'Rise of the Rest' tour puts spotlight on Pittsburgh region's startups

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A movement to spotlight the nation of innovators that exists — sometimes unrecognized — between New York and Silicon Valley is scheduled to pull into Pittsburgh this week.

“Rise of the Rest,” a four-city bus tour created by Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Washington, D.C., investment firm Revolution, will make its way to Market Square on Wednesday following its inaugural kickoff set for today in Detroit.

The idea came to Mr. Case, a co-founder of New York-based AOL and founding chair of the White House’s Startup America Partnership, through years of investing in successful small town startups such as Fairfax, Va.-based online custom apparel company CustomInk and Lexington, N.C.-based children’‍s clothing site Lolly Wolly.

Established in 2005, Revolution is comprised of the $200 million Revolution Ventures fund for early-stage startups and the $450 million Revolution Growth fund for established tech businesses.

With the investment firm committing 90 percent of its dollars to companies outside of Silicon Valley or NYC, the value to be found in what some investors think of as flyover states was evident to Mr. Case.

If highlighting cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati and Nashville, Tenn., brings awareness to the value that exists in the Midwest and surrounding area, Mr. Case believes investors will be more than willing to follow the money into previously uncharted territories across the country.

“Rise of the Rest is founded on the belief that great entrepreneurs and companies can come from anywhere and the bus tour supports that philosophy,” he said in an email statement.

“We chose Pittsburgh because it is a great example of a city that has a strong history of entrepreneurship, and there is a thriving and locally supported entrepreneurial ecosystem with a strong lineup of companies and talent ready to be discovered.”

After a brief stop in Market Square for an introductory ceremony — guests include Debra Lam, city of Pittsburgh chief innovation and performance officer; William Generett, Urban Innovation21 CEO; and Luke Skurman, Niche Social founder and CEO — Mr. Case and a bus full of entrepreneurs and investors will visit Subra Suresh, Carnegie Mellon University president. Then they will head off for tours of Uptown startup incubator Startuptown, Larimer makers’ workshop TechShop and East Liberty textiles company Thread International.

Finally, the group will head back to AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty for a “fireside chat” with Mr. Case and a pitch competition that grants the winner a $100,000 investment and mentorship sessions with Revolution’‍s top officials. The day wraps up with a happy hour event at East Liberty startup accelerator Thrill Mill.

Once the bus departs Pittsburgh, the tour will head to Cincinnati before closing out Friday in Nashville.

Despite the actual cash prize at stake, the greatest benefit of the entire tour could be helping regional entrepreneurs see that national opinions about Pittsburgh are changing, said Kit Mueller, co-founder of RustBuilt, an initiative to promote tech economies in Pennsylvania and six Midwestern states.

“In Pittsburgh, we’‍re pretty awesome but sometimes it takes someone from outside to say we are so we can believe it,” he said.

Noting that West View resume tracking software company Resumator, Oakland-based NoWait, Strip District-based 4moms and Lawrenceville battery company Aquion Energy all secured major funding rounds from outside investors in the last year, Mr. Skurman said the event gives local companies chances to strike with curious out-of-town investors while the iron’s hot.

“I think investors are starting to understand there’‍s a real pipeline here,” Mr. Skurman said.

For as much as regional stakeholders are hoping to gain from Mr. Case’s visit, Mr. Generett said the event is also an opportunity to pass along methods that Pittsburgh uses — things such as internships, tax credits and targeted investments — to ensure tech economies drive growth that benefits communities at large.

“There is so much good stuff happening outside of Silicon Valley and it’‍s really important to highlight that,” he said. “But I also think there are some things that Silicon Valley and other cities can learn from us.”

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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