I grew up in Pittsburgh. I love Pittsburgh. I still run into people who believe Pittsburgh is a steel town. Pittsburgh is not that — the steel industry cleared out (and the air cleared up) before I moved there at age 10 in 1981 — though driving through its streets it sometimes feels like one: gritty row houses, dive bars, old-growth neighborhoods, and independent shops, worn and welcoming.
Then what is Pittsburgh?
A sports town, no doubt, but that doesn’t count.
A hospital town, perhaps. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is a sprawling conglomerate of hospitals, doctors, researchers, and medical school, growing organically and through acquisition. Several other private hospitals and networks dot the city.
But with one the the top five computer science departments in the world at Carnegie Mellon University churning out grads at all levels, you might think Pittsburgh would have the seeds of a high-tech ecosystem. Yet there are few major technology companies, startups, or venture capital firms to nurture them locally. (Two exceptions I can think of: Google and CombineNet. Update: Also Intel Labs Pittsburgh.) Instead, CMU students tend to flee for the coasts after graduation.
Could Pittsburgh develop a startup row, a mini Silicon Valley? Pittsburghers have been hoping for and heralding such a transformation for decades. Given the city’s famously steep (SF-worthy) gradients, there’s even a perfect name for it: Silicon Hill.
In selecting Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit, the Obama administration cited Pittsburgh as a post-industrial success story with “renewed industries that are creating the jobs of the future”. But that seems very glass half full as (paraphrasing) one of my Pittsburgh friends noted on Facebook.
Paul Graham wrote a terrific essay (as Paul Graham is wont to do) about how a city might go about buying their own Silicon Valley.* He concludes that it may be possible. “For the price of a football stadium, any town that was decent to live in could make itself one of the biggest startup hubs in the world.” His main conjecture is that the money would fund a large number of good local startups in their infancy but without forcing them to stay — the best startups simply won’t take money that constrains their future options. The funding would have to be rich enough and the environment nice enough that they simply would not want to leave.
Is Graham right and, if so, could Pittsburgh pull it off?
* See also Graham’s older and longer essay How to be Silicon Valley.