Does Pittsburgh Need Some VC Love?

Pittsburgh is a small city after all.

For nearly a decade, I’ve been watching the “reinvention” of my post-industrial home as a case study of how a technology- and services-based economy can evolve out of more or less nothing.  50 years ago, roughly a third of Pittsburgh’s economy was steel-based.  30 years ago, that steel economy collapsed (parts of the region suffered through 20% unemployment).  Today, the largest employers in Pittsburgh are the city’s leading health services provider (UPMC Health Systems) and its largest university (University of Pittsburgh).   The local institution offering the greatest combination of worldwide cachet, innovation, and social and economic impact isn’t the Pittsburgh Steelers.  It’s Carnegie Mellon University.

About five years ago, Pittsburgh’s civic and business communities started to publicly promote the idea that Pittsburgh had completed its journey, that another “renaissance” was underway, and that Pittsburgh’s success showed that other former Rust Belt cities could reach a kind of tech-based escape velocity.  Innovation and creativity became local by-words.  From robotics to videogames to filmmaking to green energy to regenerative medicine – Pittsburgh, they say, is a happening place.  (Did I mention hydraulic fracturing?  No?)

The idea in part is to restore Pittsburgh to the urban big leagues, to show that the city and region can compete with its larger brethren in psychic terms if not in terms of output or population or real urbanity.  I’ve never believed the hype, and I wrote my version of the real narrative in this book chapter, published earlier this year. Culturally, I wrote, for all of its evolution since the early 1980s Pittsburgh remains too closed to new ventures to generate the kind of innovation-based economic energy that characterizes places like Austin and Boulder.   The city, and places like it that still operate more or less in an Old World “were you born here?” style, needs a new narrative.

Need evidence?  Data is coming in, and the news doesn’t align with Pittsburgh’s promotion.  The headline in today’s  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette betrays some of the city’s anxiety: “How can Pittsburgh improve its ranking as a top city for startups?”  As the report says, “The Pittsburgh MSA ranks 14th in the nation according to the number of [venture] deals made during the first half of the year, but falls to 26th when measuring the number of investment dollars going to local companies.”  Ouch.

Maybe community reinvention needs some different metrics.  Maybe innovation and creativity aren’t all about VC dollars.

Did you know that Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, and Girl Talk are Pittsburgh-based performers?  My hunch is that the future of Western PA lies in the hands of the people who embrace those three guys, and others (men and women) who follow in their footsteps.