Pittsburgh Tech Boom

The city of Pittsburgh, the one-time steel capital that’s long been a symbol of steel industry, is emerging as a vibrant hub for artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedical companies eager to tap a rich talent pool.

The resulting economic renaissance is welcomed by many in Pittsburgh.

In 2014, the number of Pittsburgh-area private-sector jobs in the scientific and R&D sectors – excluding academic positions – for the first time exceeded those in iron and steel mills, which were the lifeblood of the economy until their collapse 30 years ago. As of March, 2018, there were 41 percent more jobs in R&D than in the mills, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Workforce Information and Analysis.

Around Allegheny County, steel and natural gas industries still provide an large number of jobs.

Pittsburgh’s has the biggest economic opportunity since the first steel mills opened at the end of the 19th century. The population of Pittsburgh is over 300,000.

Areas of Pittsburgh now resemble a small-scale Silicon Valley, humming with fast-growing tech businesses that have attracted billions of dollars in private financing and young professionals commanding six-figure salaries. The city is a finalist for Amazon.com Inc’s (AMZN.O) second headquarters.

Much of the new activity springs directly from the artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies pioneered at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, premiere academic institutions that have helped anchor the city through its industrial decline.

Global investors are starting to pay attention, too. SoftBank Group Corp last year led a $93 million investment in Pittsburgh-based AI company Petuum. Innovation Works recently hosted 30 Chinese investors interested in robotics and health care start-ups.

Uber’s self-driving business, which opened in January 2015, employs more than 1,000 people. Aurora, a start-up led by self-driving pioneer Chris Urmson, in March opened a new office in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, once a working-class area that’s now bustling with new construction, night life and high-end apartment buildings.

Start-up boosters are hopeful that Duolingo, a language-learning app founded by a Carnegie Mellon graduate and now valued at $700 million, could provide the city with a big tech IPO.

Housing prices in the city are up 36 percent over the last five years, according to ATTOM Data Solutions. But the median home price of $170,00 is higher than in the past.

“Pittsburgh is a city that has seen 70 years of decline,” said Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh. “These issues of how to deal with or manage this type of growth are new here in Pittsburgh.”

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