Powered by NEXTpittsburgh / Written by Kym Lyons

The new batch of companies in East Liberty-based accelerator AlphaLab includes a virtual travel agent, a company that aims to improve online product recommendations, and a platform to connect nonprofits with sponsors for their major events.

Founded in 2008, AlphaLab helps to launch innovative technology companies through 20-week programs that offer funding, guidance and office space. Its successful start-ups include NoWait, ShoeFitr and Jazz (formerly The Resumator, founded by Neighbor Don Charleton.)

The startups of AlphaLab’s 15th cycle are at different phases of readiness but all have at least some experience to speak of, says executive director Jim Jen (who is also an Neighbor). Most have done some form of customer validation, and some have products and revenue already.

“This group of companies is well-aligned to the trends in the industries they’re tackling,” he adds.

It was a highly competitive process to whittle down the field of companies—their largest ever—and drew from a national applicant pool. Three of the seven companies are from out of state.

They’ll spend the next several months availing themselves of all the resources, networking and training the incubator has to offer.

CEO Greg Buzulencia has a modest goal for his startup. “We just want to revolutionize the travel agent space,” he says with a chuckle, “like Airbnb did for the hotel industry.”

ViaHero curates customized travel recommendations from experts who have either traveled extensively to your destination or are locals. It flips the revenue model on its head, by compensating the person providing the guide information, Buzulencia says, rather than the hotel or airline trying to sell the most lucrative trip. For instance, an expert on Barcelona might advise visitors to order Cava instead of Sangria and avoid certain touristy areas in favor of more authentic local hangouts.

He’s only got five experts signed up so far, but Buzulencia is focused first on making the experts’ recommendations robust in one location, and will scale the platform from there. His dream location to get expert travel guides: Cuba, which is a newly-available travel destination for some (but not all) Americans.

“There’s so much pent-up demand, and there are so few people who have traveled there,” he says. “It’s the kind of place a lot of adventurous people are going to want to go.”


Planning a fundraiser on a shoestring budget? Endorsevent will help connect you with brands to help sponsor part of your event. The goal is to connect small organizations and nonprofits with small and medium companies who are looking for branding opportunities.

“Let’s say you’re a pizza shop and you want to promote your company,” says Endorsevent CEO Amber Stradford. The pizza shop could provide pizza for a fundraiser in exchange for its name in the program, or its signage at the event, she explains. The Endorsevent platform connects organizations who may not have the resources to hire an event planner or the staff to do outreach to find local companies seeking promotion. Companies can donate funds or in-kind services to organizations with whom they wish to partner.

Stradford, whose background is in digital marketing, funded the building of the platform herself and is hoping AlphaLab can help her build her network here.

Amber Stradford, Endorsevent. Photo courtesy AlphaLab/InnovationWorks
Amber Stradford, Endorsevent. Photo courtesy AlphaLab/InnovationWorks


Twined is a response to all the lousy product reviews which leave consumers wondering which opinions are real and which ones are paid for by brands, CEO Phil McKeating says. Twined will enlist what it calls “tastemakers” to offer recommendations based on product reviews, McKeating says.

Its tastemakers are handpicked from around the web based on their expertise in a given subject matter.

“So instead of random crowdsourced reviews, we offer recommendations,” McKeating says. “Instead of finding out what a restaurant is like on Yelp, we’d get the opinion from someone like a qualified food critic.”

He envisions most of Twined’s recommendations being valuable to young families, “who don’t have time to read a dozen reviews, but might need help picking out baby products.”

Clarabyte Solutions

Time to purge that old hardware or device? Clarabyte has a three-pronged group of digital solutions, says CEO James Deighan. Say you’re looking to sell your old smartphone. Clarabyte’s software will allow you to purge and destroy the digital data, provide automated hardware testing to determine if all the parts are in working order, and then let you list it for sale on several e-commerce platforms, like Amazon and eBay, all at once.

Some $50 billion in credit card rewards go unredeemed by consumers, says Matthew Kennedy, founder of Skick’D. Under new regulations, that doesn’t make banks happy because it creates liability on their balance sheets. Skick’D would connect consumers with highly-tailored offers that will let them redeem their rewards points so everyone walks away happy.

Matthew Kennedy, Skick'D. Photo courtesy AlphaLab/InnovationWorks.
Matthew Kennedy, Skick’D. Photo courtesy AlphaLab/InnovationWorks.

Think of Mighty as a concierge service for contractors in the home improvement industry, suggests CEO Mike Regan. Instead of bids for service like one might find on sites like Angie’s List, Mighty would manage all the contractors needed on a particular home improvement job. “It will aggregate contractor services the way Uber aggreggates driving,” Regan says. He’s working to make Mighty scalable during his stay in AlphaLab.

Remember the old game Capture the Flag? Combine that with location-based advertising and you’ve got the general concept of Flagtag, says CEO Omar El-Sadany. Its target audience is college students, who would use the Flagtag app to find nearby food and drink specials from advertisers, on a geolocated map. The first person to claim the deal would then clear all the other nearby users’ “flags,” adding a competitive aspect. The app is still in private beta, El-Sadany said, and he and his team are hoping their time at AlphaLab will get them ready for launch.


*     *     *

Looking for a job? features more than 20,000 open positions on our powerful, 10-county job search engine. Find yours today!

Congratulations to Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery in the Strip District for making the Nov. 15 issue of Wine Spectator. It is one of six artisanal distilleries recognized as “among the most distinctive and exciting producers” among the 750+ small distillers operating in the United States today.

TimRussellMaggiesFarmRotatorMaggie’s Farm (also known as Allegheny Distilling) is Pennsylvania’s first producer of a commercially-available craft rum dating back to Prohibition. All products are distilled from scratch on the Spanish-made copper still just behind its cocktail bar on Smallman and 31st Street. Maggie’s Farm aims for smooth yet full-bodied spirit.

“Founder Tim Russell’s approach to distillation is: by hand, by ear, by nose, by palate, on that simple still,” the article notes. “Russell says, ‘That’s part of what “craft” is. Rather than pressing buttons and looking at what an LCD screen tells me, I know what the temperature is. I know what the proof is. I know how the distillate tastes. That’s how I learned to distill.’ ”

Check out the Nov. 15 issue on newsstands now, or stop by Maggie’s Farm in person to taste the rum during its limited cocktail hours on Friday or Saturdays. Bottle sales are Wednesdays through Sundays.


Zersha Munir

Consider yourself an innovator? BNY Mellon wants to hear your ideas! In collaboration with The Forbes Fund, BNY Mellon presents the UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge to support entrepreneurs dedicated to solving Pittsburgh’s problems. Entrepreneurs — from students to startups to established firms — are welcome to submit their products or product ideas in solution to any of the three UpPrize challenges for prizes of grant and investment money. The challenges include:

Independence: What products might better equip people to be caretakers of themselves and their neighbors?

Access: What products might reduce physical barriers to accessing services and opportunity?

Coordination: What products might help multiple organizations better coordinate how they distribute goods and services to those in need?

UpPrize encourages purpose-driven innovation and offers $800,000 in grants and investments, as well as additional benefits and supports for a total prize value in excess of $1 million. Community partners and advisers include Google, Carnegie Mellon University and the Idea Foundry. Submissions simply require a  two-minute video discussing your team, product and vision, and should be submitted using YouTube or Vimeo. Submission deadline is Wednesday, April 15 at 5 p.m EST. 

Have some ideas? Then visit the UpPrize site for more information and to enter the challenge.

Next, register to attend NEXTpittsburgh’s UpPrize networking event, Mix It Up, on March 24 at 5:30 p.m. at Alpha Lab Gear to spend an evening with Pittsburgh’s local leaders and innovators. Event partners include Mayor Peduto, Fygment, Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partners and several local establishments, all who came together to plan a night of networking exercises and fun.

UpPrize competition eligibility guidelines and FAQ’s can be found here. Further questions can be tweeted at “@UpPrize” on Twitter or emailed in.

speakers cropped
Covey’s Vanessa Jameson, Romeo Delivers’ Anne Lopez and Astrobotics’ John Thornton at the September 2014 + NEXTpgh event, What’s NEXT in Tech.

Join and NEXTpittsburgh on Tuesday, Feb. 24 for a networking happy hour and to hear from individuals who are innovating across communities to create a more welcoming, connected Pittsburgh. They include:

Debra Lam, chief innovation and performance officer for the City of Pittsburgh, a North Hills native who returned to Pittsburgh after working in New York, the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong

Bill Generett, Jr., president/CEO of Urban Innovation21, which helps entrepreneurs in underserved communities participate in the region’s innovation economy

Jesabel Rivera, president of the Latin American Cultural Union, which works to better connect members of the region’s small-but-fast-growing Latino community to each other and the wider region

Diwas Timsina, founder of Children of Shangri-Lost, a youth-run nonprofit raising awareness of the Bhutanese community through short films and blog posts

Nathan Mallory, owner of Cannon Coffee in Brookline and president of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce

Doors open at 6 p.m.; panel begins at 6:30 p.m.; refreshments/networking at 7:30 p.m.

The event is free of charge but registration is required at

Bill Flanagan
Bill Flanagan, host of Sunday morning’s “Our Region’s Business” on WPXI-TV, emceeing the “Robot Hall of Fame” ceremony at the Carnegie Science Center, Oct. 23, 2012.

Back the ‘90s The Wall Street Journal dubbed Pittsburgh “Robo-burgh,” highlighting an emerging sector that combined the best of our region’s strengths in computer science and making things. Today, robots are making their way into everyday life (think Roomba or the suite of products for babies created by our region’s own 4moms) and local companies like Aethon and Seegrid Corp. are manufacturing real commercial robots right here.

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as master of ceremonies for Carnegie Mellon University’s Robot Hall of Fame event at the Carnegie Science Center. This is a big deal in the world of robots, as you can read here on, a must-read tech blog. David Lettermen even mentioned it on his Top Ten List.

Sure, the nominees wowed us with robots that are doing science on Mars, dancing around on four legs and entertaining us in WALL-E and other movies. But it also brought back plenty of memories, especially when I got to introduce the presenters: CMU professor William “Red” Whittaker, CMU President Jared Cohon and Henry Thorne, robot inventor and entrepreneur.

I came to Pittsburgh 30 years ago, when robotics was in its infancy (the university’s Robotics Institute had been created just three years earlier – the first of its kind in the world). Any notion that it would one day become a regional industry seemed far-fetched at best. Dr. Whittaker took me for a spin in an autonomous Humvee on Flagstaff Hill. It was actually more of a crawl than a spin; we went about three miles an hour. Yet Red insisted that someday vehicles would drive themselves across the continent and in city traffic. In 2007, his CMU team won a first-place, $2 million award from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for doing just that.

Henry Thorne, a prolific inventor and robotics patent holder, came back to Pittsburgh in the late ‘90s to develop “personal” robots. I took a TV camera out to his house to do a story on his “Tug,” a little two-wheeled robot that could tow a cart around a room without any sort external guidance. (In those days robots depended on a metal strip on the floor or some other external system to know where they were.)  The Tug went to the kitchen and brought us back a beer. That application never caught on, but about ten 10 ago, Henry founded Aethon, which has placed more than 100 Tugs in hospitals around the country, automating a one-time manual delivery process. Since then, he and partner Rob Daley have gone on to found 4moms, which is one of our region’s hottest robotics companies.

DARPA has just announced that three of our region’s robots will get yet another chance to compete in a competition that will push the edge of robotics. CMU will field two teams in a new Robotics Challenge, in which robots will perform complex, physically challenging tasks as they respond to disaster scenarios in human-engineered environments, such as nuclear power plants.  The “home teams” include “Tartan Rescue Team,” headed by Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center and research professor of robotics, and “Team Steel,” led by Christopher Atkeson, professor in the Robotics Institute and Human-Computer Interaction Institute, to receive funding in the competition. A team from a Robotics Institute spinoff company, RE2 Inc. of Pittsburgh, also was selected.

As we wrapped up the awards ceremony I couldn’t help but wonder, “What will they think of next?”  Then I realized I was actually in the room with many of “them” — the people who are inventing this future. And many of these leaders live right here in our region; they’re our neighbors. We’re home to the Robot Hall of Fame, and the innovation that’s behind it. Congrats to all the inductees.

Phil Cynar
Nobel Laureate (and Pitt grad) Maathai Wangari

Pittsburgh has inspired and enabled great achievements by pioneers in environmental justice, medicine, art and sports. You can learn more here, but a sampling is below.

Kenya-born Wangari Maathai was a global leader on environmental and anti-poverty issues. She earned a master’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

A native of Springdale, a community along the Allegheny River just 18 miles northeast of the City of Pittsburgh and a 1929 alumna of Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, conservationist and author. Her book, Silent Spring, is credited with advancing the global environmental movement. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of its publication.

University of Pittsburgh researcher and professor Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine for polio – one of America’s most frightening public health crises – on March 26, 1953 in Pittsburgh. Widespread use of his vaccine is expected to globally eradicate this crippling disease.

Pittsburgh Pirates Right Fielder Roberto Clemente‘s breathtaking skills as a hitter helped the Pirates win two World Series. A native of Puerto Rico, Clemente was the first Latino in U.S. baseball to receive Most Valuable Player and World Series MVP awards and to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Pittsburgh-born leader of the pop-art movement beginning in the 1960s, Andy Warhol blurred the lines between art and life, commerce, film and celebrity. “The pop idea was that anybody could do anything.” Warhol is also often remembered for his quip, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Pittsburgh is home to The Andy Warhol Museum, the largest museum in the U.S. dedicated to one artist.

Born on Pittsburgh’s North Side in a neighborhood now called Allegheny West, Gertrude Stein was a writer, poet, art collector and feminist. She spent most of her life in Paris, nurturing such now-famous avant-garde artists as Matisse and Picasso, and expatriate American writers during the first half of the 20th century.

A native of Guatemala, Luis Von Ahn is a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor and MacArthur “Genius” grant winner. He pioneered crowd-sourcing and the reCAPTCHA software used to digitize books and other printed text. His latest venture is Duolingo, a free language-learning website and crowd-sourced text translation platform.

Born to Portuguese parents in Mozambique, Teresa Heinz is an American businesswoman and philanthropist. She chairs The Heinz Endowments and Heinz Family Philanthropies, which help the Pittsburgh region thrive economically, ecologically, educationally and culturally.

Called “the father of modern transplantation,” Dr. Thomas Starzl, was the first to perform human liver transplants. A physician, researcher and organ transplant expert, Dr. Starzl has called Pittsburgh his home since 1981.

An American entrepreneur and engineer, George Westinghouse is the inventor of the railway air brake. This device enabled trains to be stopped – for the first time – with fail-safe accuracy by locomotive engineers and was eventually adopted on the majority of the world’s railroads. Westinghouse was also a pioneer of the electrical industry and one of Thomas Edison’s main rivals. A transplant to the Pittsburgh region from his native New York state, Westinghouse and his wife, made their first home in Pittsburgh in 1868.