Back in 2010, as Google
was moving to its Bakery Square location, the radio show Marketplace
aired a story heralding Pittsburgh as the “Silicon Valley of the east.”
Indeed, the 'Burgh is getting quite a reputation as the local incubator and startup scene continues to thrive. This year’s AlphaLab Demo Day
packed over 500 people into Stage AE
to watch a crop of startup companies ranging from a subscription box service for romance
to an iPhone case that acts as a self-defense mechanism
pitch their brands to investors.
Though many of the businesses starting in Pittsburgh today might be reflective of what’s happening in California, the steel city has an identity all its own.
"A world-class education community, supportive foundation and government entities, and a spirit of collaboration all contribute to Pittsburgh’s thriving startup environment,” says Robert Stein, interim director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at University of Pittsburgh
. “Combine this with a city built on strong work ethic and a high quality of life, and you have the perfect formula for success.”
It’s this very work ethic and quality of life that has made Pittsburgh a great city for startups for over a century.
Today Pop City takes a look at Pittsburgh startups from past and present. The businesses profiled below all got their start in the Greater Pittsburgh region. Some now only exist in the history books while others are relatively new, but all of them have made Pittsburgh the innovative city that it is today.
PNC Bank in Lawrenceville
PNC Financial Services Group
PNC Financial Services
was founded as the Pittsburgh Trust and Savings Company in 1852, making it the oldest bank in Pittsburgh. Throughout the better part of two centuries, the company has had many identities. In 1853, it was renamed the Pittsburgh Trust Company and in 1863, it changed names again to First National Bank of Pittsburgh after becoming the first bank in the city to receive a national charter as part of that year’s National Banking Act.
After a series of mergers, it evolved into Pittsburgh National Bank, which became the leading subsidiary of Pittsburgh National Corporation. In 1982, Pittsburgh National Corporation merged with Provident National Corporation to become PNC Financial Corporation, which was the largest bank merger in the country’s history at that time.
In 2008, after acquiring National City Bank, PNC doubled in size and became the sixth largest bank in the United States by deposits and fifth largest by branches. Its corporate offices have been located at the corner of Wood Street and Fifth Avenue since 1858, though in 2011, it unveiled plans for a new, $400 million corporate headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh known as the Tower at PNC Plaza
H.J. Heinz Company
Entrepreneur Henry John Heinz
founded his namesake company in Sharpsburg in 1869. The company is known for its “57 Varieties” of product, a marketing slogan introduced in 1896. The number 57 has since become synonymous with the company so it’s no coincidence that when Heinz purchased the naming rights for the local, professional football arena in 2001, they signed a deal to pay the Pittsburgh Steelers a total of $57 million.
The company manufactures thousands of food products in plants on six continents, and markets those products to 200 countries worldwide. Of course, its flagship product is ketchup, and 650 million bottles are sold each year. However, its first manufactured product was bottled horseradish made from Heinz’s mother’s recipe.
In February 2013, Berkshire Hathaway
and 3G Capital
purchased Heinz for $23 billion. According to Heinz, the deal is the largest in the history of the food industry.
Mellon Financial Corporation
Thomas Mellon and sons Andrew W. and Richard B. founded T. Mellon & Sons’ Bank in 1869; the institution became Mellon National Bank in 1902.
Acting as something of an incubator, prior to the First World War, Andrew and Richard took investment risks on coal, steel, aluminum, oil pipelines and railroads. These risks created great wealth for the family and supported Pittsburgh’s rise as an industrial power. With the bank as its proxy, the family played a major role in the founding of such behemoths as Alcoa
, Gulf Oil
, U.S. Steel
, General Motors
The Mellon Financial Corporation became one of the world’s largest money management firms. In July 2007, it merged with the Bank of New York to become the Bank of New York Mellon
in a $16.5 billion deal.
In 1883, Captain John Baptiste Ford
and John Pitcairn, Jr.
founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company at Creighton
, Pa., 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. It was the first commercially successful plate glass factory in the country.
The company expanded rapidly through new facilities and acquisitions and came to be involved in paint and chemical businesses. The company changed its name to PPG Industries, Inc. in 1968 to show its diverse offerings.
Today PPG is ranked 190 on the Fortune 500
and is a global supplier of paints, coatings, optical products, specialty materials, glass and fiberglass. It has 156 manufacturing facilities worldwide and four primary research centers in the United States, three of which are located in the Greater Pittsburgh region. It is headquartered in PPG Place
in downtown Pittsburgh, which is known for its reflective glass façade and has been called “the crown jewel in Pittsburgh’s skyline.”
The birth of Alcoa traces back to an experimental smelting plant on Smallman Street known as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, founded in 1888. The company was started by Charles Martin Hall, who discovered the process of smelting aluminum about the same time the exact process was being discovered in France by scientist Paul Héroult. To this day the Hall-Héroult process is the way aluminum is produced.
In 1891, the company opened a site in New Kensington, and four years later, one in Niagara Falls. The firm changed its name to the Aluminum Company of America in 1907, and the acronym “Alcoa” was coined in 1910. Alcoa has shaped advances in many industries, one of the most notable of which is aerospace. Lightweight aluminum made flight possible, from Kitty Hawk to the lunar landing, and continues to be critical to the aerospace industry.
Today, Alcoa operates in 21 countries and is a major producer of aluminum and is active in technology, mining, refining, smelting, fabricating and recycling. In 2013, its revenue totaled $23 billion.
George Westinghouse, inventor of the railway air brake and founder of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, founded Westinghouse Electric in 1886.
The company helped spread electricity across the country by pioneering long-distance power transmission and high-voltage alternating-current transmission.
In 1920, Westinghouse entered the broadcast industry and launched KDKA, the world’s first commercial radio station. In the 1930s, it opened the Home of Tomorrow to demonstrate Westinghouse home appliances and built the world’s first “industrial atom smasher,” a result of its nuclear physics research.
During the 20th century, Westinghouse engineers and scientists received more than 28,000 U.S. government patents, the third most of any company.
Throughout a series of mergers in 1990s, the company came to be known as the CBS Corporation in 1997, and sold itself to Viacom in 1999. The Westinghouse name was revived in 1999 as a result of yet another merger and in 2010, The Westinghouse Electric Company moved its new global headquarters from Monroeville, Pa. to Cranberry Township, Pa. Today, the company is fully committed to the nuclear power industry and controlled by the Toshiba Group.
Carnegie Steel Company
Andrew Carnegie’s first profitable steel mill was the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, Pa., which opened in 1875 and was named after the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The mill employed the Bessemer process, the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass production of steel. Within one year of production, the mill produced 32,228 tons of steel rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
With the profits from the mill, Carnegie and his associates purchased other nearby steel mills, which would come to be known as the Carnegie Steel Company, founded in 1892. He controlled the most extensive iron and steel operations ever owned by an individual in the United States.
In 1901, Carnegie sold Carnegie Steel Company, including the Edgar Thomson Works, to J.P. Morgan, Elbert H. Gary and other investors for $480 million, or $13.6 billion in today’s market, as part of the foundation of U.S. Steel.
Jerry McGinnis founded the medical supply company Respironics, which is headquartered in Murrysville, Pa., and has offices in countries around the world. Though the company technically got its start in McGinnis’ kitchen, he opened the company’s first manufacturing facility for anesthesia masks in 1976. By 1982, the company expanded manufacturing operations overseas.
Respironics released the first commercially available continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device in 1985 for the treatment of sleep apnea.Three years later, the company went public and was traded on NASDAQ under stock symbol RESP. In 1989, it released the first bi-level continuous positive airway pressure device (BiPAP®
) and received a U.S. patent for the bi-level technology in 1992. Both CPAP and BiPAP devices have been shown to be effective management tools for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute and chronic respiratory failure.
Throughout the years, Respironics has developed numerous medical devices that are considered to be technological firsts. In 2007, the company announced a merger with Royal Philips Electronics and is now known as Philips Respironics.
Born from a love of hunting for vintage fashion treasures at thrift stores, Susan Gregg (now Susan Gregg Koger) founded ModCloth in 2002 as a student at Carnegie Mellon University with then-boyfriend, now-husband Eric Kroger. Unable to pass up stylish finds while thrifting, even if they weren’t her size, Gregg soon found her closet overflowing with clothes she couldn’t wear. Her boyfriend helped her create a website to sell her finds, and the rest is fashion history. Today, Susan serves the company as chief creative officer while Eric oversees the business as CEO.
In 2010, Inc.
named ModCloth “America’s Fastest-Growing Retailer” and the “#2 Fastest-Growing Private Company in America.” That same year, ModCloth relocated its headquarters from the Strip District in Pittsburgh to San Francisco’s South of Market District, though its Pittsburgh division remains operational along with an office in Los Angeles. Additionally, ModCloth now features more than 700 independent designers as well as a proprietary line of clothing and home décor.
4moms is a rapidly growing company that’s changing the way people think about baby equipment—such as strollers, bouncy seats and infant tubs—through advanced robotics. Even celebrity moms including Natalie Portman, Halle Barry and the Kardashians are clamoring for the space age baby gear.
Friends Rob Daley (CEO) and Henry Thorne (CTO) founded 4moms in 2006. The company is named after the first focus group of mothers that provided valuable insight on the development of its earliest product, an infant tub that allows clean water to flow in while dirty water flows out.
Today, 4mom’s state-of-the-art infant rockers, playpens, temperature-monitoring baby baths and electric-power folding strollers sell in more than 40 countries online and in major retailers like Target, Babies “R” Us and Nordstrom. The company is currently headquartered in the Strip District, but it was recently reported that it's looking to relocate to downtown Pittsburgh.