Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pittsburgh Robot-Makers Need a Hand

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pittsburgh Robot-Makers Need a Hand

Article excerpt

Pittsburgh is a city where dozens of the top 1 percent of 1 percent of robotics minds in the world gather to drink beer and eat wings, and that proximity and informality put us "in the top 10 in a small amount of things that are about to explode."

That's from Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, and when he says top 10, he means in the world.

But Mr. Katz and his colleagues came to Pittsburgh this month armed with stats showing our number of jobs falls far short of what would be expected from the amount of research money spent, and that we aren't getting our share of start-up companies.

They say Pittsburgh needs to amp up its game. Mr. Katz sketched a rough map of Pennsylvania on scrap paper, with big circles for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and a smaller one for State College. "This is how the world looks at Pennsylvania."

If we created an Oakland Innovation District, he argued, global investors would see us more clearly. These money guys may be smart, but they're not omniscient.

It's wise to have a proper wariness of top-down planning, and some of the very stats Brookings touts - Oakland has only 10 percent of the city's population but 29 percent of its jobs - indicate that what has been happening organically has been working pretty well.

I also had to ask Mr. Katz to repeat that top-10-in-the-world thing. I've spent almost 30 years believing Pittsburgh's highest impact on the world was assuredly in its past - and that was OK. Residents of Rome, Paris and London have to deal with that every day, too, don't they?

Yet now you can't turn around without finding Pittsburgh at or near the top of some list. I feel like I did decades ago as an early Bruce Springsteen fan when, almost overnight, the rest of America seemed to discover him. It doesn't seem quite real.

Scott Andes believes it's very real. He's a fellow at Brookings with a master's degree in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University, and was at RE2 Robotics, a CMU spinoff in Lawrenceville, when it hosted a meeting of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network earlier this month.

The wings and beer that night were tasty, but the network's co-founders, Jackie Erickson and Kevin Dowling, are trying to do for Pittsburgh on the fly what other high-tech centers do in a far more systematic way. …

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