Pittsburgh's tech officer aims to advance region's position as a national player

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What began as an effort by Debra Lam, Pittsburgh’s chief innovation and performance officer, to meet and greet tech industry insiders has transformed into an initiative to map the future of the region’s growing technology sector.

Ms. Lam, who was appointed to the newly created role as the city’s tech officer in November, said two months of roundtable discussions with Mayor Bill Peduto and regional technology stakeholders has resulted in the beginning of what she called an “innovation road map” — a list of problems, solutions, successes and strategies designed to advance the region’s position as a national player.

The gatherings were originally begun to meet the needs of the White House Makers Faire, a gathering of individuals working in manufacturing tech, which President Barack Obama promoted during a June visit to Pittsburgh.

Ms. Lam said she immediately realized that discussions with regional tech leaders of all sectors could help city officials better understand their role in assisting the industry’s growth. “The main role for me and [Mr. Peduto] was to introduce myself and the administration to the innovation community, acknowledge their good work, thank them for their good work, but also take it the next step further in terms of understanding what is the role of the city in driving innovation,” she said.

After the June meeting of makers, Ms. Lam and Mr. Peduto sat down with regional players in clean energy tech, the tech startup sector, and the co-working and accelerator sector, which provides office space, mentorship and financial assistance for tech startups.

Ms. Lam said infrastructure, increasing inclusion in tech, keeping talent in Pittsburgh, and raising the city’s profile nationally and internationally were among the chief concerns noted during all four roundtables. Within individual meetings, concerns shifted from a need for angel and venture capital investment dollars among startups to a plan for a city-supported work space large enough to accommodate both small startups and later stage companies.

Some of the concerns, such as diversifying the local tech sector, won’t be an easy fix, Ms. Lam conceded, but she said simply putting the issues on local officials’ radar is a positive step.

“Some of these actions are very easy, small actions. Some of these actions are more about raising awareness and might not be concrete. But then, there are other actions that are much larger and beyond my ability to do as one person. We need to raise [those points] to the decision-makers so they can incorporate it into their process,” she said.

Calling the proposed innovation road map a “living, breathing document,” Ms. Lam said she has maintained contact with participants of the roundtable so that they can add their input to any proposed version.

She hopes to have a first draft complete by November in time for a second round of meetings with tech leaders to make revisions. The document should be complete sometime next year, with an understanding that changes and additions will be considered on an ongoing basis.

Noting that Mr. Peduto spent years steeped in the tech industry prior to becoming mayor, Ms. Lam said the movement to advance Pittsburgh tech has more potential than ever before.

“He’s knowledgeable about this. He’s been doing this type of work and has been involved in this community for much longer than I have — for decades,” she said. “This is very much something that’s not new. It’s something he cares deeply about and something he feels very passionately and strongly about.”

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

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