In a bid to attract new attention and investment to the Austin, Texas, tech community in 1994, innovators hitched their wagon to the city's annual South by Southwest Music Festival. Nearly 20 years later, startups from across the nation prepare for the event with the fervor of the Super Bowl, hoping that a single Tweet or handshake from the right person at the festival's technology showcase can launch their innovations.
Luke Skurman, chairman of East Liberty-based startup accelerator Thrill Mill, knows his organization's upcoming Thrival Innovation and Music Festival has a long way to go to become South by Southwestern Pennsylvania.
But with the inaugural year drawing national musical acts and sponsors such as PNC Bank and Highmark, he's optimistic that in coming years Thrival will share the stage with SXSW and the Consumer Electronics Showcase as a launchpad for the nation's tech startups.
"It could start to grow by next year or it could be 2015, but our ultimate goal is for [Thrival] to become a cool, authentic place for startups around the country to pitch ideas," Mr. Skurman said.
Thrival, which is presented by PNC, kicks off Saturday at noon with the Innovation Showcase at Bakery Square I, which will feature panel discussions and educational workshops with local tech leaders. A pitch competition by the 14 companies in Thrill Mill's Hustle Den incubator will take place in front of about 100 local venture and angel capitalists at Google Pittsburgh's headquarters.
As the pitch competition winds down, amps and speakers will power up for the 5 p.m. start of the music festival, set to take place across the street at the Bakery Square II development site. Featured artists include national rap trio De La Soul, rapper/producer RJD2, indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, local hip-hop band Formula412 and others.
Local food trucks and a beer booth will be on hand for guests who pay the $20 general admission fee, while guests who pay for $100 VIP tickets will be treated to free parking, free beer, access to mixed drinks and foods prepared by East Liberty-based Bar Marco along with access to a tented area with luxury restrooms. The music festival is scheduled to run through 10 p.m.
Mr. Skurman and Thrill Mill CEO Bobby Zappala hope to eventually turn Thrival into a weekend-long event. However, the effort needed to galvanize talent, sponsors, a venue space and regional support for the first-time event was anything but gentle, said Mr. Zappala.
Born out of the ashes of Baller BBQ -- a food and music festival that Mr. Zappala, Mr. Skurman and four colleagues created in 2007 as a networking channel for Pittsburgh's young professionals -- Thrival has taken more than double the time to plan and "a minimum 10 to 12 times the cost," said Mr. Zappala. He did not provide an exact figure, but said Baller BBQs cost more than $10,000.
Beyond Thrival's cost, he said, one of the main challenges the group faced was convincing potential sponsors, musicians, food vendors and others that Thrill Mill was capable of pulling off an event of such a large scale.
"I think at the center of a lot of concerns was, do we have the capability to put up the money and to get people to come, especially when it's a new event and it's coming in late in terms of scheduling purposes?" he said.
Mr. Skurman agreed that a four-month lead time in the planning process put organizers in a time crunch, but credited a newly established network of local leaders for helping out.
Mr. Skurman, who is also founder and CEO of college selection site College Prowler, said he was chosen to establish and lead the Pittsburgh Global Shapers Hub, the local chapter of the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Community. The hub, which brings professionals between ages 20 and 30 together to advance community improvement projects, allowed him to gather a team of more than a dozen local leaders to drum up support, find volunteers and to jump into the fray in any way that would help make Thrival come together.
He said the backing of Allyce Pinchback, Urban League Young Professionals of Pittsburgh executive coordinator, brought a slew of volunteers. He added that a connection with Draper Triangle Ventures analyst Zach Malone helped the organization make its first contact with PNC through his father, David J. Malone, Gateway Financial president and Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce chairman.
Local connections have been the glue that has held the inaugural project together, but national recognition will be the wind that lifts Thrival off the ground, Mr. Zappala said.
For now, as the only full-time employee at Thrill Mill, Mr. Zappala said making it through the week with no major gaffes will be victory in itself.
"You're going to have to ask me on Sept. 8 how I feel about it all," he said.
In addition to presenting sponsor PNC, the Thrival Innovation and Music Festival is sponsored by Highmark, Showclix, PJ Dick, the Urban Redevlopment Authority, Ernst & Young, Draper Triangle Ventures, Carnegie Mellon University and Day Automotive, among others. For more information or to pre-order tickets, visit http://thrivalfestival.com/.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.