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Made in Pittsburgh: 5 Great Ideas

Modern-day creation in Pittsburgh doesn’t just involve physical products; we also have a knack for hatching new ideas that can solve problems in innovative, unexpected ways. These locally based thinkers are applying big thoughts to bigger problems.



(page 5 of 5)

Bobby Zappala
Ascender

The idea: To use a music festival to promote and develop Pittsburgh as a world-class center for innovation.


 

For a symbolic scene of Pittsburgh’s rebirth, it may be hard to top Wiz Khalifa on stage in the shadow of the Carrie Furnaces belting out “Black and Yellow” to a bouncing crowd.

But the set from the multi-platinum rapper and Taylor Allderdice grad, which will cap this year’s Thrival Innovation and Music Festival, serves a bigger purpose — fundraising for new startup ventures at Ascender, an East Liberty nonprofit providing coworking, programming and incubator space.

Bobby Zappala, 35, Ascender’s CEO and another local-boy-made-good — he graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School — chuckles in a conference room in his organization’s new 11,000-square-foot space, marveling at how his already quite busy team is now in its fifth year of promoting the festival. The concept grew out of block parties Zappala, a former corporate attorney, and Luke Skurman, founder of Niche.com, began throwing with friends in a parking lot in Shadyside, using the gate to fund a contest for the best new business plan, with a $5,000 prize for winners.

This year, Zappala and his team at Ascender will choose another eight-to-10 concepts submitted by budding entrepreneurs. Each will get a $5,000 investment, a workspace at Ascender, and coaching from experienced entrepreneurs like Stephan Mueller, the organization’s chief operating officer.

Ascender’s new home in the shopping plaza next to Bakery Square is a converted commercial drapery manufacturer with high ceilings and exposed brick and beams. Incubated companies received dedicated workspaces interspersed among communal tables, surrounded by Plexiglas-partitioned rentable office space currently occupied by law firms, growth stage companies and other organizations that wish to be part of the entrepreneurial mix. Shared kitchen and conference rooms fill out the space and provide opportunities for Ascender to offer monthly lectures and other programming.

The move, made in late 2016 and funded by an Opportunity Fund grant from the Hillman Foundation, coincided with a name change (from Thrill Mill). It is part of a deliberate repositioning, Zappala says, to stretch beyond the tech startups heavily represented among the more than 50 companies the organization has incubated. “You don’t have to want to be a billion dollar company that raises a hundred million dollars in venture capital,” he says. “That’s not the only thing that’s cool about starting your own business.”

Three nonprofits are now incubating at Ascender, including a soccer-themed youth development program in the African nation of Cameroon. Another, Sevenzo, a crowdsourcing and idea-sharing platform for educators, encapsulates how Zappala wants Thrival to leverage a national buzz about Pittsburgh to further fuel the region’s transformation.

Sevenzo’s founder, Bosnian immigrant Maša Užičanin, was initially considering multiple cities to spin off a project she had developed while working in Washington, D.C., for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She drove up to Pittsburgh for Thrival in 2015 to participate in a panel discussion on innovation in schools. It was Užičanin’s first visit to the city, and it immediately plunged her into a network of locals with similar passions — so much so that she decided to set up shop here instead of Seattle or San Francisco. “I need that in my life,” she says. “I need tribe, I need support, when I’m going to take the biggest risk of my career.” Within months, Užičanin had moved to Pittsburgh, launched Sevenzo at Zappala’s incubator and raised $1 million in funding, mainly in philanthropic capital.

For Zappala, it illustrates the importance of Thrival’s innovation and entrepreneurship component, with panel discussions and plenary sessions throughout the city the Wednesday and Thursday before the music starts. A key theme this year is how to channel artificial intelligence for the good of the broader society, highlighted by a progress report at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater on the $5 million IBM Watson AI Xprize, a global contest to reward the best use of machine intelligence to address an important social problem. The California-based initiative has been using Ascender’s space to hold occasional meetings with contestants from all along the East Coast.

To boost its wattage further, Thrival has added an influential partner, Wired magazine founder John Battelle and his firm Newco, which runs multimedia festivals from Shanghai to London to San Francisco. “John’s got global connectivity — he knows people all over the world,” Zappala says. “And that’s helping us bring in a group of 30-plus global leaders to talk about AI, machine learning, automation challenges. So the substance, the quality of people who are going to be participating, is increased dramatically.”

And while those key influencers are in Pittsburgh, Zappala plans to give them a V.I.P. tour of the city’s tech and entrepreneurial landscape. Whether they stick around for Wiz Khalifa is up to them.  

–– M.H.
 

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