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Pittsburgh needs more startup capital to become 'playground of innovation'

Bob Bauder
| Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, 5:42 p.m.
Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute discusses Pittsburgh's potential for becoming a global innovation hub Wednesday during a gathering of city, university and corporate leaders at the Hill District's Energy Innovation Center.
Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute discusses Pittsburgh's potential for becoming a global innovation hub Wednesday during a gathering of city, university and corporate leaders at the Hill District's Energy Innovation Center.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto wants to create a cash stream from the city, corporations and nonprofits that would pump money into growing high-tech industries and startup mom-and-pop businesses in poor neighborhoods.

Peduto, who joined university, corporate and nonprofit leaders Wednesday in discussing Pittsburgh's potential as a top global city for innovation, said he hopes to announce the fund's creation early next year.

“We would work to fix up neighborhood business districts and help somebody who wants to start their own auto repair shop or their own barbershop to be able to get through those first few years when a company makes it or breaks it,” Peduto said. “We're talking about if we put in a certain amount, can we get corporations to match it, then can we get foundations to match it as well, then can we get the institutions to match it.”

Startup capital is one area where Pittsburgh lags in a quest to become a top destination for advanced manufacturing such as self-driving vehicles and robotics, according to a report released by the Brookings Institute.

Bruce Katz of Brookings said Oakland, with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, could become a “playground of innovation” through a partnership recommended in the report. The InnovatePGH partnership would feature collaboration between the city, universities, entrepreneurs and corporations to nurture high-tech business.

Katz described Oakland as the platform from which ideas evolve into businesses that radiate out to places such as Lawrence­ville, Downtown, the Strip District and the former LTV Steel property in Hazelwood. The report recommends that Oakland become an innovation district.

“What startups need when they're coming out of a university or just generally emerging is they need an ecosystem,” Katz said. “They need access to some capital. They need access to mentoring. They usually need, like, a co-working space. They need a community that basically is supporting them.”

Katz said Pittsburgh has much of that infrastructure in place but must expand and improve it to compete for large companies such as Amazon, which employ thousands. Pittsburgh is applying to become Amazon's second headquarters .

Peduto said the city can parlay the InnovatePGH idea to include downtrodden neighborhoods.

“The city itself becomes the innovation district,” he said. “When you read Amazon's proposal, they're very specific. They're looking for a city. They're not looking for a office park out in an outlying county.”

He said plans for the fund are in discussion stages.

“We've talked about it, but there hasn't been any formal decisions with it or how it would be structured,” the mayor said. “It is something we're working on to be able to have a potential announcement in the first quarter of 2018.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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