AlphaLab launches site to push startups to profitability


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The first stage of AlphaLab's plan to merge Pittsburgh's manufacturing history with its high-tech future began officially this week with the opening of AlphaLab Gear.

The 10,000-square-foot office atop a rehabbed East Liberty warehouse is the latest addition to Pittsburgh's accelerator community. However, unlike the dozens of software-centered programs that have cropped up throughout the region over the past two decades, AlphaLab Gear is one of four programs across the globe designed to push makers of hardware and other physical products past the startup phase to profitability.

AlphaLab Gear and AlphaLab are products of Innovation Works, the Western Pennsylvania branch of the state-funded tech investment initiative Ben Franklin Technology Partners. AlphaLab Gear is run in conjunction with StartBot, a robotics investment program created as an affiliate program of Oakdale-based advanced manufacturing company Industrial Scientific Corp.

In Pittsburgh, where within 100 miles you "could probably get anything you want made," according to AlphaLab Gear director Iliana Diamond, combining the digital with the physical could bring about an economic resurgence unmatched since the height of the steel industry boom.

"Silicon Valley has technology, but we have the opportunity to be the center of the universe for hardware, robotics and computer manufacturing with AlphaLab Gear," said Josh McElhattan, StartBot managing director.

Center-of-the-universe designation aside, the region proved to be at least the planet's ground zero for the more than 100 applicants who applied from as far as Brazil seeking to join AlphaLab Gear's first class of companies, said Ms. Diamond. She, Mr. McElhattan and Innovation Works president Rich Lunak introduced the first 10 companies, which range in variety from a business specializing in explosive-detecting drones to handmade romantic tool kits for men, during Monday's open house.

Although the new space's open floor plan and sleek aluminum and glass garage-door enclosures bring AlphaLab's South Side work space to mind, AlphaLab Gear companies will experience a slightly different process than their cohorts across town. For one, they will be tasked with bringing their products to commercialization in eight months as opposed to AlphaLab's five-month program.

Also, AlphaLab Gear companies will have an option of receiving $25,000 from the accelerator for 5 percent equity in the company or $50,000 for 9 percent equity. Companies that appear to be making significant progress by the time their stint at AlphaLab Gear is over could also receive a chunk of follow-on funding from StartBot.

AlphaLab Gear is funded by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority and is supported in part by StartBot.

Throw in a partnership with TechShop Pittsburgh -- the Bakery Square workshop that houses a prototyping studio, laser cutters and other tools designed to help makers craft their visions -- along with the input of more than 100 mentors influential in the city's digital and manufacturing sectors and the pathway toward viable businesses becomes clear.

Mr. McElhattan said the nation should expect to see 50 to 100 copycat programs in only a few years. But with Pittsburgh's unique connections to both high- and low-tech, AlphaLab Gear can only be modeled to a certain degree, said Ms. Diamond.

"I think [AlphaLab] is the only program anywhere that has two separate programs like that, and it's the fourth hardware accelerator in the world. There just hasn't been anything like this," she said.

"When you think about manufacturing and what would you expect to be the most experienced [city] in manufacturing and technology, for most people Pittsburgh would be at the top of that list."


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

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