Bonnie Pfister

Four months of spirited competition concluded Wednesday as San Jose, Calif-based Lucid VR won the $50,000 grand prize in the AlphaLab Gear National Hardware Cup.

Second-place winner BotFactory took home $5,000, according to AlphaLab Gear’s Twitter feed, while DogParker (my personal favorite) fetched the $3,000 third prize. (More info about the contestants are below.)

Pittsburgh-based robotics venture capital firm Startbot funded the prize money in the second-annual contest to find and support the best ideas in innovative new products. The final showdown played out to a sold-out crowd at AlphaLab Gear’s offices in East Liberty. Each inventor had four minutes to pitch and five minutes to answer questions from the panel of judges, who will weighed commercial viability, team capability and demonstrated commitment.

“Our goal is to build a network of hardware startups everywhere and increase awareness and interest in investing in them,” AlphaLab Gear Managing Director Ilana Diamond told the Pittsburgh Business Times. “These companies need a community and investors.”

Erik Norwood, of Austin, was last year’s winner with his device CURB, a product that monitors household electricity use, offers money-saving tips and lets users control usage remotely.

“Taking home the Hardware Cup provided real validation from the investment community that we were on to something extremely valuable,” he said. “We were able to leverage that win into closing CURB’s full seed round investment of $1.5 million later in 2015.”

Pittsburgh was represented among the finalists. PalpAid is a medical device that uses a novel combination of soft tissue mechanics and computer vision techniques to make currently qualitative and subjective breast exams quantitative. It was developed by Molly Blank and James Antaki, mechanical engineers at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University.

Here’s the low-down on the competition:

  • Washington, D.C.: PrintLess Plans creates sleek yet rugged large-format e-paper devices made for the demands of architecture, engineering and construction professionals.
  • Boston: Water Hero creates a smart leak detection + prevention + conservation system to avoid costly water damage from burst pipes.
  • New York: Sort of like Zipcar for canines, Dog Parker creates on-demand neighborhood doghouses in dense urban areas, allowing humans to safely board their pets for short stints while they step inside a grocery store, cafe or other no-pet zone.
  • Los Angeles: Rufus Labs creates The Rufus Cuff, an advanced wearable device that also allows for voice and video calls, web browsing and more on its 3.2-inch screen.
  • San Jose: Lucid VR creates LucidCam, a stereoscopic 3D camera that captures the world as we see and hear it. Its 180° wide-angle lens enables an active view, with enhanced audio.
  • Austin: EllieGrid creates a smart pillbox that allows users to organize their medications in seconds.
  • Chicago: Mohop allows users to create customizable footwear via smartphone by combining on-demand 3D fabrication with emerging body scanning technology.
  • Wildcard (audience award winner): BotFactory (of New York) brings the future of electronic circuit fabrication to desktops with the introduction of Squink. Just like a 3D Printer, the small circuit printer allows users to prototype in minutes instead of weeks at the click of a button.

The finale was judged by seven nationally renowned venture capitalists, including Pittsburghers Josh McElhattan of Startbot, Tom Jones of Draper Triangle and David Motley of BlueTree Allied Angels.

Each of the regional winners won $1,000 cash, a yearlong TechShop membership, $500 in 3D printing from ExOne and a one-year license with Altium, which designs printed circuit boards used in electronic devices.

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Read about the Hardware Cup winners here

The grand finale of a  seven-city pitch competition concludes in Pittsburgh May 6 as teams vie for $50,000 in startup capital and other prizes.

It’s the wrap of the AlphaLab Gear National Hardware Cup, which encourages big ideas in hardware (that is, tangible products, as opposed to services or software – the specialty of sister organization AlphaLab). Regional competitions were held earlier this year in each of the cities that have a TechShop, the nation’s premier “maker” facility providing tools and knowhow for do-it-yourselfers.

Winners from those contests in Detroit, Washington D.C., Austin, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Jose will gather at AlphaLab Gear’s offices in East Liberty at 6 p.m. for the final showdown. (Get your free tickets here.)

Representing Pittsburgh will be healthcare startup whose device, AlphaStroke (no relation to AlphaLab or AlphaLab Gear) identifies stroke victims immediately so they can be transported to the right hospital for treatment much faster than current protocols and practices. Like the other regional winners across the nation, AlphaStroke took home $1,000 cash, a year-long TechShop membership, 3D design and engineering software Fusion 360 and support from its maker, Autodesk.

Judging Wednesday’s finale will be Pittburghers Josh McElhattan of Startbot (a venture capital funder of early-stage robotics companies) which is funding the the $50,000 prize), Tom Jones of Draper Triangle and Paul Cousins of Autodesk; Josh Lin of RPM ventures in Ann Arbor, Mich. and Craig Asher of Vital Venture in Washington D.C.

Admission is free but reservations are encouraged here.

Learn more about the Hardware Cup here.

Bill Flanagan

I’ve been in Pittsburgh long enough – 30 years this month, in fact – to remember when a term like “Pittsburgh Entrepreneur” was thought to be something of an oxymoron. It was a reflection of how strongly our region had become attached to the industrial, corporate economy that Pittsburgh exemplified for a century. There was a sense we’d become great managers but we’d lost some of our capacity to create. And there was concern that we’d never be able to recapture the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that had built Pittsburgh in the first place, when a bunch of young entrepreneurs with names like Heinz, Hunt and Westinghouse were reinventing the way the world worked, and Andrew Carnegie was combing the world for innovative technologies like the Bessemer Convertor to revolutionize the steel industry.

Over the past generation we have come a long way, and there was no better example than the recent Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. Twenty-three finalists from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia were competing. (A couple of the judges told me after a preliminary round that they were cutting entrepreneurs that should be winners, not just finalists.)

You can see who won by clicking here and watch videos of the winners on our YouTube page or below.

E&Y brought the award to our region 26 years ago and I’ve had the honor of serving as master of ceremonies for many of those events. This year, E&Y honored Rich Lunak, president of Innovation Works (IW), as Supporter of Entrepreneurship. Rich made a really good point along the lines of Sir Isaac Newton’s famous quote, “If I have seen farther than most it is because I stand on the shoulder of giants.”  Rich talked about the visionaries of the 1980s (some were thought of as crazies) who said we should put the infrastructure in place to create a knowledge-driven, entrepreneurial economy. They included people like former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, who as a state lawmaker helped to create the Ben Franklin Partnerships that became IW here in our region and the late Ron Morris, founder of The American Entrepreneur. Rich mentioned Tom Canfield and Frank Demmler of the old Enterprise Corporation, now folded into IW as well. Civic leaders such as Bill Newlin, Bob Kampmeinert, Marlee Meyers and Tim Parks created the Pittsburgh Technology Council, celebrating its 30th anniversary next year. A few years later, Dennis Yablonsky brought to life the Life Sciences and Digital Greenhouses. And, of course, you can’t say enough about the contributions of the leadership of Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and the West Penn Allegheny Health System all along the way.

Today there are hundreds of companies in health care, life sciences, and information & communications technology employing hundreds of thousands of people in the region, many of them companies that didn’t exist three decades ago. You can add to that the impact innovation and technology commercialization have had on our foundational industries in advanced manufacturing, financial and business services and energy. The seeds that were planted then have borne fruit – and it’s a big reason our region’s economy has been outperforming the national average for several years running.

Now, if we could only find the financial resources we need to capitalize on all the good ideas and would-be entrepreneurs teaching and studying at our colleges and universities and working inside companies throughout the region. Oh, well, we’ve got to have something for the next generation to work on…

Meantime, congratulations to this year’s crop of Entrepreneurs of the Year. They’ll be representing our region at E&Y’s national Strategic Growth Conference in California in November.

Check out Rich Lunak’s interview here.

And see all the interviews here.

Phil Cynar

For innovators and entrepreneurs, Pittsburgh can be the perfect place for a soft landing. It’s a real alternative to the west coast, the mecca that beckons tech visionaries wanting to make it big. But for Shoefitr, a start-up company specializing in a proprietary web application for online shoe sales, Pittsburgh is – pardon the phrase – a perfect fit.

Co-founded by a team of three recent Carnegie Mellon grads – Matt Wilkinson, Nick End and Breck Fresen – Shoefitr is satisfying online shoe buyers with correct fits the first time, reducing customer disappointment and dissatisfaction. At the same time, the company’s proprietary application is saving online shoe purveyors big bucks annually in the returns department.

Shoefitr’s been lauded as a start-up “most likely to be acquired,” but the team isn’t all that anxious about when that will happen. In a recent interview with WTAE TV’s Sally Wiggin, the young entrepreneurs talk about loving what they’re doing and why they love doing it here. The Pittsburgh region has exceptional networks to support entrepreneurs of all ages, including Innovation Works – an organization that’s part of a statewide system advancing Pennsylvania’s knowledge-based economy. It’s the single largest investor in seed-stage companies in the region – as well as one of the most active in the country – and was one of the key partners that helped Shoefitr achieve its current success.

While it’s a metro of significant size, Pittsburgh is small enough to be accessible – a “big small city” – as it’s been characterized. Here, people connect easily and relationships are formed, and yet there are a disproportionately large number of resources for innovators and entrepreneurs to tap to turn their visions into money-making realities.

Watch the WTAE TV interview with Shoefitr here and learn more about other successful entrepreneurs who call the Pittsburgh region home.

Ben Kamber
VitalClip's Steven Radney Presenting at Demo Day

When President Obama traveled to Pittsburgh last month to meet with his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, entrepreneurship and the potential it has to drive America’s economic revival were on the minds of many. Less than a week after the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, the President remarked at the IBEW Training Center in the South Side, “The story of America’s success is written by America’s entrepreneurs; men and women who took a chance on a dream and they turned that dream into a business, and somehow changed the world … that spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation is how we became the world’s leading economic power, and it’s what constantly rejuvenates our economy.”

America’s entrepreneurial success relies on risk-takers who make up their minds to imagine and innovate.  The Pittsburgh region has no shortage of such visionaries, and a select group of them call 2325 East Carson Street home – at least for 20 intensive weeks as they fast track the launch of new companies by participating in Innovation Works’ AlphaLab program.  AlphaLab provides mentorship, office space and funding to help incubate up to 12 tech start-ups annually. There are two AlphaLab cycles each year. Since its launch in 2008, this tech-accelerator program has incubated 39 companies with 100+ individual entrepreneurs taking part.

Representing a diverse array of companies, the most recent class of dynamic AlphaLab entrepreneurs are pioneering innovations ranging from software that helps those with diabetes better manage their healthcare to an iPad app that allows people to create customizable jewelry.  At the end of October, all six of these tech start-ups presented their products and ideas at AlphaLab’s Demo Day – a biannual event which gives investors and civic leaders an opportunity to engage with the latest class. This round of tech companies was most impressive. They include:

8020select – a company that aims to provide small businesses, with limited resources, a wide range of graphic design offerings. They achieve this through the creation of a web-based design community, tailored to businesses on a budget that need high quality but affordable graphic design work.

Makercraft – an Art Institute of Pittsburgh spin-out, this customizable jewelry company is tapping into the estimated $69 billion global market for fashion jewelry. With its jewelry design iPad app, Makercraft allows users to design their own highly customizable jewelry.

VitalClip – through the development of an integrated iPhone platform, VitalClip offers users a real-time health management tool, which enables individuals to better manage their well-being.  With an initial focus on the management of stress, VitalClip allows users to monitor and track a number of physiological factors that account for stress and develop ways to better control them.

Krowder – a company that seeks to solve delivery shipping and issues associated with purchases made via website such as Craigslist. By harnessing the power of crowd-sourcing, Krowder wants to achieve greater convenience and lower costs in the shipment of second-hand goods.

Comvibe – for frustrated property managers and tenants alike, Comvibe has created an innovative web- and mobile-based solution to help streamline and consolidate the property maintenance process. Through a sophisticated software application, tenants are able to access an easy-to-use system for making maintenance claims, which in turn provides landlords with a centralized way to follow up with the requests.

PHRQL (pronounced “freckle”) – by way of smart phone integrated software, PHRQL has developed a solution to help users who are diabetics manage an array of factors related to their health and wellbeing. With a focus on user engagement, PHRQL wants to ease the diabetes management process while reducing the overall costs associated with the condition.

Imagination and innovation are indeed alive and well in Pittsburgh.  AlphaLab and its entrepreneurs are proof positive.

Learn more about these break-out companies by watching the video below to hear each of their CEOs talking about their innovations and answering the question, “Why Pittsburgh?”

Learn more about what AlphaLab is all about by watching a video interview with Terri Glueck of Innovation Works.

Phil Cynar

Getting his first look as a journalist what makes Pittsburgh a Top Americas “City of the Future” (ranked as such this April by Foreign Direct Investment – or fDi – a publication of the Financial Times) was Michal Kaczmarski, who recently moved from his native Poland to London to join fDi’s staff as senior reporter/markets editor. Kaczmarski was in Pittsburgh from Oct. 15 – 19, hosted by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the marketing affiliate of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The PRA planned a robust agenda for Kaczmarski’s time in Pittsburgh and introduced him to a number of companies, organizations and individuals that are defining Pittsburgh as a true “city of future.”  Among those were Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center and ETC spin-out companies; Google Pittsburgh; Innovation Works and its AlphaLab young entrepreneurs; robotics company RE2; Precision Therapeutics; the Center for Connected Medicine; SnapRetail; and CareerImp, both of which are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Technology Council; AquaTech; and SEEGRID.

In addition, Kaczmarski had an opportunity, over lunch one afternoon at Lawrenceville’s Kaleidoscope Cafe, to talk with executives who represent two of the region’s top sectors:  information and communications technology, and health care and life sciences. These leaders – Matt Harbaugh, chief operating officer at Jibbigo, LLC and Patrick Daly, CEO of Cohera Medical, Inc.– were brought to the table literally by Innovation Works and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse respectively – organizations in the region that have many companies move toward successful commercialization of services and products that are putting Pittsburgh on the global radar as a hub of innovation … a “Silicon Valley of the East.”

Harbaugh talked candidly with Kaczmarski about why Jibbigo has found it easier to grow in Pittsburgh than in Silicon Valley. Daly offered thoughts about what Pittsburgh has to offer to “trailing” spouses or partners of new hires, both in terms of work and of finding a place in the community. You can hear more of what they shared with our international guest in the first video below. And check out Kaczmarski’s impressions of our “small big city” in the second link.