Pittsburgh’s economy depends as never before on the success of our tech industry.
Yet the tech sector is growing and changing in ways that are hard to predict. Ten years ago, self-driving cars seemed like some future sci-fi. Now, Pittsburgh is one of the world’s major engineering hubs for this technology and it continues to grow.
We’ve reached a point where most of the biggest tech firms have Pittsburgh engineering offices: Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber. Their formidable presence, while impressive, can overshadow the amazing things happening in Pittsburgh’s homegrown tech clusters.
As we usher in the next decade, we asked local experts about the Pittsburgh tech companies we should watch in 2020. Which ones are killing it now? Which ones are poised to be the next breakout stars? Who’s doing what to make their mark in a variety of ways in various sectors? With so much going on in Pittsburgh’s tech sector, it wasn’t easy to hone this list, our longest ever.
Here are 20 contenders large and small for 2020.
Duolingo is officially a unicorn, making the jump from startup to a company worth more than a billion dollars. And it only took them eight years. The ubiquitous language-learning app–where you can learn everything from French to Japanese to Klingon (yes, really), in a way that’s as engaging as playing a video game–has 300 million users and is now valued at $1.5 billion. They’re the first venture capital-backed company from Pittsburgh to be deemed a unicorn. Plans are to soon hire 100 people across their four offices and Pittsburgh headquarters in East Liberty.
It sounds like a way to buy Spongebob a drink at a tiki bar, but Pineapple Payments is actually one of the stars of Pittsburgh’s growing fin-tech (financial tech) scene. They make payment processing technology for merchants of all sizes. Based Downtown, Pineapple Payments is poised to grow fast organically and through partnerships with companies locally and in Boston and Texas.
You want to trust that your power plants aren’t falling apart, right? Gecko Robotics’ wall-climbing robots like EVA and TOKA 2 creep slowly along giant industrial pipes and power plants, scanning for fissures and breaks. It’s a major improvement in manual/visual inspections, which can be slow, inaccurate and dangerous. This past year has been a story of growth for the North Point Breeze-based company, which moved into the oil & gas and paper industries and opened a new office in Houston. Gecko Robotics just raised a cool $40 million in Series B funding (that follows seed funding and Series A).
The Finch robot and Hummingbird Robotics Kit teach kids the fundamentals of computer programming, robotics, and engineering design, letting kids become creators of their technologies, rather than just passive consumers. This Uptown Pittsburgh-based company claims that students in 40 countries now use their products, from kindergartners through college. Recently, they won the Champion of Global Entrepreneurship Award, given to one company on the Inner City 100 list (of the 100 fastest-growing companies in America’s inner cities). For 2020, the next generation of Finch (Finch 2.0) is ready to launch, along with a set of electronic math tools they are developing with Carnegie Mellon and the National Science Foundation.
Though Uber and Argo AI get the most attention, this self-driving car company is also making big moves. Their vehicle traveled 3,400 miles, from San Francisco to New York City, in 99% fully-autonomous mode. Though based in Dublin, their main R&D operations are in Pittsburgh, born out of the acquisition of CMU spin-off Ottomatika. They will be moving to Mill 19 in the vast, much-anticipated Hazelwood Green development, as the first commercial tenant. This will give the company, which currently includes 200 employees based in RIDC Park, room to double its operations. With a $4 billion joint venture with Hyundai Motor Group, its operation is well-funded.
This startup (see photo at top of story) is building a robotic vertical farm in industrial Braddock, growing food indoors at a fraction of the cost and space of traditional farming. The company, originally known as RoBotany, will power its 60,000-square-foot facility partially with solar, using 95% less water than a traditional farm of the same size. They expect to grow 500,000 pounds of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula and herbs in the first year, giving Pittsburghers a source of year-round fresh produce without the environmental cost of shipping it in from, say, California.
We keep hearing how artificial intelligence is going to change everything–but as with everything, there’s a big difference between the haves and the have-nots. The AI revolution won’t come cheap. Petuum aims to make AI more accessible to all companies by creating modular, low-cost AI building blocks that can be assembled to give industrial, healthcare and other fields significant AI capabilities without having to build from scratch. With $108 million in funding from SoftBank, this rapidly-growing and innovative startup makes its home in the Strip District.
Life sciences is another growing segment of Pittsburgh’s economy, underpinned by the massive resources of Pittsburgh’s research hospitals and universities. NeuBase Therapeutics takes on severe and rare genetic diseases by developing next-generation “gene silencing therapies.” One of their technologies, Janus Base, was recognized by “The Scientist” publication as a Top 10 Innovation of 2019, an award showcasing the most useful advances in life science techniques and products. The expectation is that the drugs Neubase is developing with this technology will be used to address a range of rare genetic diseases starting with neurological disorders.
There’s nowhere to go but up for Astrobotic. Specifically, the moon where they are planning to send robots. The company was recently awarded a $79.5 million contract by NASA to deliver payloads to the moon via their robotic Peregrine lunar lander. Hey, at “$1.2 million per kilo,” you too can send things to the moon. Their first mission contains 28 payloads from eight different nations, so far. They’re planning to launch their first mission to the moon in June 2021. They’re also moving to a bigger, 47,000-square-foot facility on the North Side, which is considerably easier to get to.
Gridwise helps rideshare drivers find more rides in less time. For example, airports are one of the busiest places for rideshare drivers. Gridwise can help drivers with information about arrival and departures, delays and cancellations, even the number of passengers on a flight. It also helps drivers find the big events going on in town, where they are, and most importantly when they end. Currently, their app is available for more than 40 cities, and they are partnering with Carnegie Mellon University’s Mobility Data Analytics Center to find new ways to use the rideshare data that they’ve collected–like underserved areas and traffic congestion–to benefit the public.
Bossa Nova Robotics
Bossa Nova’s robots are getting skinnier. That’s a big deal because the Bossa Nova 2020 robot can navigate the slim aisles of smaller-format retailers, in addition to big box stores like Walmart, where hundreds of their inventory-tracking robots are already in operation. They can also see deeper into shelves, capturing more information. It’s the culmination of six years of retail experience and more than one million aisles scanned.
This fast-growing, Oakland-based property-leasing real estate startup has expanded by more than 40 employees in the past year.
Their platform simplifies the residential leasing process, helping smaller landlords rent and show their properties–posting listings, screening applicants, and giving renters a sense of the local neighborhood–across seven cities (so far) including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and D.C.
Ikos recently closed a $4 million fundraising round led by Pittsburgh-based Draper Triangle Ventures.
Rapid Flow Technologies
Rapid Flow Technologies is behind Surtrac, an intelligent traffic signal control system that optimizes every second based on real-time traffic flow. A Carnegie Mellon spinoff, their system was piloted here in Pittsburgh. Not only does their AI detect traffic conditions but it also creates predictive models that communicate with other intersections. It’s about time. Truly. As in 25% reduced travel time, 40% less idling, 30% less braking and 20% less pollution and safety incidents. Plans are for 150 more Surtrac intersections locally in 2020. We can’t wait. Which is the whole point.
In the post-”Moneyball” era in baseball, the teams and players with the best data tend to win. Diamond Kinetics makes sensors like SwingTracker that analyze your game down to the tiniest detail, giving batters “a visual 3-D heat map of a hitter’s hot & cold zones.” They’ve developed a product called PitchTracker that analyzes pitching motions, as well as smart baseballs, smart softballs and smart bats. It’s now available in 400 Dick’s Sporting Goods stores. And Phillies slugger Ryan Howard is a new investor.
This self-driving car company will provide the sensors, brains and data services for automaking giants Hyundai and Fiat Chrysler’s vehicles, in partnerships announced earlier in 2019. With feet in both Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh, Aurora has been described as a “supergroup” with deep roots in autonomous vehicles at Google, Tesla, MIT and Carnegie Mellon’s groundbreaking win at the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Aurora has raised more than $620 million, according to Forbes. The company has more than 100 employees in Pittsburgh and has been expanding rapidly in Lawrenceville.
This high-tech manufacturer develops biodiesel fuel conversion systems for trucks, giving trucking fleets a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet renewable fuel targets. With the increasing threat of climate change, this is a breakthrough. Optimus recently won the top prize of $1 million in the 76West Clean Energy Competition and plan to expand to New York and add several dozen jobs there and at their Point Breeze headquarters.
Honeycomb Credit is a crowd-funding site with a pronounced focus on local business. My Goodness, a market in Regent Square, used Honeycomb Credit to raise $35,000 for refrigeration equipment. Scroll through their site and it’s full of new Pittsburgh businesses: Casa Brasil, Rolling Pepperoni, The Speckled Egg, etc.–as well as many from other cities seeking funding for crucial projects. Honeycomb Credit was begun to address the disappearance of small community banks, which hurts local businesses that depend on their loans. They are currently hiring in Detroit and Philadelphia, as well as their headquarters in Pittsburgh.
For those of us who grew up learning math from dog-eared textbooks with Led Zeppelin logos scrawled in the margins, the way math is taught today can come as a bit of a shock. Downtown-based Carnegie Learning, for one, has tutoring software called MATHia that was recently awarded a near-perfect score for its middle school and high school math solutions from EdReports.org, an independent nonprofit that evaluates instructional materials. MATHia, an AI-driven tutoring software that provides a math coach for every student and allows the teacher to see exactly how they are progressing. Where was this when we were struggling in school?
As a kid who watched a lot of “Star Wars,” I assumed our future had a lot more lasers in it. It doesn’t unless you’re Kanye West, Madonna, Rihanna, Roger Waters or Wiz Khalifa, which means you’re using lasers from Washington County’s Lightwave International for your touring stage show. They’ve also provided lasers for the Point State Park fountain’s return, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup runs, and movies like “Captain America: Winter Soldier.”
412 Food Rescue
One in seven Americans goes hungry yet 40 percent of the food produced in America ends up in landfills. 412 Food Rescue has found a novel way to attack both problems, via an app that connects those with excess food (grocers, restaurants, etc.), with volunteers who deliver the food to nonprofits that distribute it to those in need. It’s as easy as hailing an Uber and has diverted more than 7.6 million pounds of food from landfills since 2015, providing more than six million meals. In May, 412 Food Rescue was hailed by Fast Company in their World-Changing Ideas issue.
Their founder, Leah Lizarondo, is all over the country speaking and accepting major awards. And now, after a major collaboration with Food Donation Connection and expanding their model to Cleveland, Philadelphia and San Francisco, they plan on opening in 100 new cities by 2030. They made the top tech companies list last year with their work in turning surplus food into shelf-stable, fresh, healthy and affordable meals. And they just keep innovating with new programs and collaborations. Let’s hear it for world-changing ideas like this one.
Got a tech company you’re watching this year? Let us know in the comments below.