about virtual articles articles books poems photography contact home
Charlie Stewart
East End – Geek’s End
Spring 2007

In its first issue of 2007, Wired magazine ranked Pittsburgh seventh among the “10 Top Tech Towns,” citing Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science school and Google Pittsburgh’s new Oakland office as the two primary reasons. Perhaps the ranking should have more specifically gone to “Pittsburgh’s East End,” where CMU and Google are just the start. Throughout the entire East End, high-tech businesses are cropping up byte by byte, many of them based in information technology. Here’s a whirlwind look at just some of what prompted Wired to say that our own backyard is a great place “to get your geek on.”

CSYou know the tiny fraction of a second it takes Google to answer your query when you
“google” it? That’s what roughly 40 newlyemployed software engineers have been hired to work on at their new offices in the Collaborative Innovation Center above Panther Hollow on the Carnegie Mellon campus (see page 36).

“We cannot read the person’s mind,” says AndrewMoore, former CMU professor of computer science and robotics, and now director of Google Pittsburgh, one of Google’s 41 offices worldwide,“and that’s what makes it such an interesting puzzle intellectually, because we have to do the best we can to anticipate what the person is really interested in, based on very little knowledge.”

So why did Google come to Pittsburgh to do that?

“If you look at the impact that CMU has had worldwide on technology, it’s been phenomenal,” says Alan Eustace, Google Senior Vice President for Engineering and Research, who came in from the company’s headquarters in California for the opening
of the Pittsburgh office. “We are in a worldwide talent acquisitionmode now, [trying] to find the best people, and CMU was obviously a source of that.”

“We also love the city,” adds Eustace. “Pittsburgh is a tremendous environment for families, for business, and for economic development, and all of those things were very important for our decision. But in the end, it came down to people and technology, and this is a great place to do business.”

It was the formation of a special technology business district called the Greater Oakland Keystone Innovation Zone that enabled the state to provide $8 million toward the $28 million in construction costs for the Collaborative Innovation Center.Other hightech corporate tenants sharing the space with Google in CoLab I, as it has been nicknamed, are Apple, Intel Research, and aMicrosoft-supportedCenter for Innovative Robotics. In all, about 100 new jobs have been created.

“This is an example of academic excellence and business excellence coming together to benefit the region,” says Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

Following the success of CoLab I, CoLab II will be built on the other side of PantherHollow, next to the Carnegie Museum. It is hoped that CoLab II will accommodate the balance of an anticipated additional 100 Google employees as well as attract nanotechnology companies to Pittsburgh in the same way CoLab I has become a nexus for software companies.CS

Google is not the only player in the neighborhood dedicated to improving the way we search the internet. Squirrel Hill resident Raul Valdes-Perez, a former CMU professor, is the CEO and a cofounder of Vivisimo along with Jerome Pesenti of Squirrel Hill and Chris Palmer of Regent Square. Vivisimo is a business search software company located at the corner of Forbes and Murray, above the Rite-Aid on the third floor.Having grown to 50 employees since its founding in 2000 and boasting sales that have doubled in each of the past three years, Vivisimo is listed as the second fastest-growing Pittsburgh-area private company and is expanding into the space formerly occupied by the Italian restaurant Per Mie Figlia.

“Most of our revenue comes from selling the software to businesses or government,” says Valdes- Perez, referring to the Velocity Search Platform, chosen for the official web portal of the U.S. government (www.firstgov.gov). It is the same software he donated to the city of Pittsburgh for its web portal (www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us). For the second year in a row, InfoWorld magazine has named Vivisimo Velocity the winner for the best enterprise search solution.

Vivisimo also offers a consumer search of the web at www.clusty.com. When asked the obvious question—the difference between his search engine and Google—Valdes-Perez responds, “The differences are our ability to handle the full internal complexity of business search and our richly productive user experience. We also provide advice and consulting to our customers.”

Valdes-Perez feels the East End is ideal for starting a business. “If it’s information technology, all you need is space and computers and an internet connection. I think it’s a great place to build a business, because you have access to a lot of talent, costs are low, life is easy.”He finds his company’s Squirrel Hill location convenient because it eliminates “all the hassles of driving downtown,” adding that it’s also more “organic.”

CSWith other computer technology-related businesses in the building, “this corner is becoming Silicon Corner,” says Valdes-Perez.
Across the hall from Vivisimo is Collaborative Fusion Inc., formed in 2001 by CMU grads Atila Omer and Bryan Kaplan.

“Because we were both in school and working on the company at the same time,” says Kaplan, vice president of operations, “we looked for an area that was nearby so we could easily commute from school.”

Ranked among the top 50 best places to work in Western Pennsylvania by the Pittsburgh Business Times, Collaborative Fusion has about 20 employees who have developed and are marketing an industry-leading software application that allows states to identify, select, and send volunteers who want to help during a disaster.

Kaplan, who hails fromthe west coast, has been very impressed with the city and its people. “Pittsburgh has a lot to offer, and the East End specifically,” he says. “Coming from Los Angeles, which is a thriving culture, and coming here, which is more of a neighborhood-oriented culture, has been a pleasant change.”

Rounding out “Silicon Corner,” on the second floor of the same building is CyberConXion, a video game center co-founded by Leon Edelsack and Larry Hochendoner. “We are using information technologies for entertainment in a social setting, as opposed to sitting at home by yourself,” says Edelsack, a resident of Squirrel Hill. “Imagine your Tuesday night bowling league, but in the 2ist century.We compete against other gaming centers across North America.” CyberConXion also offers programs led by CMU students to expose middle and high school-aged girls to creative technologies such as web design, digital editing, animation, and robotics.

Another beehive of information technology companies is inTheDesign Center on the corner of Baum Boulevard and Morewood Avenue. Lars
Olander, a resident of Edgewood and partner in Real Estate Enterprises, which owns and manages the building, says that about 65 percent of his tenants have some sort of high-tech use or business.He admits, “For a lot of tenants I have a hard time grasping what their business is. When they start talking about software, I kind of shakemy head. So, we take gambles a lot of the time, because I have no sense of whether their business model makes sense, but we’ve fared pretty well.”

One company inTheDesign Center that’s paying the rent on time is Digital Site Systems. Farro Radjy, president and founder of the company that now has eight employees, has taken 10 years to fully develop the family of Quadrel products. “We provide real-time quality management via the internet to the leading multinational and international construction materials manufacturers worldwide.” For example, from Pittsburgh they manage the concrete manufacturing process for 20 plants owned by Aggregate Industries in Denver.

“A company like this will have 10,000 mixtures in all 20 plants,” says Radjy. “That’s 10,000 recipes that have to bemanaged concurrently. It’s like a huge cookbook, and we manage the results in real-time as they are loading the materials inside the trucks.”

Radjy says he likes the convenience of being within walking distance of his Shadyside home. “It’s a wonderful part of the city,” he says.

Babs Carryer doesn’t even have to walk to work. This experienced entrepreneur, who enjoys commercializing technology and has been involved with hundreds of early-stage companies, just has to go upstairs to the third floor of her Highland Park home. There her handy husband, Tim, who won a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette renovation award in 2006, has outfitted an office large enough to accommodate the six members of her start-up team when they get together for strategy meetings. Their business, RemComm, which stands for “radio emergency communications,” received a grant of
$100,000 from Innovation Works for taking first prize in Pittsburgh Technology Council’s 2006 EnterPrize Business Plan Competition.

“What we’ve really done is link radios to computers via software, which enables first responders in an emergency to send and receive messages via radio instead of having to rely on cell phone communications that are inoperable during disasters,” says Carryer. Her friend and Highland Park neighbor Rick Johnson wrote the software which they successfully tested in Mississippi after Katrina, when they helped reestablish communications with field trucks that had lost contact with Salvation Army headquarters in Jackson.

RemComm is just getting revved up, but at the other end of the scale is Management Science Associates, located in the Eichleay-owned building on the corner of Penn and Fifth avenues. With 800 local employees, it is the largest Pittsburgh-area computer consulting firm.

“We track the movement of thousands of items, such as candy bars, through 650,000 retail outlets,” says Steve Gongaware, director of business development.

As further evidence of the company’s success, under a settlement agreement between the tobacco industry and the states’ attorneys general, Management Science Associates was named to receive all of the 25 year’s worth of data that will be used to determine each tobacco company’s market share and portion of the $206 billion settlement.

This is just a sampling of the information technology activity going on in the East End. In themetropolitan statistical area, 808 software firms employ more than 9,000 people with a total annual payroll of $672 million. And there are 300 start-ups in the Pittsburgh metropolitan region each year among all tech categories, of which Pitt and CMU combined produced 20 direct spin-outs—an all-time record.

Our university leaders, university technology transfer offices, faculty and students, local and state officials, venture capitalists, and sources of funds and support for early-stage companies are all making a concerted effort to encourage more and more start-ups in the region. Credit the quality of our local institutions for our success, both at UPMC, which, according to Jay Douglass, manager of business evelopment for the Software Engineering Institute, is recognized
globally as one of the top healthcare IT organizations in the world, and at CMU where the Ph.D. program in computer science is ranked number one in the country along with Stanford, MIT, and UC Berkley.

CSIn fact, many of the start-ups are developed right in the classroom. Shadyside resident Aron Hall came to Pittsburgh in 2000 to study at CMU’s nationally recognized Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship. In Dr. Tom Emerson’s course, Entrepreneurial Business Plan, Hall developed the strategy for his wireless and wired network security appliances company he’s named Hobnob and which he is funding with proceeds from the sale of a previous start-up called Marimba that went public in 1999. Originally intending to go back to California after graduation, Hall says, “everything took off in Pittsburgh.” Emerson, who says four to five companies spin out of his class every year, was impressed enough with the business plan to give Hall an “A” in the course.

Now Hall and his four employees work from their East End homes or fromone of themany local coffee shops; Hall calls it a “virtual organization.” He lists the advantages consistently mentioned by other information technology entrepreneurs working locally: “there are lots of smart people, customers are close by, you can conveniently access the universities for help on the technical side, office space is relatively inexpensive and available, and there’s good coffee nearby.”

Even after Pittsburgh was named the Most Livable City by Rand McNally in 1985, was displayed numerous times in all its glimmering glory on Monday Night Football, hosted the All-Star game, and saw our young Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on the Letterman Show, our proud city is nevertheless still hard-pressed to shed outsiders’ perceptions of a smoggy steel town. Our new motto should be “If you get them here they will stay.” Jeanne Antonuccio, President of About Pittsburgh, Inc., a relocation consulting firm, witnessed firsthand the positive reactions of a group of eight University of Michigan graduate students who had been invited to Pittsburgh by one of Antonuccio’s corporate clients.

“They loved all the shops, the diversity of housing, the open cafés and were impressed when they sawWalnut Street’s Coffee Tree with wireless internet connection and the open garage door,” she says. Upon seeing the Apple store in Shadyside they commented, “There must be cool people living here.”

And more job seekers from out of town will be taking a peek at Pittsburgh after seeing it named by Wired magazine in January as one of the country’s “Best Geek Cities.”

CSThere is no argument that Pittsburgh has yet to reach its potential in the high-tech market. Commenting on a somewhat bleak assessment of the state of Pittsburgh’s knowledge economy, which places us more in a league with Baltimore, St. Louis, and Indianapolis than it does with geekdoms like Palo Alto, Austin, and Boston, Don Smith, director of the University Partnership of Pittsburgh admits, “We do seem to have an abundance of the building blocks, yet we are not seeing the outcomes that we want to see. The study indicates that we need to start an additional 60 companies a year in technology.”

Fortunately, optimism abounds in the high technology world. It has to. Out of ten companies that Steve Robinson, an angel investor from Squirrel Hill, might invest in, he says, “You hope for one that is a pretty big winner.” That gaming
spirit is also reflected in the attitudes of today’s students, according to Tim McNulty, a Point Breeze resident and one of Carnegie Mellon’s associate provosts. “This is a very entrepreneurial generation of students,” says McNulty. “They come here with a sense of ‘I want to be a part of starting something.’”

And it will take patience. “The city itself is really maturing in its attitude towards and its ability to embrace and support entrepreneurial companies,” says Professor Emerson. “I’ve been here seven years, in which [time] we’ve built quite an infrastructure to support high-tech and entrepreneurial companies. And so I think the city is well-positioned. It usually takes a while for these things to bear fruit, but it’s beginning to produce early evidence of lots of high tech jobs.”

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


about articles articles books poems photography contact home
copyright Charlie Stewart IMS