PITTSBURGH — Ron Bianchini was creating and selling tech startups long before it was the cool thing to do in this city.
After earning his masters and Ph.D in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1980s, Bianchini went on to start and sell three companies. The first, Scalable Networks, sold to FORE Systems in 1997. Seven years later, Spinnaker Networks sold to NetApp, which used Spinnaker’s technology to create its C-mode storage appliance and continues to operate in the Pittsburgh region.
The third deal came last month when Microsoft agreed to buy Avere Systems, a company Bianchini helped start in 2008 that leverages flash storage to optimize the process of saving and retrieving files in the cloud and other high-performance computing scenarios. Avere, which had raised $97 million in multiple investment rounds, will continue to work out of Pittsburgh’s North Shore neighborhood with Bianchini leading the Avere engineering division for Microsoft.
Bianchini has deep ties to CMU and its top computer science school. He was a professor from 1989 to 1996 and currently sits on the university’s board of trustees.
Bianchini is also bullish about the region’s tech scene, noting that it is “hitting above our weight class.”
“Mainly driven by the talent of our graduating students, there is a thriving startup culture here,” he said.
GeekWire interviewed Bianchini for this Pittsburgh Profile, a series of Q&As with influential people and interesting characters we meet during our month-long “HQ2” project.
Continue reading for his answers to our questions, and check out all of our Pittsburgh coverage here.
What do you love about Pittsburgh and what would you change?
Bianchini: “My absolute favorite thing about Pittsburgh is the talent that is produced by our many universities. Every year, hundreds of brilliant students graduate from local universities including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. This talent pool has expertise in: data storage (my companies), machine learning, robotics and medical technology, and are at the top of their fields in the country and in the world. The depth and entrepreneurial spirit and energy from this future workforce is infectious.
One of the things that I would like to see is more early stage investment in the region. Too many of our graduating students are heading off to startups in other regions. For now, there are regional efforts, like Innovation Works, to make access to early stage funding easier to find. But, I would love to see a day when regional venture programs are no longer needed because the funding is readily available for young companies.”
Favorite Pittsburgh spot?
Bianchini: “Any place along one of our many rivers. My daughters grew up as ‘river rats’ because we could usually be found on weekends on our boat on the Allegheny River. The view of downtown Pittsburgh is beautiful on a small boat on any one of the three rivers near Point State Park.”
Favorite Pittsburgh celebrity?
Bianchini: “Because this is Pittsburgh, our favorite celebrities are typically sports players. And more often than not they are from the Pittsburgh Steelers. My favorite recent-day Steeler is Troy Polamalu. Troy played his entire professional career with the Steelers. Outside of football, he put his energy into his family, his community and his church.”
Best food in Pittsburgh?
Bianchini: “Any Italian restaurant in Bloomfield!”
Best insider tip for transplants?
Bianchini: “As much as we like to think of ourselves as a big city, at our roots we are a bunch of interconnected neighborhoods. There is the Italian neighborhood of Bloomfield, Polish Hill, Mt. Washington (not a real mountain, but incredible views of downtown), or any of the river towns of Millvale, Lawrenceville or Aspinwall. Each has their own unique charm.
Common sense says that it is the hilly terrain or our many rivers that made people stay in their neighborhoods. But you won’t have to go back too far to find someone that will question why you would ever want to cross a bridge. Speaking of terrain, your best bet is to memorize neighborhood and street names when trying to get around. As everything was built around the rivers and hills, there is no grid or system to the roadways. And relying solely on GPS can take you on many a wild ride through alleyways that GPS sees as streets.”
Favorite Pittsburgh word or phrase?
Bianchini: “Yinz is the Pittsburgh equivalent of y’all from the South. It is incredibly unique to the Pittsburgh area. And I even think I have heard my daughter saying it once or twice.”
Pittsburgh’s most important innovation or invention?
Bianchini: “Historically, one of our most important discoveries was accomplished by Dr. Jonas Salk when he discovered a vaccine for polio in 1955 while working at the University of Pittsburgh. It is hard to imagine one other single contribution that saved so many lives. More recently, I believe that it will be the invention of autonomous vehicles that will have an incredible impact on our society. Early research by Red Whittaker at Carnegie Mellon led CMU to win the DARPA grand challenge for autonomous vehicles in 2007. That effort has now spawned several industry efforts, including Uber and Ford (with their Argo AI subsidiary), to bring the autonomous vehicle programs to Pittsburgh.”
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Bianchini: “I would describe the tech scene in Pittsburgh as hitting above our weight class. Mainly driven by the talent of our graduating students, there is a thriving startup culture here.”
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Bianchini: “That is hard to say, as I imagine there are many factors that go into the decision, some region-specific (technology, talent) and some political. What I can say is that if the decision were being made by the talent pool and access to strong universities, Pittsburgh would win, hands down.”
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?
Bianchini: “Currently, my favorite tech experience in Pittsburgh is the Girls of Steel robotics team. The Girls of Steel is an all-girls robotics team that competes in the high school-level FIRST Robotics competition. Much of the credit for the team goes to Patti Rote, a robotics industry veteran in Pittsburgh. Patti noticed that the vast majority of the teams were either all boys or that girls were lacking in the leadership roles of the co-ed teams. Patti and her co-founders created an all-girls team that draws students from many of the Southwestern PA high schools. On the Girls of Steel, the girls do everything – every engineering position, programming, fundraising, marketing, etc. In fact, the mentors will not enter the pits during their competitions. The Girls of Steel embody so many fantastic things about Pittsburgh as well as the times that we live in, including technology, robotics and empowering young girls in STEM.”
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?
Bianchini: “I would sit down the with university presidents to find out their priorities. This will drive the growth in the region. After that, I would join the Girls of Steel and one of their regional competitions. Their spirit is infectious.”