Why doesn’t Pittsburgh have a Silicon Hill?

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?

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* See also Graham’s older and longer essay How to be Silicon Valley.

11 thoughts on “Why doesn’t Pittsburgh have a Silicon Hill?”

  1. It seems to me that even if it’s possible to this, it is very likely the case that it would be a bad thing for any city to do because it probably merely shifts businesses from other areas (even if they are startups). Even if it’s good for pittsberg, it might not be good on net.

  2. Location, location, location. Merely having a job isn’t enough to make the top 0.01% talent stay. Pitt just doesn’t have enough to offer.

    No one wants to be in Pittsburgh. No one wants to be in Philly. Even NYC’s startup community is quaint compared to SFO and the Valley.

    captcha: “bypass studying”. Don’t mind if I do!

  3. As someone who recently graduated from the LTI at CMU, I can say the main reason I left Pittsburgh was the lack of jobs. Yeah, there’s Google, but everybody doesn’t want to work there. I was looking for an exciting startup and if I had found one there (that was hiring), I would have stayed. Also, Pittsburgh is lacking some of the urban appeal (e.g. social scene) a lot of students are used to who come from cities like DC, NY, or SF. I don’t see why investment comparable to a stadium couldn’t change all that.

  4. I wasn’t around back then, so I have no clue why Pittsburgh didn’t get big like SV or Boston, but I imagine it probably had to do with investment/focus on steel instead of technology, combined with CMU’s CS department not having an undergraduate program until the 90s. Because of earlier investments Pittsburgh today is a powerhouse for highly-skilled metals production, it just turned out that was a lot less important than routers or microchips or that whole internet-thing.

    I’d be willing to buy Paul Graham’s argument that Pittsburgh has a ton of talent today but can’t capitalize on it (literally) because of an inability to retain wealthy people. It’s telling that Tuomas (combinenet) and Luis (recaptcha) are both affiliated with CMU and so in a sense “can’t leave”. Pittsburgh is a challenging place to live – cloudy, icy, hilly – and it can’t balance that with the urban amenities you find in NYC or even Boston. What it balances the bad stuff with is the extremely cheap cost of living, but the same factors that make it the best place to live on a 30k salary really hurt it with people with much more money than that.

    Best case in the immediate future for Pittsburgh is a pool of startup founders based around Luis/the local Google office that hit it big and decide to stay. The “decide to stay” part is the real tough one though, e.g., Michael Mauldin (Lycos), whose work paid for CMU’s Newell-Simon Hall, recently left Western PA for the Texas Hill country http://www.lazytoad.com/.

    Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Paul Graham also grew up in Pittsburgh but unlike you really hated the place (at least, that’s the impression I get from his essays).

  5. ‘relaxing’ gets “bypass studying” recaptcha: I love it. Do you by chance have a screenshot? I’m collecting recaptcha poetry.

    jsalvatier: Good point. Makes sense at the national level, though I believe most cities are not averse to competing with other cities for jobs.

    relaxing, Jason, and Abe: thanks for the comments and links. Interesting about Michael Mauldin and Paul Graham. Some disadvantages of Pittsburgh you mention are chicken and egg problems: few jobs & urban amenities. If there were more of them, more people would stay and if more people stayed, there would be more of them. Admittedly this is hard to overcome, especially the lack of urban appeal. And some disadvantages are uncontrollable: bad weather, no sun all winter.

    Jason, I initially misread you last sentence. You’re saying the investment *could* be enough to create jobs and urban appeal?

    Also I just noticed another exception: Intel Labs Pittsburgh.

    Abe, let’s hope for your best case. Any chance the city or state government would get serious about this?

  6. Another: “HackPittsburgh is a non-profit, community-based workshop that allows members to come together and share skills & tools to pursue creative projects. Our membership is open to everyone but typically comprises inventors, engineers, scientists, programmers, hobbyists, artists, roboteers, families, entrepreneurs, and arts and crafts enthusiasts. Our focus is on collaboration, education, and community outreach.”

  7. Yet more: (Clearly I should have done more research prior to this post):

    AlphaLab provides the essential elements for startup companies to get off the ground successfully: funding, business assistance, advisors, space, and a supportive entrepreneurial community…Located at 2325 East Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s historic Southside neighborhood, AlphaLab’s location is easy to reach and near coffee shops, restaurants, retail shops, and dozens of other startup software technology companies.”

    AlphaLab is a project of Innovation Works (IW), “the Pittsburgh region’s largest and most active seed-stage investor. Since the creation of its seed fund in late-1999, IW has invested over $40 million in almost 120 technology startups in the Pittsburgh region – a pace that places IW among the most active seed-stage investors in the United States.”

  8. “Solineais Alveo’s first multitower development in Cebu that makes it possible for residents to come home to a vacation every day,” Tupaz said. “Being located right across Ayala Center Cebu, Solinearesidents can truly enjoy the convenience of being near the city hotspots and the luxury of resort-like amenities and a unique retail concept that complement the vibrant streetscape of the Cebu Park District. What it has to offer complements Cebu Park District’s rise as a dynamic hub for business, recreation and residential living.”

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