How the Steel City onboards innovation
Pittsburgh’s PGH Lab partners with local startups to help city departments improve efficiency, transparency, sustainability and inclusivity.
An annual program in Pittsburgh partners small businesses with city government to pilot innovative technologies and services that improve city operations.
Under the PGH Lab cohort program, startups in Allegheny County have an avenue to pilot their products and learn how to do business with the government, Alaa Mohamed, senior civic innovation specialist for the Department of Innovation and Performance, said in an interview. These partnerships create a mutual benefit for the city and companies alike.
“There’s this perception that government is always behind, we don’t have the latest technologies. But through this program, our city departments and authorities actually get to be exposed to new technologies and ideas and services that are growing in our own backyard,” she said. The program also helps the city become more transparent and learn how to better serve residents.
When selecting lab participants, a review committee made up of department representatives looks for companies that promote Mayor Ed Gainey’s priorities – process improvement and optimization, sustainability and environment, equity and inclusion and health and safety. Startups in early stages of development, but with a minimum viable product, are given preference, said Trever Stoll, the department’s civic innovation specialist.
“If there is alignment between something that a business … says in their application and what a city department or authority are currently working on in order to address resident concerns, then that match is made,” Mohamed said.
For example, last year’s cohort included Kloopify, a platform that collects and analyzes suppliers’ emissions data to help guide agencies’ procurement decisions, Stoll said. Kloopify caught the attention of the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of City Planning because its services fell in line with the agencies’ goals of adopting sustainable practices and monitoring emissions.
Once the startups have been selected, the city takes care of the administrative details ahead of the actual pilot. “We try to front-load most of those legal contracts, processes, scope of work, what is going to be done and things of that nature so that way we can have a true six-month testing that begins in January,” Stoll said.
“We found that it allows the time needed to flex and innovate in space,” he said. “With a lot of these projects, we at the city or authorities are diving into new territory and figuring out not only what's possible, but if we were to implement this, what kinks or potential challenges might exist.”
More than 100 companies have applied to PGH Lab since the program started in 2016, Mohamed said, and the lab aims to expand to include more businesses, especially ones that are women- and minority-owned.
“There are a select few startups … who can actually afford to do a six-month pilot on a product without receiving some kind of compensation,” she said. “Even though the benefits that they receive are very tangible, at the end of the day money makes or breaks businesses at this stage of life and so we know that who we are able to target at this moment is a slice of the larger pie.”
The application period for the PGH Lab 8.0 cohort closes Oct. 21, and selected businesses will be announced Dec. 5. The program will begin in January 2023.