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.
The Idea: To solve a longstanding health-care dilemma with cutting-edge technology.
photos by Douglas Duerring
Pressure injuries — previously known as pressure ulcers and commonly referred to as bedsores — are a surprisingly common affliction. The painful and often serious condition develops through a lack of movement; when continuous pressure is put on an area of the skin over time (as can occur when someone is immobile in a hospital bed), bedsores develop at the point of pressure.
Pressure injuries affect more than 2.5 million adults each year in the United States; one study of their prevalence determined nearly 2 percent of all adults admitted to hospitals will develop a bedsore.
Yet the most common method for detecting pressure injuries — the industry standard, to date — can be ineffective, especially on those with darker skin.
The “blanching test” is a rudimentary check to see if an area is the potential site of a bedsore: A caregiver presses gently on the skin. If it’s healthy, it should briefly turn white and then quickly return to its normal shade. If it’s unhealthy, it will stay white. Unfortunately, the darker the skin — regardless of race — the more difficult it is to detect a change in hue.
Sanna Gaspard, Ph.D., became aware of the difficulties of pressure-injury detection (and the scope of the condition) while pursuing her doctorate in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “When I learned about the condition,” she says, “how prevalent it was — and also that it was preventable … those factors really caught my attention.”
Furthermore, the lack of a reliable detection method came as a surprise. “I thought, ‘How useful could an approach be if it doesn’t work on a large segment of the population?’”
Gaspard began exploring the problem while earning degrees from CMU (a master’s in 2005 and a doctorate in 2011); simultaneously, bedsores were thrust back into focus for hospital systems. After 2008, Medicare and Medicaid stopped reimbursing hospitals for a number of conditions developed after a patient was admitted, including falls and trauma, certain surgical-site infections — and pressure injuries. Suddenly, administrators were more eager than ever to dramatically reduce the number of bedsores developed at their facilities.
“[The public] hadn’t truly … considered that it was preventable,” Gaspard says. “It was assumed that when you went to the hospital, if you were there for too long, you would develop a bedsore.” While it’s nearly impossible to catch every pressure injury before it develops, she explains, “There are places that have zero occurrence of bedsores.”
As with many conditions, early detection is the key to prevention; the blanching test, though, remained woefully ineffective. While pursuing her doctorate, Gaspard formed Rubitection, a startup aiming to develop a better way to detect the formation of pressure injuries, saving hospitals time and money — and, more importantly, saving patients the pain and potential complications that can arise.
The result is the Rubitect Assessment System, a handheld device in the late stages of development. A caregiver holds the probe against the surface of the skin in a potential problem area, and the device takes measurements related to skin health. Additional results, displayed on a companion app, can indicate whether a pressure injury is beginning to form (or is already present).
In essence, the Rubitect Assessment System performs the same function as the blanching test — with pinpoint accuracy and little risk of human error, regardless of the patient’s skin tone.
“Our advantage … is having a system that is an extension of the clinical standard — so we’re not going to be asking them to do anything new,” Gaspard says. “We’re just asking them to use a better measurement tool to do the same thing they’ve been doing.”
A long-term goal, Gaspard says, is gradually establishing the Rubitect Assessment System as the clinical standard; in the meantime, Rubitection’s task is to further refine the device and demonstrate to hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities that it is the most cost-effective, accurate way to treat the problem. (A handful of competing devices are also under development, though none operate in the exact way that the Rubitect Assessment System does.)
And keeping the device cost-effective is not simply a matter of appealing to hospitals, Gaspard says; by developing a device that won’t be prohibitively expensive, the potential for the Rubitect Assessment System to prevent bedsores grows exponentially.
“Not just in hospitals, but also in the nursing home,” Gaspard says. “Not just in the U.S., but also through clinics [around the world] by supporting low-cost tools for providing better care.
“I selected this project as my Ph.D. work because I thought it was an area where technology could save a lot of lives.”
The Idea: To use crowdsourced data to make the growing rideshare industry even more efficient.
Ryan Green is constantly on the move — so it seems natural that he would form a company, Gridwise, that helps people get from place to place.
Pennsylvania is the 12th state the Texas native has called home. But for the last three months, Green has been traveling out to Detroit weekly to work at Techstars Mobility, an accelerator program for transportation industry startups. Gridwise, a mobile app designed to help rideshare drivers increase their earnings, is one of 11 ventures picked by Techstars for a $120,000 investment and a 90-day mentorship program in the Motor City with Ford, Honda, Michelin and other automotive partners; the program will culminate in a pitch day in front of journalists, industry executives, angel investors and venture capitalists.
It has been a busy year for Gridwise. The year-old company recently expanded into Washington, D.C., and Baltimore — two major cities that comprise one gigantic metro area. Pittsburgh rideshare drivers have put the free app through its initial paces — using its features to forecast heavy passenger times at the airport, check if Pirates games are going to extra innings and monitor traffic snarls. Updating that to a sprawling metropolis served by three major airports, with considerably more spectator sports and concerts and four times the population, is a challenge several orders of magnitude higher.
Then again, Green — a former Naval officer — is used to pressure situations. The son of a Marine officer and track star, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and played cornerback for the Midshipmen. It’s a position where resilience and short-term memory is essential for survival. “The chaos that exists in startups on a daily basis is having all sorts of adversity come from different directions,” Green says. “I think having that experience and that mindset that I developed as a corner helps me take on those things and not have them affect me as much but lets me digest them — understand what the situation is, what the mistakes were if there were any and how to improve.”
Green majored in economics, minored in Chinese and started his first company, FX Connection, while he was still at the academy. The short-lived venture was a website that coached people on trading strategies for the foreign exchange market. Following graduation and a short stint at flight school in Pensacola, Fla. — where, during down times, he made extra money as an Uber driver — Green came to Pittsburgh to take a job on the foreign-exchange trading desk at PNC.
His experiences as a rideshare driver, and then in Pittsburgh as a frequent user, opened his eyes to obstacles, literal and figurative, that drivers encounter as they try to map out a daily strategy to maximize fares. In his spare time, Green started building a website to test the market for an app like Gridwise; when more than 500 drivers signed up, he decided it was time for his second attempt at entrepreneurship. With Brian Finamore, the former director of mobile and social projects at the pro sports app YinzCam, handling the programming end, they launched the company in 2016 and started building the app at AlphaLab, the East Liberty accelerator.
The team has added a third member and moved to Alloy 26, a co-working space at Nova Place on the North Side. As initially conceived, Gridwise was a mobile platform providing customers with market intelligence collected by the business, a model that makes sense to a market trader. But it has evolved into a peer-to-peer network, Green says, increasingly allowing the drivers themselves to crowdsource real-time information as they see it.
“One of the biggest things we’ve learned in doing this is there’s a great sense of camaraderie among the drivers,” he says. “They see it’s more beneficial to share that information and pay it forward, so that other drivers will share information with them that they would be missing out on.”
Gridwise is nondenominational — it works with all rideshare and taxi-hailing apps, from big ones such as Uber, Lyft and zTrip to smaller services Curb and Via. To stay current, Green still takes a shift as a driver about once a month. And he habitually quizzes cabbies and rideshare drivers to see if they use his app, and if so, what features they love, hate or covet. “At first they’re like, ‘Who’s this guy asking me all these questions about my driving?’”
Of course, a person zeroed in on ridesharing in Pittsburgh can’t fail to notice the growing fleet of driverless Ubers plying the streets. But while the end may be in sight for the job of chauffeur, industry experts still foresee at least another decade or two of human drivers navigating traffic, Green says.
That market represents an opportunity — and Green hopes he can convince his audience in Detroit to bank on it.
Joel & Justin Johnson
The idea: To put the maker movement within reach of more consumers through better, easier-to-use hardware.
Joel and Justin Johnson are putting new meaning into the phrase “made in Pittsburgh.” Two years ago, the Florida brothers launched a Kickstarter campaign for their prototype, BoXZY, a sturdy aluminum desktop manufacturing unit featuring three interchangeable, computer-controlled heads — a smart carver, a laser etcher and a 3-D printer nozzle.
The breadbox-sized tool was aimed at the growing maker movement of hobbyists, tinkerers, teachers and artists crafting with computer-aided design software and programmable tools. Inveterate tinkerers themselves, the Johnsons had spent many hours at TechShop Pittsburgh in Bakery Square and figured there was a market for a 3-in-1 desktop makerspace.
They admit they were not prepared for how big that market turned out to be. BoXZY blew past its $50,000 pledge target in less than a day, eventually ringing up almost $1.2 million in pre-orders. They found space for their company, KinetiGear, in a former Westinghouse Electric plant in Homewood (which had been rehabilitated for startup businesses) and started cranking out BoXZYs.
Things have settled down somewhat since then, with KinetiGear and its staff of nine employees and five interns assembling and shipping between 20 and 30 BoXZYs a month (at a price of $3,600 apiece). Joel, 36 (pictured), even found some free time to get married this spring, while Justin, 32, became a father.
Now they are plunged back into two separate new-product development cycles, with Joel, the CEO, overseeing a next-generation 3-D printer project (the details of which are still secret) and Justin, chief operating officer, working on a bigger, better BoXZY.
The brothers are accustomed to functioning under tumultuous circumstances. “We lived a wild life,” says Joel. He and Justin are the eldest and the third, respectively, of four children; the divorce of their parents was complicated by several business ventures that went bust. They recall moving dozens of times by their teen years, including several periods of homelessness. Joel says he taught himself to read at age 6 with the Audubon “Field Guide to Reptiles,” while Justin took apart home appliances and dreamed of being a mechanic.
Justin found work at a garage and studied mechanical engineering in college, dropping out when he felt he’d learned enough. Joel, meanwhile, double majored in philosophy and psychology at the University of North Florida.
It was, of all things, “Snowmageddon” that got them to Pittsburgh. The epic 2010 blizzard brought flocks of contractors in its aftermath, including Justin and his father, who were working together at the time. They liked the area so much they relocated here. When his father moved on, Justin called Joel, who had just finished college, to come help. While tricking out kitchens and installing drywall, they dreamed and planned and argued over ideas for inventions until they came up with BoXZY.
Customers are dreaming up new BoXZY projects all the time, the brothers say. Laser-engraved wood cellphone cases. Fidget spinners. Circuit boards. Bluetooth speakers. Custom milled woodwork and ornamentation. Light-up chessboards and skateboard components.
The brothers see BoXZY as more than a tool for weekend projects. Ultimately, they say, it can be a means through which low-income strivers can build and sell products out of their homes and start climbing the ladder. The firm’s Homewood location, they say, is a reminder of that potential.
“I am personally meaning-driven,” Joel says. “I don’t just want to solve a problem, I want to solve a socially relevant problem. And because I have experienced a lot of poverty in my life, I’m also very interested in upward mobility.”
“For me it’s about giving people freedom — the freedom to grow their life,” Justin says. “It was hard for me. I had mechanical talent but no way to express it or do anything valuable with it for a long time. It comes from a deep source of empathy.”
Perhaps KinetiGear’s biggest challenge, according to Joel, is the intimidation factor. In other words, even assuming (as he alleges) that the machine is easier to use than an office printer, BoXZY certainly looks complicated. So the pleasure of imagining all the cool projects one can make with it must outweigh the perceived pain of learning how.
That is the driving concept behind Joel’s new 3-D printer, which he plans to roll out on Kickstarter this fall, and Justin’s BoXZY 2. Both will have expanded work areas in order to make larger objects. Bigger things are “more relatable,” Joel explains. “You make something, rather than a part of something.”
It sounds almost philosophical — but judging by the Johnson brothers’ track record, there’s some real-world practicality in there too.
Next: Developing software to help law enforcement fight trafficking in ways that humans alone cannot
The idea: To develop software that helps law enforcement fight sex trafficking in ways that humans alone cannot.
photo by erika gidle
The internet contains millions of advertisements for sex. In some cases, these are advertisements for at-will prostitution; more darkly, however, there is a $99 billion global industry of people trafficked, against their will, for sex. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six endangered runaways is likely to have been swept into the tide of anonymous victims.
For decades, the only way to find these victims was for law enforcement — from local to state to federal — to manually look at one individual ad after another. In 2011, Emily Kennedy — then a senior humanities student at Carnegie Mellon University — wondered: What if there was a better way?
Kennedy had spent most of that year working on a related senior honors thesis, scouring those online ads for a better understanding of sex trafficking. She spent hours at a time learning to discern syntax and phrasing patterns that meant more than what they appeared to say. Originally, she says, “I wanted to better understand how technology and the internet have changed the way that victims are exploited — and have also affected law enforcement’s response to this crime.”
After Kennedy spoke with law enforcement and learned that they had no more sophisticated means of searching ads than she did, her thesis director suggested reaching out to Artur Dubrawski, the director of CMU’s Auton Lab. Dubrawski and the 45 people working in his lab had the requisite machine-learning background needed to advise on a more technical approach.
Kennedy told Dubrawski the statistics. What jumped out at him was a different number entirely: he thought of his love of Penguins games, and the fact that PPG Paints Arena can hold 18,000 fans. Then he thought of the five and a half arenas it would take to hold the 100,000 estimated victims of sex trafficking in the United States at any given time.
He brought in Kennedy’s project.
The Lab created a prototype tool that could sift through and make sense of truly massive amounts of data: code words, templates, locations, phone numbers and more.
“Detectives were spending hours and hours combing through data rather than going out and building investigations, using their expertise,” says Kennedy. “That’s why we wanted to bring computers into the situation to aid that.”
While the project was still in prototype, data from Pittsburgh sources revealed a cross-country trafficking ring. “Machine learning can pull together ads related to the same group,” Kennedy says, “and pull together these patterns that make sense when you see them — but a human would never be able to identify that pattern on their own.”
All of this happened as public awareness of sex trafficking grew; law enforcement and other agencies were eager for the assistance. Within six months, Kennedy was at the office of the California General Attorney, speaking about the hows of machine learning and artificial intelligence — and why, packaged as the program Traffic Jam, these things would be useful to the state in dismantling local sex trafficking.
After graduating, Kennedy joined Dubrawski’s lab to continue working on Traffic Jam. She started receiving funding, both locally from BNY Mellon as well as national grants from the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The algorithm grew, as did the client base. Every day, the algorithm parses hundreds of thousands of ads, adding to an existing database of tens of millions. In 2014, Kennedy formed Marinus Analytics to house Traffic Jam outside of, but still in connection with, the university.
Of the creation of Marinus Analytics and the continued growth of Traffic Jam, Dubrawski says, “This is our Pittsburgh dream. We get an ambitious young person, we train them, we show them how to make a difference and they go and make a difference.”
In June, the company released FaceSearch, a facial recognition algorithm that can comb advertisements for pictures that match those of missing people or known victims. The first few days alone identified two missing runaways sold online for sex.
Features like FaceSearch are often built from the demands and needs of law enforcement. Kennedy speaks often at conferences and meets face-to-face to learn what the immediate problems are and discuss long-term visions.
All told, “we’re finding on average about 15 victims a month and six traffickers a month,” Kennedy says. “We’ve done a lot with a relatively small amount of funding compared to what most startups get. And we’re really proud of that.”
Next: Using a music festival to promote and develop Pittsburgh as a world-class center for innovation
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.