What does it take for Pittsburgh startups to partner with local governments?

PGH Labs, which helps startups work with Pittsburgh, is hosting a showcase of its second cohort Friday.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Update, Oct. 30: Applications are open for the third PGH Lab cohort. The deadline is Nov. 30.

Original story:

It was feedback in real time.

This summer, women working at the Urban Redevelopment Authority wore Pittsburgh-created Cognowear, a heated shawl/caplet, to stay warm while they worked in the John P. Robins Building, which like many offices, keeps the A/C high in the warm weather.

The realtime feedback on functionality and design helped refine the prototypes faster, said Amee Chaudry, a co-founder of Cognowear.

But in a city often lauded for its startup scene, how do companies like Cognowear build the relationships needed to make city government their client?

One program — PGH Lab — is working to make that happen. PGH Lab companies test their products with the city for three to four months, as well as the urban redevelopment, housing and water and sewer authorities, and are paired with a “city champion” mentor, said Annia Aleman, civic innovation specialist at the city, who leads the program. (She stressed that the companies don’t have to have the latest hardware to participate.)

Cognowear is in the program’s second cohort, and Chaudry said while the startup’s target market isn’t specifically government workers, it does include them, and participating in a program with the city helps raise product awareness and engage the community in its creation.


Cognowear shawls

mj slaby / the incline

Launched last year, PGH Lab provides work space and access to a global incubator program. While it’s not a guarantee to a contract with the city, and none of the participating companies have yet to sign one, organizers and participants stressed the benefits of the program, which is wrapping up its second cohort with a showcase Friday. (Read about the other companies in the cohort here.)

PGH Lab Showcase

Connect with the five startups in the second cohort of PGH Lab and learn how they are using local government as a platform at this Inclusive Innovation Meetup.

Where:City-County Building Portico at 414 Grant Street (Downtown)

When:September 15, 2017 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Before PGH Lab, there wasn’t a way for startups to pair with the city to test their products, Aleman said, but this allows startups to learn “the ins and outs of engaging with government.”

Working with government often means a longer process and an entity that’s typically risk-adverse, Aleman acknowledged, and added that founders in the second cohort of PGH Lab attended a class this summer on working with the city as a client.

“The program also allows for local government to learn about new technologies being developed right here at home that can potentially improve city operations,” she said.

At the URA’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Tom Link, the director, said he’s constantly answering questions from small businesses who want to grow and advance. He said it doesn’t happen often, but if a company is interested in having government as a client, PGH Lab is the way to go. The program allows them to do a pilot program to improve their product, and it helps both the city and the startup get to know each other.

“If you don’t know about new technologies, how are you supposed to procure them?” agreed Jennifer Wilhelm, manager of innovation and entrepreneurship at the center.

Business vs. government

Though it’s not a PGH Lab company, RoadBotics, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff, has several smaller governments as clients. The first was North Huntingdon Township in Westmoreland County.

RoadBotics users mount a smartphone to their windshield and an app on the phone records data about road conditions, helping clients make decisions about repairs.

Working business to business is different from working business to government, said Ben Schmidt, RoadBotics CTO. There are different motivations, incentives and willingness to take risks on technology, he said. Schmidt said his company wants to work with as many clients as possible — and that includes governments like North Huntingdon.

Township Manager Mike Turley said he first heard of RoadBotics after a public works staffer went to a presentation by the startup. He said he was drawn to the cutting-edge technology and the fact that RoadBotics was a CMU spinoff.

Although the township likes to work with companies that have experience, working with newer companies, especially when it comes to technology, is sometimes the best option, he said.

For RoadBotics, the township was a good place to work and scale up, Schmidt said.

Turley said the technology helps make a massive amount of data “less unwieldy.” Plus, he said it’s a way to more quickly see which road repairs should be a top priority and to estimate the costs. Both he and Schmidt agreed that they’ve worked together to improve the technology, too.

Looking ahead

As PGH Lab heads into its third cohort, Aleman said it’s looking for ways to stay involved with companies that complete the program. (Details for applicants interested in the third cohort will be announced soon, including one more government entity that will work with participants, she said.)

Both Chaudry and Daniel Mosse, co-founder of HiberSense and a member of the first cohort, praised PGH Lab for its quick response to participants’ questions during the program.

HiberSense, which does customized heating and cooling, used the 10th floor of the Robins Building, 200 Ross St. (Downtown), to deploy 30 sensors and test its product in an office setting. (Like Cognowear, HiberSense isn’t specifically targeting local government as clients.)

Chaudry said she’s hopeful there’s a way to keep working with the city, especially as Cognowear evolves. Right now, it’s about heated clothes for women working in offices, but responsive clothing can be used to keep nonverbal kids comfortable and construction workers warm in the winter, too, she said. That creates a potential for relationships with more city departments, she said.

“We hope to continue to working with them as much as they want to continue working with us,” Chaudry said.

In North Huntingon, Turley said he plans to continue working with RoadBotics, something he sees working for governments of all sizes. Turley said the township is willing to work with more startups when it’s the best option, like it was in the case of RoadBotics.

Schmidt said RoadBotics is working toward contracts with cities, including Pittsburgh — and even states — but first needs to add to its accomplishments with smaller clients.

“We need to prove it,” he said.