Uber's plans in Pittsburgh spark fears of talent poaching
June 7, 2015 12:00 AM
Andrew Moore, Dean of Computer Science at CMU left, and John Bares, Director, Uber ATC, right, listen to Audrey Russo, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Technology Council, during a panel discussion at the Intelligent Transportation Systems meeting in Pittsburgh.
By Kim Lyons / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When San Francisco ride-sharing company Uber announced in February it would partner with the National Robotics Engineering Center with the goal of producing self-driving cars and would locate its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, the move seemed to reverse the usual narrative for the Steel City: Instead of talented people moving out for job opportunities, a large company was moving in and bringing jobs here.
And why not? The NREC — housed in an unremarkable building by the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, visible from the 40th Street bridge — has been the home to several major advances in robotics, including projects for the Department of Defense and NASA.
That same bland building has been the scene of a drama this spring involving the recruiting (some say poaching ) of top tier roboticists, and the tangled webs created by university and corporate partnerships.
But area political and technology officials are shrugging off suggestions that something untoward went down.
The NREC, they reason, is why Uber decided to hitch a ride with CMU. And if Uber decided to hire away some of its new partner’s experts, well, there are more where those came from.
It’s not the first time such things have happened, and likely won’t be the last.
Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, recalls similar fears of a talent drain on smaller companies when Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine giant Google opened its Pittsburgh office in 2006.
She was working at South Side-based Maya Design at the time, and said a coworker went to work for Google fairly early on.
“That’s the knee-jerk reaction, that smaller companies will suffer,” she said. “But we’ve been working at this for 20 to 30 years. None of this is anything we wouldn’t have wished for or plotted for.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the city has been working with both Uber and CMU to build just this kind of relationship.
“Uber understands that Pittsburgh has the potential of becoming the global center of the autonomous vehicle world. We have the expertise to develop the software, the mapping, the robotics and the manufacturing,” Mr. Peduto wrote in an email.
“Both the city and CMU are excited about the potential this partnership has — one that can be counted with a ‘B’ (as in billions) for the city, for CMU and for Uber and the autonomous vehicle industry.”
Asked if any company would have triggered a similar reaction, Ms. Russo said it’s not easy to ignore nagging concerns about Uber, amid reports of female passengers being harassed or assaulted by some of its drivers (all of whom are independent contractors) and at least one report of the company harassing a journalist.
Like its ride-sharing rival Lyft, Uber entered the Pittsburgh market without getting a license from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which it battled for a year until coming into compliance.
That’s Uber’s standard method of entry in most of the 311 cities and 58 countries where it operates: Ask for forgiveness instead of permission. As a result, it faces numerous ongoing legal battles by regulatory agencies in several countries, but continues to expand, with a current market valuation of around $50 billion.
So when it began siphoning staff away from NREC, the move raised a few eyebrows.
Estimates vary, but The Wall Street Journal recently reported more than three dozen people moved from the robotics center in Lawrenceville to Uber’s ATC in the Strip District shortly after the partnership was announced.
CMU would not comment about the Uber partnership for this article, but issued a statement saying the center had a “bright future.”
At an Intelligent Transportation Systems gathering in Pittsburgh last week, Andrew Moore, dean of CMU’s school of computer science, noted the Carnegie Robotics Institute had recently hired its 50th person. After his panel discussion, Mr. Moore declined to comment about Uber. It’s worth noting Mr. Moore was one of those early hires by Google Pittsburgh; he left CMU in 2006, but returned to the school in 2014.
John Bares, who had been director of the NREC for 13 years until departing in 2010 to start Carnegie Robotics and is now head of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center, said after the panel discussion that he was not bothered by the portrayal of Uber taking advantage of CMU, because it’s not the reality.
“The goal of this university has been to build companies and startups,” he said. “Every startup takes people from academia.”
He said while it might be harder in the short term for the school’s robotics center to hire while Uber is still hiring since academia typically pays less than the private sector, in the long term it's going to benefit everyone.
“Uber is interested in connecting with CMU on all levels,” Mr. Bares said. He declined to give specifics about what more might be on the horizon. “But Pittsburgh needs to get ready. We’re going to do fantastic things here.”
NREC functions similarly to technology transfer offices at other universities, working to bridge the gap between research and commercialization. It hasn’t always been as traditional as some of its counterparts at other universities.
“People need to understand that NREC was always the cutting edge of commercialization,” said Marc Malandro, founding director of the Innovation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, which oversees the university’s technology commercialization efforts. “They wanted to make stuff people could use.”
Mr. Malandro said any research university that takes federal funding is required to have some version of a technology transfer office, and the government expects some return on its investment, whether it’s a product or a drug or an algorithm.
One motivation for Uber hiring staff away from the robotics center could be a desire to have more control over the technology it produces for driverless cars, rather than sharing it with CMU and the government, he said.
He pointed out that pharmaceutical companies that partner with universities still do a lot of discovery work internally, and regularly hire university researchers to that end.
The amount of time it can take to bring an idea from concept to commercialization, particularly in the life sciences realm, can be daunting, Mr. Malandro added.
Some of the concepts Pitt’s tech transfer office has brought to market only happened after a lengthy regulatory process, including a drug that helps with Alzheimer’s research, and the ALung tehcnology used to help lung transplant patients.
By contrast, Uber, which celebrated its five-year anniversary last week has rocketed to global reach. Along with its quick ascent and deep pockets, Uber presented a way for NREC to realize a shared vision of driverless cars, which had to be a very attractive option, Mr. Malandro said.
Ms. Russo noted that if a company the size of Uber had hired away personnel from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or CalTech, it would have been viewed as the normal cycle of things.
But the fact that it happened in Pittsburgh puts employers on notice, she said.
“What this tells companies is, ‘I have a world-class organization and I’ve got to be even more clever if I want to retain people, because they have more opportunities now,’ ” Ms. Russo said.
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241
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