Pittsburgh is rising, led mainly be the strong robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University and the school’s accelerated pace of producing highly qualified entrepreneurs. Uber’s purchase of Geometric Intelligence late in 2016 is the most prominent example. The company’s moves there, continued recruitment, and choice to use the city as its first testing ground for autonomous vehicles have brought attention to the diversity of startups Pittsburgh is producing relevant to education (edtech), app development, and even baseball technology.
“Pittsburgh-area venture capital firms invested $217.4 million into 35 deals in 2015, a 35 percent increase from 2014 and the fourth highest investment total since 2001,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote just this week.
With exits like Geometric Intelligence’s come angels, and with angels come seed money for a new generation of companies. Post-Geometric, these are the companies likely to make the next big splash.
1. Argo AI
Ford made a splash in February 2017 with a massive $1 billion investment in Argo AI. Committed to providing the money in installments over the course of five years, Ford is lining up those payments with a goal to have SAE level 4 self-driving vehicles on the market by 2021, according to the automaker’s press release. That sure seems like the payments are conditioned on benchmarks, but it sounds like a reasonable condition considering the amount of cash they have put down.
“We are at an inflection point in using artificial intelligence in a wide range of applications, and the successful deployment of self-driving cars will fundamentally change how people and goods move,” said Argo AI CEO and Co-Founder Bryan Salesky of the deal. Salesky and his co-founder COO Peter Rander are both alums of the Carnegie Mellon National Robotics Engineering Center, an institution that will likely produce as many big names as Stanford University has as we enter the next decade. Salesky also has time with Google under his belt and Rander a stint with Uber.
The funding will help Argo grow to 200 people with offices in Silicon Valley and southern Michigan in addition to its Pittsburgh headquarters. Ford has its own internal squad working on a virtual driving system which will apparently work in tandem with Argo’s team.
2. Identified Technologies
Founded in 2013, Identified Technologies pitches itself as an “eeDaas” (end-to-end Drone as a Service) company that manages and even automates surveying for construction sites.
“It means we offer a fully managed commercial drone solution. We do everything but push the start button on the drone,” Identified Founder and CEO Dick Zhang recently told Geektime. “Our integrated software and services includes everything from FAA compliance and flight planning, to data capture and advanced analytics.”
3. Diamond Kinetics
Hire these guys and the Pirates might actually win for a change. Diamond Kineticshas built a suite of apps to help baseball players improve their play. SwingTracker measures the swpeed of your hands and bat separately and builds an infographic of average performance. There are 11 metrics in all that include control, power, and quickness. There is also reference data to national averages. They have modes for both baseball and softball.
Jokes aside, the Pirates have actually used Diamond Kinetics’ technology, as have the Louisville Cardinals and Vanderbilt. They claim other MLB teams have signed up, as well. They are partnered with two other sports startups called HitTrax and Axon Sports building a more comprehensive batting training program called Hitter’s Revolution.
4. Conversant Labs
Founder Chris Murray has been working for a while on technology to help himself and others with degenerative eye disease to rely less on their vision to get things done. Conversant‘s first product was called Say Shopping that allowed voice recognition to register a shopping list and then make door-to-door grocery orders. They already have $575,000 in seed funding from AlphaLab and Innovation Works according to Crunchbase.
They have recently released a cooking-specific app dubbed Yes, Chef! and are beta testing a tool for Amazon Alexa developers called TinCan.ai. Yes, Chef! walks you through recipes rather than constantly breaking between ingredients to check the instructions. Obviously that isn’t designed for the visually impaired, but Conversant is a great example of how new technologies often are born from real needs and not simply designed to create more modern conveniences.
Picking cyber security startups to highlight can be tough even for a seasoned writer. The craft changes every week. But it’s a safe bet to highlight a company that wins the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Cyber Grand Challenge in August 2016. ForAllSecure pledged after winning $2 million in the DARPA competition “to continue its mission to automatically check the world’s software for exploitable bugs.”
“To achieve the scale needed to tackle the ever growing volume of software being written, we are pioneering autonomous cyber security tools for developers, enterprise IT, and end-users that automatically find and fix vulnerabilities in run-time executable software,” their website tells visitors. They also run HackCenter, a cyber security training “to teach anyone the actionable skills needed to be effective in cyber security.”
6. IAM Robotics
Based out of nearby Sewickly, IAM Robotics is putting their Swift robots to work in warehouses moving loads that weigh up to 50 pounds. They inked a deal last year to provide Swifts to the Rochester Drug Corporation to help handle stock for their 1,200+ pharmacies in the US.
Founded by Carnegie Mellon math professor Po-Shen Loh, Expii is an online storehouse for different lessons on topics in math and science. Their mission guides them to find teachers who take different approaches to the same topic so that studets with different learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses can find the tutoring materials right for them. Loh is also the coach for the national US International Math Olympiad team.
Zulama uses game design to hook kids on deeper, more sophisticated computer science education. It targets middle schoolers and high schoolers hoping that by using something interesting like games, students will develop a greater appreciation for the industry and seek to know more (and not just about gaming).
They were incubated at LearnLaunchX in New England and are backed by angels like Amit Shah, Thomas Barber, and Jodi Navta.
Co-founded by Brian Finamore and Ryan Green, Gridwise provides real-time predictive insights for rideshare drivers. Being located in Pittsburgh might be fortuitous for them considering how much the likes of Uber and other companies are investing into the city’s AI scene. They also count a prominent Pittsburgh founder on their thus-far slim list of funders: Severin Hacker.
Hacker co-founded this startup:
Duolingo is the best funded language-learning startup in the world, with 27 different language programs at different stages of development. They cover the most common (German, French, Spanish) to the artificial (Klingon, Esperanto). They have stiff competition from UK-based Memrise, which allows independent language course creation from users and thus covers more dialects. But Duolingo has its fingers on the pulse and is professionally developing all the courses on its platform.
English speakers have the most courses to choose from.Spanish has about 82.8 million registered students, French 49.1 million, and German 30.7 million. Some languages that are seldom spoken but are huge points of heritage for some communities are also on the platform; Irish and Welsh have 2.74 million and 500,000 learners respectively. Beta languages include Hebrew (812,000 learners), Hungarian (326,000), and Swahili (26,500).
What differentiates them and the very good reason they haven’t broken the 30-language mark yet is because they are building courses for native speakers outside the English-speaking world. They are building English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses in a couple dozen dialects. Larger language communities like Russian speakers and Hispanohablantes also have access to German, French, and other options.