Obama praises two Pittsburgh startups during White House 'Demo Day'
Astrobotic, Duolingo featured in ‘Demo Day’
August 5, 2015 12:00 AM
Andrew Hamik/Associated Press
President Barack Obama reacts as the audience sings him “Happy Birthday” while he greeted guests in the East Room on Tuesday after speaking at the first White House Demo Day.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks to entrepreneurs during the first White House Demo Day, an event where entrepreneurs and startups demonstrate and pitch their ideas to funders and large companies, Tuesday in Washington.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — One Pittsburgh-based company is on the verge of landing on the moon and the other is helping people learn to speak English, French, Germany and even Klingon.
Innovators from Astrobotic Technology and Duolingo were among 32 companies highlighted Tuesday during the White House’s first ever “Demo Day.” President Barack Obama held up both as examples of strong, innovative startups.
“This is a great idea. I’m going to tap into this,” Mr. Obama said after a quick Duolingo demonstration. “My high-school Spanish was just painful.”
It doesn’t have to be, said developers Luis von Ahn and Gina Gotthilf, who designed the app to look like a game and to target lessons to users’ individual needs by analyzing the types of questions they are getting wrong and whether they are hesitating before answering. Mr. von Ahn and Severin Hacker founded Duolingo.
“I want to spruce up on my Spanish … but right now, I’m not allowed to use a smartphone,” the president quipped, drawing laughter from onlookers.
Meanwhile, in the White House foyer, Astrobotic founder John Thornton and spokeswoman Jackie Erickson were displaying a prototype of a moon rover. They had wanted to bring a moon lander, but at 10-feet-by-10-feet it was too big to fit through the White House doors, said Mr. Thornton, 31, who studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Mr. Thornton said he is two years away from sending a lunar module to the moon carrying up to 600 pounds of research equipment and other cargo for government agencies.
“It’ll be like FedEx on the moon, UPS on the moon,” Ms. Erickson said.
“It will allow smaller international space administrations to have their own Apollo moment so they can be part of space exploration.”
That is, if they can afford the freight charge: $550,000 per pound, according to Mr. Thornton.
The president appeared enthusiastic about Astrobotic developers’ work.
“They are shooting for the moon — literally — with plans to land a rover on the lunar surface … which is pretty impressive,” Mr. Obama said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing how that turns out.”
Other exhibitors included a California electronics recycler; a gourmet popcorn chef; inventors of a pocket-sized device that asthmatics can use to monitor their own lung function; a veterinarian who is bringing biotechnology research to Puerto Rico; creators of a robotic teddy bear that encourages healthy behaviors; a dapper 13-year-old who created a line of bow ties for kids his age; and a Rwandan refugee who created software to help U.S. manufacturers compete globally.
Some of the exhibitors overcame great obstacles including poverty and physical disabilities on their way to success, senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said.
“It is the resilience and the triumph over adversity that we are here celebrating,” she said.
She said the country must do more to help people who are underrepresented in the business world including women and African-Americans.
“There are unintended biases that are at play in the free marketplace,” she said, but many of Tuesday’s exhibitors found success in spite of that and in a variety of fields.
“That’s the beauty of America: the diversity of what we produce. We are known for having an innovative spirit … and if we put a spotlight on what works, others will follow,” she said. “We want to invest in good ideas.”
That’s why the president on Tuesday announced several new government and private initiatives to help women and underrepresented minorities start and grow innovative businesses.
One measure will expand the TechHire program to involve more cities, including Pittsburgh. The program helps women, people of color, veterans and at-risk youth secure jobs.
The White House also highlighted a program being developed by Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship to help women in creative industries commercialize their products and grow their businesses.
“I look forward to seeing more folks around the country — investors, accelerators, universities, civic leaders, corporate giants, growing startups — all take new steps to build on these actions, because you never know who’s going to have the next big idea or what path will lead them there,” Mr. Obama said.
Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.