Very few people are in a better position to explain Pittsburgh to a bunch of Seattle-based technology journalists than Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa.
The robotics expert founded Carnegie Mellon University’s Personal Robotics Lab in 2005, witnessing and taking part in the city’s transformation into a hub of technology and innovation. Srinivasa moved along with his entire team to the University of Washington in Seattle last year, but he still has a love for Pittsburgh, along with an understanding of the inner workings of the city’s tech community.
Teams of GeekWire reporters and editors will be rotating through Pittsburgh for the entire month of February, operating our own “GeekWire HQ2” from the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. We’ll be documenting the people, companies, technologies and trends reshaping this classic industrial city, including its outsized opportunities and potential pitfalls, with the same journalistic focus that we’ve applied to the Pacific Northwest for many years.
As part of the project, we’ll be publishing a series of “Pittsburgh Profiles” — Q&As with some of the most influential people and interesting characters we meet along the way, starting with current Seattleites who have roots in Pittsburgh.
We’re kicking it off today with some great insights from Srinivasa. Continue reading for his answers to our questions, and follow along starting next week as we launch our GeekWire HQ2 adventure in Pittsburgh.
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Srinivasa: I experienced the tech renaissance in Pittsburgh first-hand. I moved there in 1999 for my PhD at Carnegie Mellon and stayed on as faculty until 2017. The Pittsburgh of now is incomparable to the Pittsburgh from 1999. Carnegie Mellon, specifically the School of Computer Science, has been at the epicenter of this renaissance, with dozens of successful startups.
My own company, Berkshire Grey, is nestled in Craig Street, minutes from CMU, and our location enables us to tap into the rich, highly qualified pool of graduating students. Pittsburgh’s startup activity is the most vibrant I have seen in the US.
How does Pittsburgh compare to Seattle in that regard, from what you’ve seen so far?
Srinivasa: Seattle is a big city, with big opportunities, and big players. Part of my reason for moving here is to hopefully make the kind of seismic impact in robotics I might not be able make living in the East Coast. But, Pittsburgh is definitely the up-and-coming nimble younger sibling, and has the advantage of speed over the inertia bigger players might have. For example, it’s much easier and cheaper to start a new initiative in Pittsburgh.
What are the biggest factors in Pittsburgh’s resurgence, in your view?
Srinivasa: Its culture. Pittsburgh’s roots are very blue-collar. People want to build systems, get their hands dirty, and make impact not just by building ‘software’ but by building real systems that make real impact. Carnegie Mellon, and its Robotics Institute, exemplifies this culture.
What is Pittsburgh missing? What does it need to take its tech community to the next level?
Srinivasa: Pittsburgh needs a big player to take a big bet on it. It has a rich ecosystem, a great talent pool, inexpensive real estate, and a very supportive mayor. It has all the right ingredients for exponential growth.
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Srinivasa: Pittsburgh is the logical choice for all the reasons I described above. Both my heart and my mind believe HQ2 will be in Pittsburgh.
Can you tell us about any memorable experiences you had in Pittsburgh that illustrate the character and nature of the city and its tech/startup/engineering community?
Srinivasa: My most memorable experience was visiting the All-Clad factory in nearby Canonsburg. All-Clad is a small business that makes high-end cookware, perhaps the best in the world. I was writing a proposal on advanced manufacturing and wanted to explore a real use-case. I emailed the folks there and the immediately welcomed us with open arms. Their eagerness to engage, and to talk about robots in their workplace (a truly futuristic concept) was so refreshing and inspiring.
If you were parachuting into Pittsburgh as a tech/business reporter, what’s the first story you’d want to cover? Who is the first person you’d want to sit down with?
Srinivasa: One of the main challenges I’ve struggled with automation is job loss. Robots will replace humans. It’s important to proactively legislate so that we do not repeat the sins of our past of having a lost generation of steel workers who have nowhere to go and nothing to do because their jobs were taken away by cheaper alternatives. I would talk to Mayor Bill Peduto, and my mentor Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science about this issue.
Any other advice for us as we prepare for GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh?
Srinivasa: Definitely try a Primanti Brothers’ sandwich. Go with an empty stomach.