Business Forum: Pittsburgh is, and can remain, an innovative place

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Harold Miller is a longtime astute observer of the regional economic scene. But I must beg to differ with the picture he presented in your Jan. 5 Business section and again Feb. 2 relying on old data (2003-2006) that Pittsburgh is "one of the least entrepreneurial places." The 2010 Kauffman study, which he also quotes, most likely was based on data collected at least a year or two earlier.

In December 2011, the Financial Times, in its article and video on the Rust Belt, points out that "more than 30 years after the collapse of this former manufacturing titan, the city [of Pittsburgh] now has one of the country's most robust economies." Just last spring, the same Kauffman Foundation debuted its new multimedia channel on entrepreneurship with a spotlight on Pittsburgh.

Could this all be hype?

When I started Project Olympus, an innovation center at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, there were no accelerators in town. Now there are Alpha Lab, Alpha Lab Gear, Thrill Mill, TechShop and a multitude of co-working and startup spaces. When we started Olympus, we held four Show and Tells a year to showcase university research and startups and connect with the wider community. Now we only do one or two -- because there is such a plethora of demo days, meet-ups and entrepreneurial events in town that one could spend almost every evening attending one.

An Ernst & Young/Innovation Works study ("Optimizing Opportunities") points out that in a five-year period, 2008-2012, the Pittsburgh region saw $1.3 billion being invested in the region's early stage technology companies. During the past year, Carnegie Mellon spun off 36 companies, a record number.

Nevertheless, the challenges Mr. Miller points to are real. Without continued significant early stage investments, these nascent companies will move on to more attractive centers.

Also, Mr. Miller rightly points to the positive economic impact of attracting foreign-born professionals to the region.

One of the many regular "connects" events we sponsor is a joint Start Smart program . We just held our annual, "Starting a business on an F-1 student visa." Close to 100 eager entrepreneurial-minded foreign born students attended, a high percentage of whom would start their businesses in the region as soon as they graduate -- if they could. The hurdles we have placed on non-U.S. residents to do this is unfathomable.

So yes, both immigration reform and ingenious solutions are in our region's best interests.

Lenore Blum is distinguished career professor of computer science and founding director of Project Olympus and co-director, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at CMU.


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