In an unassuming building in East Liberty, Pa., the future of technology takes form.
Up a simple staircase, the foot of which is lined with bicycles, is the 10,000-square-foot space of AlphaLab Gear, home to eight to 10 early stage companies at a time.
Glass garage doors line the room, designed to give companies privacy, but they all remain open, as the founders of each choose to collaborate with the other budding entrepreneurs in the space.
“Places like AlphaLab are the bubbling cauldrons of new technology,” said Josh McElhattan, managing director of Startbot, which drives the robotics track of AlpaLab Gear. “It’s not just that you have smart people doing smart things. They’re doing it together.”
Pittsburgh, McElhattan says, is a hub for tech companies, despite its Rust Belt roots. The city has universities like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh serving as great robotics assets. It even has a Google office, which lures candidates in with this tagline, “Steel City? More like Tech City, these days.”
McElhattan worked in business development at Industrial Scientific before founding Startbot, of which Industrial Scientific is an investor.
“There’s a lot of research happening in the lab,” McElhattan said. “What I saw a need for was money, capital, funding to get people started.”
That’s why each year AlphaLab Gear brings in new companies and helps get them started. The startup accelerator provides an intellectual property attorney, pairs companies with working mentors and connects the companies with people in the industry.
And by Demo Day – the end of the cycle when companies make pitches to a crowd of 1,000 potential investors gathered at Pittsburgh’s Stage AE – most of the companies find backers within a month or two.
The program, which is in its third year, has its companies work with those in the industry early on in the development process to make sure the product being created is the right solution, McElhattan said.
“All companies here have a new engineered technology. By definition, that means it’s going to be a big change,” he said. “You try to make all of your mistakes.”
McElhattan really makes sure the companies have the guidance they need to enter the market. And that doesn’t just mean legally or technologically; it also encompasses safety.
“You can’t win at this by not playing by the rules,” McElhattan said. “We try to make it as easy as we can for them to be compliant.”
McElhattan uses his time at Industrial Scientific and the influence of his father, Kent McElhattan – chairman of Industrial Scientific, and a former chairman of the National Safety Council – to help the AlphaLab Gear companies develop their technologies safely.
The space is equipped with wash stations and safety signage, and AlphaLab Gear pairs with TechShop, a membership-based machine shop to give free access to its companies.
TechShop provides a safe place for those in AlphaLab Gear to work with heavy machinery; it keeps them from welding and drilling in their basements, McElhattan said.
It is in this environment that startups like VIT - a company that uses wearables to help employees figure out the best way to lift - take form.