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Pittsburghers love to party. We learned that on Thursday night as more than 200 people gathered at the second floor offices of Birchmere Ventures, which hosted team GeekWire for a welcome reception on Pittsburgh’s Robotics Row.

It was a great party, with awesome food and even better people. We took the opportunity to get to know tech leaders, entrepreneurs, university researchers, non-profit professionals and others in our adopted city, where we’ve set up shop for the month of February. A big thanks to DQE Communications, K&L Gates, Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science and the Pittsburgh Technology Council for co-hosting this event.

Here’s what folks said when we asked them what makes Pittsburgh’s tech scene so special, and what they’d most like to fix about the Steel City.

Alison Alvarez, CEO of BlastPoint

Alison Alvarez

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “I have been in the Pittsburgh tech scene since 2007. BlastPoint is my third startup that I have been involved with. And I think the major difference is just the amount of funding and the amount of things happening. We are hitting critical mass. And, I think for a while, there was just this ‘valley of death’ in this city where going from your first revenue to getting to the point where you can really scale was really, really hard. And there is getting to be more and more things that bridge that gap. There are sources of funding that are maybe not your conventional VCs. We won a ton of money from the UpPrize competition, and that got us from the point of: ‘OK, we have our first dollar’ to the point where we are really booking companies with hundreds of thousands of customers to use our software. I don’t think we’d be there without that bridge to get us from one side to the other. And, I have been there. That bridge was not always there. Or, if it was there, it was because you were self funding or you were going elsewhere for money. The fact that money is coming from inside Pittsburgh is a huge difference. I will say, it is not enough. We need more. But it is a big difference from where we were 10 years ago.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “Less conservative investors. They are so conservative. No one cares about our technology. I feel like everyone wants to know exactly where I am revenue-wise, and that has definitely influenced how I have run my business. But, honestly, (intellectual property) is just as important as having revenue. And I feel like there’s not enough emphasis on the really cool stuff that people can do here.”

Michael Madison, professor of law and faculty director of the Innovation Practice Institute at The University of Pittsburgh Law School and author of Pittsblog.

Michael Madison

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “I’d say migration of people to Pittsburgh who did not grow up here. That is the number one thing that has changed the culture of this city over the last 10 years.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “Infrastructure, roads, water, sewers, improve the public health system, public education across the city. So may people outside of the hipper neighborhoods of Pittsburgh have not been touched by the economic development transformation of the last 10 years. We need to spread the success.”

Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development

Stefani Pashman

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “Pittsburgh is finally getting over its insecurity. I think we finally have buzz. And people finally say that Pittsburgh is cool. We got a lot of that whole 1970s and 1980s — we are dirty we are awful and no one wants to be here. But, when you show up here, you are like: ‘Wow, this place is cool.’ We have amenities, arts, land, lakes, rivers. We have all of it. I think that is all about the reputational stuff that makes a huge difference here now.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “Diversity and inclusion. I think that is really our Achilles’ heel. We don’t bring everybody in from all of the communities…. We haven’t been embracing diversity for a long time, and we need to change that.”

Jeff Ericson, founder of personalized driver car service RubyRide

Jeff Ericson

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “From where I sit, I think it is (Carnegie Mellon University). I think CMU does an amazing job of not only of attracting brilliant people, but they go out of their way to make those people accessible to the community. I’ve had conversations with five or six people who are really leaders in their fields and I have been able to pick their brains and have expertise on my team that I would not have access (to) — that just doesn’t exist in places like Phoenix… For me, that’s incomparable. It saved me hundreds of hours of trying things where people who are watching at a higher level and saying this would be a good solution for this problem, or try this or let me introduce you to this person. Short term and long-term, I think CMU is an amazing resource.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “The self-perception could change a bit. I think it still sees itself as a little bit of a steel town. The people here are amazingly friendly and helpful, and nobody will ever say no if you ask them to do something. They have no problem rolling up their sleeves, but at the same time people don’t give themselves credit for the talent they have and the skills and everything else.”

Aakash Pathak, vice president of commercialization and product at AI-based smart trash can maker CleanRobotics

Aakash Pathak

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “The sense of community, which is really becoming very important for startups. Startups, when you are young, you need a certain kind of momentum, almost like in the air and in the atmosphere to grow and do your thing… The sense of community in Pittsburgh is really going great.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “Just a stereotype that we are not Silicon Valley, and that the companies are still behind in technology…. I feel like there is a mindset that Silicon Valley is ahead in technology and I disagree with that… Perception is the challenge, and we are working hard to change that.”

Jackie Erickson, founder of The Jackie Group and a robotics and government relations consultant

Jackie Erickson

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “Robotics. The robots being developed here are all for the social good. And that is what we are trying to get out. Here in Pittsburgh, there is amazing technology, but it is providing a great value to society and it is increasing our workforce tremendously as we are bringing in talent from all over the country, and all over the world. People want to see what is going on here. I grew up here. I watched the steel mills close down. And to see this transformation is just amazing.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh?  “Weather. If we had to compare ourselves to our competitors, it’s hard to compete with the West Coast. And, you know, we have our four seasons, and they are wonderful. And this is the best place, if you want to be for fall. But, right now, it can be really challenging, because it is super cold.”

Jen Yosef, CEO of home improvement platform Mighty

Jen Yosef

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “The encouragement that a lot of entrepreneurs are receiving and the ability to have a strong accelerator program such as AlphaLab to be able to get these companies to start. The cost of living is great and the access to mentors is amazing.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “There is still very small number of female entrepreneurs here. As always, it’s a national concern. However, just in general, given that Pittsburgh has a lot of money, it’s not as accessible. There are a lot of people that have old money, but they just don’t know about all the new tech companies here. It’s about providing entrepreneurs with those connections.”

Evan Facher, left, and Pat McMahon, University of Pittsburgh

Evan Facher, director of the Innovation Institute at University of Pittsburgh

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “The coolest thing is the amount of collaboration that we do. Everybody is really supportive of each other, whether you’re at Pitt, CMU, the healthcare system, the accelerator programs, other economic development for profit — there’s this historic collegiality around the Pittsburgh region that has transferred over to all the innovation and all the startup change. It’s very easy to work across people and organizations and really make a difference. Everyone is really supportive of each other.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “It needs more early-stage seed capital. If you look at the area surrounding Pitt, UPMC, and CMU, it’s about 1.7 square miles. Thirty percent of the total R&D for the state of Pennsylvania is in that tiny little area. We have more ideas than we can do things with, so it ends up being a lack of early stage capital and a lack of early stage entrepreneurs who have had that experience before. The number of innovations we have at Pitt, on an annual basis, we get 350, 400 new inventions per year. Over the last three years alone, we’ve had 1,000 new inventions. We don’t have enough money and enough people to get those out the door. So it’s really that early stage seed capital level that’s one of the things we’re missing — it would change things even more dramatically than we’ve seen recently.”

Pat McMahon, executive director of communications at the University of Pittsburgh 

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today?“All the resources are here. Just like in the steel industry, the ore, the iron, the factories were here. In the transformed economy, the resources are here — the talent, the expertise, the collaboration of the universities, the healthcare. It’s a big strength.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “More people need to discover Pittsburgh and get in on the collaboration, especially from a funding perspective and investment. The city has so much room to grow that I think the opportunity for outsiders to come here and succeed is really huge.”

Vivien Li, CEO of RiverLife

Vivien Li

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today?“I think the number of autonomous vehicle companies. We always think just of Uber, but there is so much going on with Argo and with all of these other companies as well. I think that is very exciting. And, we were the first city to have autonomous vehicles on our streets. I get calls from people in Boston and other cities, saying ‘what’s it like,’ and so I think it is just amazing.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “It would be great if the techies were living with the natives, particularly in areas that are more affordable. I think that we almost have a separation between the newer employees and the local residents. And, we have some incredible neighborhoods, and I just think there could be a symbiotic relationship. And, I wish that that would happen.”

Ellen Saksen, CEO of business travel startup GoJaneGo

Ellen Saksen

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “My world is female founder and parent, so I see major trends in female founders in getting more traction and getting the support of the community with things like The Next Act Fund and the Tech Council starting initiatives for women who are in different stages of entrepreneurship. I see a lot more women pitching and being accepted into the accelerators that we have, the two or three that we have. I was just talking today about all of the women founders of companies that are at a certain stage, and we all seem to be at this certain stage where we need to get to the next stage, so we are able to share our experiences, and if an investor doesn’t work for me, it might work for her. So, I think we are all really supportive of one another because it is small enough, but diverse enough. I feel like there are a lot of great things happening for female founders and parents in the tech community, and investment in the early stage.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “I would love there to be more opportunities for that seed and post-seed funding…. What I am looking for is perhaps slightly more investment that is akin to higher risk in this phase.”

Delvina Smith, director of development and community engagement at Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse

Delvina Smith

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “The biggest thing right now is collaboration. As an ecosystem of all different kinds of companies that are in technology, life sciences or whatever it may be, we need to work together. That’s the only way that we are going to move Pittsburgh forward.” 

Rasu Shrestha, chief innovation officer at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Rasu Shrestha

What’s the biggest thing happening in Pittsburgh tech today? “Pittsburgh has always been known as a steel and coal industry. Today, we are eds, meds and tech is our new export commodity.”

What would you fix about Pittsburgh? “People always say it is a chicken-and-egg story between infrastructure and people who come and establish Pittsburgh as a headquarters. I’d say build better infrastructure. It’s not just a kick-ass airport that has no planes coming to it. It’s also about building a subway system, a metro system that actually goes somewhere.”

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