Henry L. Hillman Foundation

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Alpha Lab

Alpha Lab

Author: Paul Ruggiero

AlphaLab Gear, a program of Innovation Works, is a hardware and robotics start-up accelerator. The mission of Innovation Works is to increase the success rate of the region’s technology-adopting companies through direct investment, business assistance, and infrastructure development. In early 2013, Innovation Works applied for a grant from the Opportunity Fund to support AlphaLab Gear, with the goal of creating the nation’s leading agile hardware accelerator.

      • Innovation Works sought to leverage southwest Pennsylvania’s strengths in manufacturing, investing, and technology.
      • AlphaLab Gear innovated the application of agile methods to the design and prototyping of physical products.
      • The recent class of hardware entrepreneurs represents the first cycle of a three-year initiative to launch hardware startups and develop meaningful success metrics.
      • Innovation Works hopes to transform the region into a recognized hub of hardware entrepreneurship.
      • AlphaLab Gear is riding the momentum of renewed U.S. manufacturing, the maker movement, and new trends in hardware manufacturing.

In one of Pittsburgh’s premier rock concert venues, more than 650 tech-hungry investors, entrepreneurs, and business professionals sidle to their seats, careful not to spill coffee on their expensive suits. As the lights dim and the giant screen on stage begins to glow, it’s easy to imagine Steve Jobs strutting out to introduce the Next Big Thing. But less than a year earlier, many of today’s presenters had little more than an idea. 

Today is Demo Day, the culmination of the AlphaLab technology start-up accelerator program. AlphaLab has guided twelve cohorts of software entrepreneurs from the back of a napkin to an auditorium studded with venture capitalists. On this Demo Day in the spring of 2014, the software entrepreneurs of AlphaLab are joined by the very first class of hardware entrepreneurs from AlphaLab Gear.

Both AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear are programs of Innovation Works, southwest Pennsylvania’s largest seed-stage technology investor. Since 2007, the AlphaLab program has helped more than 80 software start-ups use agile innovation, an iterative product development technique, to create market-ready software applications in cycles of just 20 weeks.

Bob Starzynski, director of business development at Innovation Works, says that in 2011, companies making physical products started asking for the AlphaLab experience. “We didn’t know if the whole idea of agile innovation really applied,” says Starzynski. “Does iterating a product quickly still work with making a physical product?” With cheaper three-dimensional printing, wide availability of off-the-shelf hardware components, and the advent of maker spaces that enable individuals and small businesses to access very expensive fabrication equipment, the answer seemed to be yes.

But physical products take more resources than software to develop, so after receiving a grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation’s Opportunity Fund, Innovation Works doubled down on AlphaLab Gear: a 40-week program and an investment of up to $50,000 for each company—twice the time and money it provides to software start-ups. It also partnered with TechShop Pittsburgh, a fabrication studio and learning center, and Startbot, a local robotics investment firm helping companies scale from prototype to production.

In October 2013, Gear’s first eight companies converged on the program’s 10,000-square-foot work space in East Liberty. The open facility, complete with garages, offices, and a cavernous common room, encourages the Gear companies to collaborate. Dick Zhang is the co-founder and CEO of Identified Technologies, a Gear start-up that makes flying robots to collect data at large or dangerous industrial sites. He valued the fraternal bonds with the program’s other CEOs and founders, especially when his project would hit a wall. “At early hours of the morning,” says Zhang, “people will drop whatever they’re doing, come over to your office, and suggest ideas on how to get past whatever’s challenging you.”

Zhang formed Identified Technologies at the University of Pennsylvania and says he and his co-founders didn’t think twice about moving to the locus of manufacturing, robotics talent, and big industry. “If you’re trying to create something and manufacture something,” he says, “arguably Pittsburgh and western PA is the best place in this country to be.” Gear entrepreneurs hail from around the United States and even Puerto Rico. AlphaLab Gear requires its alumni companies to stay in Pennsylvania for five years, in the hopes that the program’s monetary investments will take root and stimulate the local economy.

Start-up funding isn’t enough though. “These companies aren’t going to be successful if you just throw money and office space at them,” says Starzynski. That’s why AlphaLab Gear coaches its entrepreneurs on every aspect of developing their products and their businesses. The program’s experts also help the companies connect with local suppliers, manufacturers, and investors. “Mentorship really is the foundation of the whole program, and it takes all different forms,” says Starzynski. 

Jayon Wang, co-founder and CEO of LifeShel, maker of cell-phone-based personal safety products, agrees. “Initially, you have a great product and a lot of passion,” he says, “but you don’t necessarily know how to bring it to market.”

Untested hardware start-up accelerators like AlphaLab Gear need a little help, too. Starzynski says the Henry L. Hillman Foundation’s “stamp of approval” on the Gear program helped nudge other financial and strategic partners off the fence. The Opportunity award itself partially funds Gear from 2013 to 2016. “One of most important things,” says Starzynski, “is the ability to generate metrics in those three years to demonstrate the success of the program.” 

The first test of success for the eight Gear companies is Demo Day. After the presentations and applause, the audience mingles with the Gear alums to learn more about their products, including a small-scale carbon-fiber part maker, a food temperature monitoring system, a Bluetooth-enabled electronics prototyping circuit board, a wood-working robot for the home hobbyist, and a customized gift delivery service. Herb Gilliland, sporting a yellow hard-hat and sunglasses, hands out vouchers for user-customized baubles from his company’s three-dimensional toy-printing kiosks. Gilliland, software lead for PieceMaker Technologies, says that AlphaLab Gear levels the playing field for hardware start-ups and provides a critical safety net.

Even AlphaLab Gear’s backing is no guarantee in the hyper-competitive technology field, cautions Starzynski. “We don’t expect all of our companies to be successful,” he says, “but we want to help them beat the odds.” After ten months of late nights and ten nerve-wracking minutes on stage, AlphaLab Gear’s first entrepreneurs are taking business cards from millionaires. Beat the odds? These Gear companies already have.