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Written by Deb Smit
So many promising tech companies this year, so little time and space to give them all their due. The escalation of successful startups in our region is really good news, a turning point perhaps that forces a sharpened focus in pinpointing the most promising among them.
In doing so, we don’t mean to pass over the exciting progress made by companies like Luis von Ahn’s Duolingo, the app teaching the world to speak foreign languages, or the explosive growth at 4moms. Or Schell Games, which is in the throes of developing a new generation of educational gaming technologies on the South Side. Everyone we gushed about last year, in fact, deserves mention again along with the strides made by firms like Niche, Aquion and Deeplocal.
2014 was also a good year for venture capital funding in Pittsburgh. The region collectively raised $337.8 million, the largest pool seen in the region since 2001, according to MoneyTree. That’s more than double the $130.5 million raised in 2013, even if deals declined from 98 in 2013 to 70 last year.
So when Pittsburgh business leaders raised a finger to the entrepreneurial wind, the list was lengthy. Based on their suggestions, we whittled the list down down to 10 based on key factors like money raised and national recognition. And since this is 2015, we rounded out with another five, all very early stage startups believed to be on the cusp of qualified success.
With no further ado, the Top Tech Companies to Watch in 2015:
Athlete Trax hit the ground running last year. The cloud-based team management platform has improved the operation of athletic team and athletic organization with a better way to communicate, schedule games and practices, collect money and raise funds. Inc. Magazine liked it so much that Athlete Trax was named one of “America’s Coolest College Startups 2014.” This year the former Alpha Lab startup will focus on mobile platforms, making sure its customers can access everything they need from iOS and Android.
Dynamics is developing something the world desperately needs, a highly intelligent and more secure credit card system that creates a blanket of security. MasterCard was so impressed with the tech that it jumped on board and led a $70-million venture round. The new cards will roll out in 2015. In the meantime, the Cheswick-based firm which employs 200 is in the midst of a hiring spree, with another 50 in the immediate future. Dynamics has won numerous awards, including severalFinovate: Best of Shows.
Identified Technologies makes unmanned flying robots, as in drones, tasked with the tricky job of gathering data in hazardous environmental situations. Think energy companies. In addition to being one of five finalists in the Kaufman Foundation pitch content, this AlphaLab Gear startup was a finalist in the TransTech Energy Conference last November andSXSW Interactive Festival’s Accelerator this coming March. With a team of nine, Identified is forecasting significant growth this year and earnings 10 times better than revenue earned in 2014.
NoWait, the unequivocal darling of the casual dining crowd in Pittsburgh, is gaining traction across the country and around the world. The startup’s app recently counted its 100 millionth guest served. Since launching its consumer-facing app last year for casual restaurants, NoWait is being courted by the non-restaurant industry for a compatible in-line management services—think Santa Claus at your local mall and the Sundance Film Festival. NoWait was Pittsburgh Technology’s Council’s Tech 50 2014 Startup of the Year. The startup plans to move its 45 full and part-time people to an expanded office in Oakland this February. Several big announcements will be coming in the next few weeks.
Last year PieceMaker landed a deal with Toys“R”Us and spent the year piloting a first generation kiosk at two toy stores in Pittsburgh. A consumer first, the kiosk not only makes 3-D design making a creative endeavor, the screen tech is as easy as ordering an MTO at Sheetz. Expanding on this relationship, the PieceMaker team of six plans to launch a second iteration this year with an eye toward a national rollout. Think the first 3-D printing system released nationally. MSNBC named the startup among “Top Trending Toys of 2014” and Make Magazine called it the “future of toys.”
RE2 Since bootstrapping the company in 2001, RE2 has grown to 35 employees working in Lawrenceville largely with support from Draper Triangle Ventures, Innovation, Starbot and others. RE2 specializes in defense-related robotics and smart mobile platforms for the battlefield. Two exciting developments are on the horizon for 2015. The first is a small robotic arm for military bomb squads that will keeping troops far from dangerous explosive devices. Second is the expansion into a new market, developing robotic arms mounted to electric wheelchairs to help move people into and out of the chair without assistance. This was made possible through an NIH grant.
Rhiza believes that online analytical tools should be simple and elegant. The White House obviously agrees having invited Rhiza in three times last year to discuss the launch of their new climate clearinghouse. Rhiza, whose clients include the BBC, Cox Media and Gamut, is on track for major growth in 2015 (another 343% in fact). New partnerships will soon to be announced with several big data companies including Nielsen and Esperian. The Pittsburgh Tech 50 2014 named Rhiza Innovator of the Year and Chase singled out CEO Josh Knauer as among the Chase Smart 50.
Safaba in Squirrel Hill-based is a rising star in the field of machine translation, using a highly developed software platform to translate vast amounts of text from one natural language into another. The team, now 11, has spent years in development and the fruits of that labor are now paying off. With major corporate customers and $2 million raised to date, Safaba expects to launch a new product mid-year that will turn translation on its head by helping global enterprises to master their own localization needs (think: Canadian French).
Shoefitr If you’ve ever bought a shoe online and worried about the fit, Shoefitr has it covered. This startup is making its mark with a scanning tech that makes sure the shoe you’re buying fits. The company has more than 70 clients in 12 countries to date and grew last year by 200 percent. Stay tuned, in the coming year the team plans to roll out a mobile version and will announce new software and analytics for brands and retailers.
Sole Power is hitting its stride with a foot-powered, energy generating insole that charges portable devices while you walk. Unlike similar gadgets that are embedded, Sole Power can be swapped out to any shoe, which means it works for business people hiking through convention centers, wilderness trekkers and citizens in developing countries. The Sole Power team of five won big this year at the Steven Case Rise of the Rest pitch contest. The startup was also the Popular Science Invention of the Year, Africa Innovator of the Year, Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy and named a SXSW Accelerator Finalist in 2015. The first product, appropriately dubbed the EnSole, will be released this year. Hiring is expected.
A few up and coming startups that deserve some love:
Alpine Thermal Technologies is improving how we ship the coldest items. Its high performance GreenPack was released this year made from post-consumer recycled cellulose.
LegalSifter is an online app that evaluates, in less than a minute, any contract. Upload it in Word, wait 30 seconds, receive feedback. No lawyer needed.
MeshNet got the nod early on from University of Pittsburgh when it realized the value of MeshNet’s platform in helping college students to meet career goals while in college. What a novel concept! The Thrill Mill startup, founded by two brothers and Pitt grads, will join Alpha Lab this year to fine-tune the platform.
Naturi Organic Premium Yogurt celebrated the first production run of its Pittsburgh-made Greek yogurt this month. Naturi is available at more than 50 stores in the region, among them the Fairmont Hotel, Marty’s Market, the East End Coop and Espresso A Mano.
Rorus and its enterprising team of five is busy working on a purifying system using nanoparticle technology which they call the Device for Emergency Water, or DEW. DEW would be used in developing countries and after natural disasters using a new nanoparticle technology.