Cool Tech in Pittsburgh
Much has been written about how the Pittsburgh area has reinvented itself from a steel city to a tech town, how the region has held up as the gleaming example of never-say-die renewal.
The region’s technology sector is rich with diversity, from robotics to biomedicine to green endeavors. Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are deservedly two of the names that lead the way when talk turns to tech. But what are the others? Truth is, dozens of local companies and organizations make contributions, building Pittsburgh’s reputation bit by byte. We’ve collected just a handful, a showcase of some of the coolest tech companies in town. Prepare to be impressed.
Cardiorobotics has built several generations of snake robot platforms, which allow minimally invasive procedures to be performed in parts of the anatomy that were previously very difficult or even impossible to reach.
Math tutors can be exceptionally helpful to students, but they can be expensive, and arranging the logistics of where, when and how to meet can be troublesome. Apangea Learning says its Web-based SmartHelp tutoring solution helps students dramatically improve their achievement at a cost-effective price. Each student receives differentiated instruction, thanks to its intelligent tutoring technology system and its roster of certified teachers, who tutor students one-on-one online.
The system, designed to actively engage students and teach fundamental problem-solving skills, is based, says Apangea, on one of the world’s largest bodies of cognitive research, conducted by the U.S. Air Force. Apangea, based in downtown Pittsburgh, says that, to date, more than 150,000 middle- and high-school students have used its award-winning math-tutoring services.
One of the most innovative players in Pittsburgh’s biomedicine space is Cardiorobotics. The company has built several generations of snake robot platforms, which allow minimally invasive procedures to be performed in parts of the anatomy that were previously very difficult or even impossible to reach.
Picture the flexible “follow-the-leader” movement of a snake. The Cardiorobotics robots replicate that movement, allowing the operating physician to enter through a single point of the body then move along a variety of circuitous paths carrying instruments and a camera for constant visual monitoring along the way.
Dr. Howie Choset, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the company’s founders, cites Pittsburgh’s unique combination of assets for making it a perfect home for his company. “Pittsburgh is the only place in the world that has world-class robotics at CMU, world-class medicine at UPMC and AGH [Allegheny General Hospital], and world-class enterprise development from organizations like the PLSG [Pittsburgh Life Science Greenhouse] and the Technology Collaborative,” he says.
Carnegie Speech Co.
Carnegie Speech Co. develops software for teaching and assessing spoken-language skills using state-of-the-art speech-recognition and artificial-intelligence technology licensed from CMU. With a worldwide student base in the fields of business, government, education, health care and education, downtown-based Carnegie Speech offers software that provides spoken-language instruction that is cost-effective and personalized. The downtown-based company’s specialized programs include Aviation English for international pilots, SpeakIraqi for defense personnel and NativeAccent, which helps international business people and immigrants to the U.S. learn English.
Type Less. Talk More!” is the idea behind Concert-oh, a free site that allows users to experience Web-based meetings with multiple attendees that can include audio, video (with a webcam) and sharing of photos, videos and documents. Powered by Chorus Call, a Monroeville-based company that for years has provided multimedia collaboration services to clients all over the world, Concert-oh is completely Web-based, so users do not need to download or install software, and the user interface is designed for elegance and simplicity.
According to the company, Concert-oh is attracting an audience of social-savvy users who want to virtually gather in a way that provides the richest possible experience. Users can upload photos and documents, download recordings of previous meetings, and the specialized Town Hall feature includes a Q & A window that allows political candidates to moderate sessions with potential voters and others.
For the 2010 World Cup, Deeplocal built a system for collecting social media messages in 16 different languages and displaying them on largest building in Johannesburg.
Deeplocal has received national attention for its fun, useful projects for such clients as Nike, EA Sports, The Gap and others. The company focuses on usability and simplicity to provide ways for transit riders to track current arrival times with RouteShout. One Deeplocal project that created quite a buzz was the Nike Chalkbot, an ingenious machine that traveled the roads of the 2009 Tour de France, spraying chalk messages of inspiration sent by social media users from around the world.
During the past two years, the company has racked up dozens of awards, including a Grand Prix at Cannes for its work in advertising. “Deeplocal is an art group disguised as a technology company,” says CEO Nathan Martin. “We built the company around the team’s passions and unique history. This allows us to basically make interactive art for a living.” Martin adds that he expects Deeplocal to continue to grow locally with more large-scale projects on the way.
Electric Owl Studios
Electric Owl Studios, a spinoff of CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, creates technology for children that is intuitive to use and inspires creativity and exploration. The company’s first project, Kids Interactive Creation Kiosk (K.I.C.K.), is designed to ease children’s anxiety while they wait to see the doctor by giving them fun and creative games to play, and units are now used in hospitals in 27 states and on three continents.
Electric Owl, located in East Liberty, produces software, games and kiosks for children online and on-site, including at museums and at theme parks.
“We have given ourselves the task of providing an outlet for children’s creativity, and infusing joy into a situation where it’s sometimes greatly needed, such as in hospitals,” says Richard Cunningham, vice president of marketing for Electric Owl. “We get to think of new ways for people of all ages to play, learn, express, create and share.”
GreenOx Catalysts Inc. is one of the companies leading the way in local environmental tech. Another CMU start-up, GreenOx uses a non-toxic oxidation technology to create environmentally safe cleaning products that reduce energy, water and chemical usage, lower the cost of waste disposal and improve efficiency. According to Colin Horwitz, chief technology officer, GreenOx uses emerging technology such as cloud computing tools to operate a global startup from the company’s base in Oakland.
GreenOx has international collaborations in Australia, China, England and elsewhere helping to find new and novel ways to use the technology. The goal, Horwitz says, is to allow GreenOx technology to “make the broadest impact in the shortest amount of time.” As CEO Tim Hall notes, “Pittsburgh is an excellent place for early-stage businesses” thanks to entrepreneurial support from organizations such as Innovation Works.
Later this year, the company is poised for a break-out, Horwitz says, with a new “truly green” laundry detergent for commercial laundries.
Speech recognition, something that very young children quickly master, has turned out to be one of the most difficult challenges for computers. It’s difficult even when attempting to recognize normal, everyday language, let alone something as complex as doctor-speak.
Yet Squirrel Hill-based M*Modal has developed a state-of-the-art speech-recognition technology that translates physician dictation in real time into searchable, structured electronic health records. The company’s AnyModal CDS (conversational documentation service) technology captures medical facts and orders for treatment in a way that, according to M*Modal, is highly accurate, shareable, increases patient safety, promotes continuity of care and reduces cost.
Imagine an electronic device with a bright color display like an iPad that’s also thin and rollable like a map. Plextronics is producing the technology that will enable electronic devices to be printed similarly to how magazines are now.
Furthermore, the company says its next-generation OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) displays for cell phones and televisions are crisper, brighter and more energy-efficient than current displays.
Plextronics CEO Andy Hannah says that when the company spun out of CMU in 2002, it could have picked anywhere to begin the business, but chose Pittsburgh because of the talent base coming out of local universities and industry and their desire to form partnerships with local world-leading companies. Plextronics, based near Springdale, has grown from four employees to 70, with approximately 50 percent moving to Pittsburgh for their jobs. “By 2015,” Hannah predicts, “Plextronics technology will enable hundreds of printed electronics used by tens of millions of end users.”