the answer was ‘OK, fine.’ Same thing at Fox Chapell Golf Club. There’s an entrepreneurial, collaborative can-do attitude.”

Pittsburgh can sometimes present a challenge for growing companies looking to hire top talent fast. We asked Sanjiv about his thoughts on this. “Availability of talent, in the early stages it was a big deal for us, now it’s not. Where we have a challenge is in getting senior entrepreneurs; people who have had several exits, there are few of those here. We’re now about 100 people and we need more senior people who can think in a more rigorous way and think about the business end of things, and that is hard. Especially people with startup experience. We’re starting to see a pool of such people growing because of more startups, but in general that has been an issue.”

About his own personal experience living in town, Sanjiv seems quite at home here… “Living in Pittsburgh feels like wearing a really comfortable pair of jeans. It’s a tight knit community, people help each other. It’s a very cosmopolitan, highly educated community. It’s not like you’re living between mansions, there are lots of young people that have moved here.” He goes on to describe some of those funny random acts of kindness that characterizes Pittsburgh. “There’s a street in Shadyside that in Halloween has a bit of a mob scene with kids in costumes trick or treating. If you’re an adult, they’ll hand you a beer, or a hot dog, or say ‘hey here’s a brandy that we made, would you like some brandy?’ I mean who does that?”

To wrap up, we asked Sanjiv to share a secret or favorite spot in town… “My wife used to live in Mt. Washington, to watch July 4th from a living room in Mt. Washington, and see the fireworks at eye level, that was an extraordinary lifetime experience.” Let’s hope he can keep the flying bots far enough from those…

 

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An Entrepreneur’s Promised Land

Pittsburgh has no shortage of inspiring tech stories to tell, but Jason Wolfe’s has to be somewhere near the top of the list. Jason moved to Pittsburgh under, let’s say less than ideal conditions, and built what is today a tech incubator with a history of serial successful exits creating companies that continue to thrive and generating hundreds of jobs along the way in the city he now calls home.

Much has been written about Jason’s story, so we’ll be brief for the benefit of those familiar with it. Jason grew up on welfare and was abandoned by his father at a young age, which led him to the Milton Hershey School, formerly known as an orphanage now called a boarding school for disadvantaged children founded by the chocolate magnate of the same name – perhaps Jason’s biggest hero. He graduated from this school with $100 and a suitcase of clothes in 1987 and went off on his own. He put himself through college and life thereafter would not be very kind to him. Living in a car, showering at a friend’s office space and barely making ends meet, he suffered an accident that caused him to have 2 spinal surgeries and put him bed-ridden several months. At this point, he decided to make lemonade from lemons.

In 1995, the early days of the dot-com era, Jason used his “downtime” to teach himself to write code. Months later, he had built and launched the first couponing website, CouponsDirect (later renamed MyCoupons), which grew to 5 million members and he sold in 2000 for approximately $23 million. For his next gig, he saw potential in a new business model – affiliate networks – and created a pioneering ad serving and tracking platform company in the space, Direct Response Technologies, which delivered over 16 billion ads per month and he sold for $22 million to Digital River in 2006. Before the sale he had been inventing new models in the gift certificates and gift card space and saw an opportunity to disrupt that industry. This gave birth to GiftCards.com in 2002, which he built into the largest online retailer for gift cards and sold it for $120 million to Blackhawk Network. Currently he is building a next generation e-gift company within the B2C and B2B spaces with PerfectGift.com and GiftYa. One can only speculate what the future holds for this latest initiative.

Throughout this extraordinary journey, Jason and his startups have won numerous awards and accolades, but he’s always been more focused in giving than receiving. Jason has had a number of philanthropic initiatives and is known to volunteer at homeless shelters and food banks. He has also made it a common practice to share the wealth with his employees – upon selling GiftCards.com he distributed some $15 million across the entire team.

Jason remains committed to Pittsburgh, perhaps because it’s been kind to him, but perhaps more so because he believes it’s a bit of a tech entrepreneur’s promised land. We spent a little time with him to have him elaborate on this.

Question: We understand you’re a big fan of Pittsburgh as a place for entrepreneurs, beyond your personal success stories, what do you see as the competitive advantages of Pittsburgh?

Jason: Pittsburgh is a bit unique in that it offers a thriving tech scene at a fraction of the cost. Here you have access to great talent, not just from Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt, but from other startups and a growing tech ecosystem. Unlike other tech hubs, however, your costs are significantly lower than in the coasts. Your rent is lower, your payroll is lower, your overall overhead is lower. This is particularly crucial for entrepreneurs, who by definition lack funds in the early stages. You can build a startup and grow it to break-even faster without the need to raise as much capital. This is not something you can find in Austin, Boston or Nashville, let alone New York or Silicon Valley. Your chances of building a successful startup with great talent and lower costs are uniquely favorable in Pittsburgh.

Q: Speaking of talent, how would you compare the talent pool in Pittsburgh versus other tech hubs?

J: Pittsburgh has very competitive talent, there are great people working in transformative technologies like robotics, AI and other. We are also getting better at attracting talent from other regions, particularly in this new Covid-19 environment. But I don’t think that’s the key. I think the opportunity for Pittsburgh is for more entrepreneurs to come here and start successful companies. Build them, grow them, perhaps sell them or take them public, but build companies that will endure through time and continue to grow the entire tech ecosystem. This will undoubtedly bring more talent and growth to the city.

Q: For a young engineer or project manager, what does Pittsburgh have to offer from a personal and quality of life point of view?

J: The cost of living in Pittsburgh is substantially lower than in the coasts. A young professional or a young family can afford to buy a nice house in Pittsburgh, something completely out of reach for a young engineer in New York or San Francisco. Yet, Pittsburgh has a lot to offer as a city, the symphony, professional sports teams, parks, bike trails, a great restaurant scene, and all the amenities of a big city. It is at a smaller scale, without the traffic, but you have plenty to do and plenty to choose from. The quality of life here is substantially higher than on the coasts.

Q: What are the tech areas you think are thriving in Pittsburgh?

J: There are many. I have been focusing on fintech. We have one of the biggest banks in the country here in PNC, which I recently sold a company to, and it is an area that has plenty of room for growth and disruption. Robotics is clearly huge in Pittsburgh. CMU has a lot to do with that, plus the companies that have set up shop in town in the autonomous vehicles field like Argo, Uber, Google, Near Earth Autonomy, Locomation, or companies in aerospace like Astrobotic. This is where Pittsburgh shines the most, even as there are other thriving areas like life sciences or natural language programming.

Q: You’re not originally from Pittsburgh, from a personal point of view, what keeps you here?

J: I have my family here, my wife, 3 children, and a foster boy. I have many friends that I have made over the years as well as my church and organizations I belong to and lead. I am the current Chairman of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and love to work with Audrey Russo and her team to thrive our technology ecosystem. I’m on the board of the Family Design Resources which handles the Statewide Adoption Network and we help over 11,000 children in foster and adoption care. I am clearly rooted here. I love the people of Pittsburgh, their friendliness and hard work mentality. I would love to see the city continue to make progress along the lines of diversity and inclusion.

Q: You’ve lived here long enough, surely you must have a local hidden gem you can share with us.

J: I think North Park is a gem for sure, as well as South park and others. We have a nice little lake, an ice rink, community pool, and more. I think us Pittsburghers don’t realize how fortunate we are with our local parks. If you like the outdoors, Pittsburgh is a great city for you, this is something I don’t think people outside the area realize.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

J: I’d like to add that I would love to see more entrepreneurs in this city, growing and building businesses here. Then, sell them or go public. Then, stay here, invest into doing the same again and again. The more entrepreneurs we have here with success like this, the more the city will thrive. And being an entrepreneur is color blind and gender blind. So the product speaks for itself – which is a great equalizer.

 

See career opportunities at Wolfe, LLC >>