Pittsburgh Tomorrow Podcast: Sean Luther, Executive Director of InnovatePGH
Donald Bonk interviews Sean Luther, executive director of InnovatePGH, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. The transcript is abridged and edited for clarity.
“Pitt and CMU have evolved to be extremely complementary. They physically overlap in this really unique urban environment. That sets up the Pittsburgh Innovation District to be essentially our new natural resource in the 21st century that’s as critical and as naturally accessible as coal and iron ore and sand were for us in the 1900s.” —Sean Luther
Donald Bonk: Welcome, everyone. This is Donald Bonk with the Pittsburgh Tomorrow Project, a project of Pittsburgh Quarterly. I’m pleased to announce our guest today is Sean Luther. He is the executive director of InnovatePGH. If you’re out on the web, you want to go to Pittsburgh.id. Sean, welcome. Really thrilled to have you here. You’re doing something really amazing for the community. Innovate Pittsburgh is funded in part by the major foundations in town: R.K. Mellon, the Hillman Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments. Importantly, we want to get your back story. Sean, how did you end up here as executive director of InnovatePGH?
Sean Luther: I’m a Pittsburgh native. I call myself a Yo-Yo instead of a Boomerang. I was in South Carolina for six years, back in Pittsburgh, and in southwestern Virginia for three years. And I’ve now been back since 2012. My background is in this wonky term that we call “urban place management.” Most of my career, I’ve been working in downtown Pittsburgh or similar central business districts through a series of different types of economic development strategies.
A lot of my work has been with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP). I’m working on their Market Square reactivation initiative, a number of older strategies, and then was able to return to that organization after some work with Green Building Alliance here in Pittsburgh, running what we call kind of a special forces division of the PDP and Envision Downtown.
Urban places are really important to me. Urban places in Pittsburgh are really important to me. And it’s kind of a funny connection that took me a while to realize, but I lived close to the T (subway/rail system) growing up. From a very early age, we were just scooting into town. Eventually, I would just scoot into town by myself. I really fell in love, without realizing it, with urban environments here in Pittsburgh and started to understand how important our core is to the region as a whole, both from an economic perspective and a cultural and historical perspective.
In 2017, the initial phase of Envision Downtown wrapped up. The folks of the PDP were able to integrate some of our work directly into their work plan, and that created an opportunity for me, personally and professionally, to look at some related and expanding opportunities. That was simultaneous almost with the publication of the Brookings Institution’s “Capturing the Next Economy” report, which came out in the fall of 2017. That report called for the establishment of a partnership between universities, elected officials and the business community that came to be InnovatePGH. Through some chance opportunities, I had the great fortune to be able to slide over here and launch InnovatePGH. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past two and half years.
There’s a unique aspect about Pittsburgh and the size of Pittsburgh. The mayor often says Pittsburgh is big enough to matter, but small enough that you can make a difference.
I feel very fortunate to be in this unique situation where my team and our partners and all the folks that have really been working over the past 20 years to advance Pittsburgh’s innovation economy are part of it. We will be able to look back at this time and say we pushed the economy forward.
This partnership was part of what made Pittsburgh a success in the 21st century. That’s hugely gratifying to me, but I also think that it’s a really unique opportunity for all Pittsburghers to be able to impact our region so directly.
Bonk: It looks like we are primed and looking toward a new golden age. You’re in the middle of it; you’re a young man. It’s an exciting time. How do you feel in terms of the positioning of InnovatePGH and the Pittsburgh Innovation District in terms of the area that we’re sitting in right now? Talk just a little bit to connect all the dots for everyone. Why does Oakland matter? What will its place be in the future? And what are you doing about it today?
Luther: One of the major recommendations from their (the Brookings Institution’s) “Capturing the Next Economy” report was a recognition that Oakland has always functioned as a naturally occurring innovation district. It’s just that over the course of the past five years, people intentionally have started using that term to identify this unique, urban, mixed-use character that thrives in part because of its adjacency to major research institutions.
When you look at what’s happening in Oakland, and you look at a residential population, the concentration of cultural assets like the Carnegie, and you overlay that with the fact that we have not just one major research institution like most cities our size do, but that we have two of really true global significance, that creates an opportunity that we need to really maximize.
In a lot of cities that have two institutions, those two institutions are competitive, or in some cases, they don’t even really even care that each other are in the same city. Pitt and CMU have evolved to be extremely complementary. They physically overlap in this really unique urban environment. That sets up the Pittsburgh Innovation District to be essentially our new natural resource in the 21st century that’s as critical and as naturally accessible as coal and iron ore and sand were for us in the 1900s.
Bonk: I like your vocabulary there: a natural resource. It’s the new natural resource. That’s a really interesting way to understand the intellectual assets, overlaid with the cultural assets, overlaid with university and medical. Because CMU doesn’t have a medical school. It doesn’t have a law school. But Pitt does. And that’s really of critical importance to the region. They, like you said, fit so well together in a complementary fashion.
Luther: Right. And that’s important because what we’re seeing out of the private sector is almost a disaggregation of corporate research and development.
Bonk: Explain that word and what you mean by it.
Luther: What started in the 1950s with IBM moving their R&D division out of New York set off this 50-year wave of suburban office parks and innovation centers where the new tech companies were seeking to separate out their intellectual assets and put them elsewhere. And so this is where you see places like Research Triangle Park in Raleigh/Durham. There’s been a big swing to that, to break up these really big, singularly-focused operations and establish small beachheads all around the world, frankly.
Bonk: So, distributed intelligence. In other words, rather than house all the smart people in one facility, now you want nodes.
Luther: And where those nodes are concentrating are within walking distance to major research universities and academic centers. The fact that we have two of those in the same neighborhood creates a strong opportunity for Pittsburgh to harness this new economic trend and is really uniquely positioned because of that. We’re seeing companies come into Pittsburgh directly because they want to do business with Pitt and CMU.
Bonk: So, there’s a target over Oakland for those folks who otherwise might have done a separate stand-alone facility. They want to be, in a way, in the neighborhood of other thinkers that might be doing similarly-oriented research.
Luther: And this, you know, is driven in large part by access to students. Talent is the new battlefront of corporate America. But it’s as formal as you think of companies like Bosch and Optum, Thermo Fisher, and Phillips, who have formal research agreements. They have sponsored research. They have faculty that are on their staffs part time. That requires adjacency so you don’t have people tromping all over a city or region.
That’s part of what’s so attractive for these companies to be in the Pittsburgh Innovation District here in Oakland, and to be in Pittsburgh in general. That’s really fueled the growth of robotics row in Lawrenceville and in the Strip District. It’s fueled the concentration of really cool and dense corporate assets in East Liberty and around Duolingo and Google, and we are looking to ensure that Oakland is well-positioned for the region and all Pittsburghers to take advantage of this new trend.
Bonk: Proximity and adjacency are the words that matter. It’s the ability, maybe for serendipitous encounters, to meet up in a local brewpub or gastro pub, and have a conversation.
Luther: Just end up sitting next to somebody on a bus. That’s what urbanity and density provides. There’s a lot of research that’s turned into demonstrable observations of what getting people into the same district really does. It acts in a catalytic fashion.
Bonk: I’m glad we were able to draw some outlines here. We’re going to shift now shortly and talk about our main focus, Pittsburgh tomorrow and the future.
You’re from Mt. Lebanon: one of my favorite communities, one of the most attractive, small downtown areas. Tell us a little bit about your connection between Mount Lebanon, Pittsburgh, and urbanism, and how that all ties together.
Luther: I think in Mt. Lebanon and similar communities—certainly elsewhere in the South Hills but around the region—people grew up in that urban form, that classic 1920s streetcar suburb. I think it really impacts the way that Pittsburghers, myself included, view the city and our region and really realize that that is a differentiator with some of our competitive cities.
I went to college in the upstate of South Carolina where nothing is any older than like, 1985, and studied real estate and studied city planning. These cool, sexy, hot trends over the last 10 years in real estate development, like New Urbanism and neo traditional housing, are patterns that Pittsburghers recognize as our great neighborhoods and great communities, like Mt. Lebanon, Edgewood, and everywhere that develops naturally around them.
Bonk: And they have strong neighborhood and community ties, whether it’s with the school district or just the community at large. People seem to know their neighbors. They seem to have a sense of caring—the Mr. Rogers iconic thoughts about the city of Pittsburgh. And you also mentioned that you traveled on the T into Pittsburgh. What was that like?
Luther: It really creates a differentiator, I think, versus being in some newer cities where the transit is not as directly integrated into the residential fabric.
Bonk: So you’re tying the suburbs physically to the city core.
Luther: Right. We now look at transit as being most successful with super high density residential around it, which is important for the success of these major investments. The light rail line in Pittsburgh goes through, frankly, medium and lower density residential neighborhoods. You think about Library and Bethel Park as being able to walk through those residential neighborhoods and still have access to fast, reliable, clean, great transit. It sets up an expectation. And then you go to some of our competitive cities like Columbus, Ohio, that don’t have those transit options. And I think it really creates a competitive advantage for Pittsburgh.
I think people, especially millennials, seek that out as their first option. If they can’t have this experience, what’s the point of living in a city? I can just go live in a beautiful, rural, small town if I’m going to have to drive everywhere.
Bonk: Accessibility from a suburban ideal back in its day, to the city and all the things, whether it’s a Pirates game or a symphony or Bricolage (theater) downtown. So that’s the on-ramp to this bigger vision of Pittsburgh. Thinking now in a moonshot kind of way—and I think that’s one of the things that the publisher really wanted to get with this project—what would make Pittsburgh the best city in the world?
Luther: I would argue that Pittsburgh is one of the best cities in the world. I think what we lack still is a little bit of the self-confidence to be braggadocious about that. And to make sure that we’re kind of forcing our way into national and international conversations about the role that cities are going to play in our overall development over the next hundred years.
Part of that is identifying and really investing in a few things that Pittsburgh does better than anyone else. Think about our strengths in A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) and robotics. That’s not something that happens in Cincinnati. It’s not something that happens in San Diego.
These are really unique opportunities that we have to, frankly, replicate from our (original) leadership over the past hundred years around heavy manufacturing. No one would have challenged my grandfather saying that Pittsburgh is an economic heavyweight because of our heavy manufacturing.
Bonk: And we’ve got a football team with the name that it carries around the world.
Luther: For better or for worse.
Bonk: It’s a part of our identity. I am a little bit older than you, growing up in the 1970s. I can tell you this: As the steel industry in Pittsburgh and Johnstown, where I grew up, was starting to decline, the Steelers were winning Super Bowls and winning two times and then two times again. It was a great source of pride during a very difficult period.
I went to Paris as a teenager. My family had a relative in Paris that had moved there. She had gone to Winchester Thurston, of all places, and fell in love with art. She went to Syracuse, studied art, and ended up living in Paris. We visited with her. And I had my Steeler shirt in Paris in 1980, and I have pictures of it. And I was like, well, you know, we’re the Steelers!
So anyway, it’s a sidebar, but it’s one of those things where people glom onto things that are winning. People like winners, and the Steelers were winners; the steel industry was not.
And now what’s exciting is what you’re talking about is this artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data—the conflation of what I call the intellectual infrastructure of the mind being replicated technologically or digitally—and the physical infrastructure, the body in robotics and drones. These are foundational industries in Pittsburgh now. These could be defining—at least for the decades of the of 2020s, 2030s, etc.—in the way that steel was at the turn of the previous century.
Luther: Yes, that’s I think exactly the point we need to focus on. Not just that A.I. and robotics are strengths that we have in the region, but that a lot of people are trying to integrate A.I. into their regional strengths in life sciences and other areas.
Not a lot of people have been as successful at actually building things the way that Pittsburgh has when you think about some of our marquee names. IAM robotics just expanding in Lawrenceville and their neighbors in Robotics Row… they’re actually building stuff that you can look at and touch and see. And that has a much more kind of meaty ethos to it than the computer programing hubs on the West Coast. It’s something that we need to really double down on.
Bonk: The materialization, if you will, of our intellectual assets so that, yes, the transition from the mind to the everyday things of life that are utilized, but now maybe embedded with intelligence.
Luther: Right. Yes, it’s a great point. I think that will really push us into and cement our status as a global innovation hub. There are cities out there that we know are part of the next wave of economic investment in the 21st century. There are cities out there planting their flag. But there’s still room for Pittsburgh to be part of that cohort and top-tier conversation.
We are at this level. This is where major innovations are happening. This is where the human experience is going to change. It’s going to happen in Pittsburgh, and we need to be OK with really shouting that from the rooftops.
Bonk: So, as this conversation about Pittsburgh Tomorrow is taking shape and the industries of tomorrow, what’s the gap? We saw the great things that Pittsburgh has as the puzzle pieces, as Lego pieces, on the floor. And as we’re putting together this really transformational and ideal city, what are the Lego blocks that we need in Pittsburgh to really take us on that moonshot trajectory to top tier or beyond?
Luther: Yes, I think what we really need to be guarded against, is taking for granted the advancements that we’ve seen over the past 10 years in particular, and not assume that everyone’s talking about Pittsburgh, because they’re not. For all the amazing things that are happening here, there are amazing things happening in Dearborn, Michigan, and in the Bay Area, and all over the world. We have to be aggressive about packaging up what’s happening here and putting ourselves on a global stage.
Bonk: Do we have the internal means right now? Do we have the institutional means and the financial means to develop a narrative, share that narrative, and make it not a PR play but a real cultural transition about the places that are doing well? We know we’re doing the work. We in Pittsburgh have always done the work. But to become the top-of-mind choice and thought about these industries and in our current situation.
Luther: Yes, for two reasons. One, we have amazing new leadership at the economic development level. Our new regional salesperson is Mark Thomas, the president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
Bonk: Who came from New York City.
Luther: He is our front door. He knows what it takes to position and pitch a region for success in the 21st century. But the second piece of that is making sure that the rest of us, every Pittsburgher and especially those entrepreneurs who are out there making our future and our economy work physically… I think there needs to be a recognition that we’re not done yet. We have not achieved our true potential in the 21st century economy yet.
When you look at the assets on campus at CMU and at Pitt, when you look at the unique position we have with UPMC as the largest academic medical center in the country and having an integrated health insurance provider, we should see more new company starts, more patents being filed, more translation off of campus, more new companies starting, higher investment and population growth. We’re at the beginning of that true potential. We are not where we want to be yet. We’re definitely not where we can be. We kind of unite around this potential that we have.
Bonk: So if that’s a missing puzzle piece, I just talked with Dick Zhang from Identified Technologies, a drone company that is in the construction industry, primarily. They send drones around construction projects, and also in the mining, oil and gas industry. He’s probably in his early 30s. He came to Pittsburgh. I asked him, “What is your civic profile? You’re a young man here, successful, with 24 employees working out of East Liberty.” And he said he’s interested. He’s talking to the Governor. He’s talking to Mayor Peduto.
Do you feel that the voices of company creators, who have rightly spent their time growing a company and making money, are aggregated in a way effectively to tell the story that you want to tell about Pittsburgh being this workshop of the world in the 21st century’s A.I., digital, and artificial intelligence world?
Luther: I don’t think that they’re being aggregated as fully as they could be. This really represents a change in the way that our economy works and that these types of Pittsburgh companies have evolved differently than the last generation of Pittsburgh companies.
There are a number of big innovation firms like Seegrid (material handling equipment) and Argo A.I. (autonomous vehicles) that are active in the Allegheny Conference. They are following this more traditional path of we want to ensure that we are part of the economic strategy and the cultural development of the region.
There are big national players with major operations in Pittsburgh, like Facebook and Google, who are members of the Pittsburgh Tech Council. They’re engaged in the innovation sector at an almost Chamber of Commerce level, asking, “How do we make sure that we’re helping impact policy?”
There are a tremendous number of companies that have been built by sweat and tears of their founders who frankly don’t have time to spend Wednesday lobbying and at a board meeting for some civic engagement organization. I don’t have an answer for this yet, but we need to find a new way to create civic engagement opportunities for our fastest growing companies that recognizes that these companies do business differently than Mellon Bank did when they were at their peak.
But we should definitely not take for granted that these founders and the employees at these really cool firms want to be engaged in the fabric. The more we can seize that opportunity, the less likely those companies are to leave when they get major cash infusions or even when they are purchased.
Bonk: I did a project with the Heinz Endowments about a decade ago. And yes, when money came from Silicon Valley, oftentimes like a Modcloth (vintage clothing company) or others, even though they had a back office operation here, the heart of the operation would move out outward to San Francisco or similar.
So maybe this is for Pittsburgh Tomorrow and for the audience to think about: As we’re growing a new generation of tech leaders and companies, to create not only economic development, but social responsibility and, just reasons for them to get together and network, not just at a breakfast or a cool event, but just think more intentionally as a community how we can bring those people deeper into the community, to be bigger voices and players in the community and have more ownership in the community over the civic conversation.
Luther: Yes, I think it’s really important, and for more factors than we can even list on a podcast.
Bonk: We’re coming down to the end here. We have some population challenges in Pittsburgh. Do you have any thoughts about that issue?
Luther: The population number is something that personally continues to irk me because I am working here in Oakland and living in rapidly-evolving neighborhoods like Uptown where I just bought a house. It doesn’t feel like we have a static population. It doesn’t feel like we’re having these small declines. But the numbers are the numbers. And even more critically, we’re seeing a major outmigration of Pittsburghers of color, both from the city and from the region. We can’t grow the population if we can’t create a good opportunity for people to stay here.
For a long time, we tried to kind of gloss it over. And you look at economic development, success stories like the entire country of Japan, which had massive economic growth while having a declining population.
But I think there’s an increasing awareness that just the sheer number of people who live here—that’s what drives the everyday jobs that we experience. The cool boutique, the great restaurant, the barber shop.
It takes bodies for the things that makes cities great to be successful. And so we’re working closely with the Allegheny Conference and the PRA (Pittsburgh Regional Alliance) and others and are really excited about better positioning Pittsburgh as a growth market.
Let’s not take for granted the people that are here, but let’s also make sure we’re building a city that is welcoming and inviting and attractive to people to be here and build the 21st century Pittsburgh with us.
Bonk: We’re asking the right questions. We’re solving the right problems in the world in terms of technology and other things. But it’s a 360 conversation, I think is what you’re pointing out.
As much as it’s exciting on the technology and academic fronts, and the magic that’s happening here in Oakland, down to the barbershop level. And my family had a grocery store growing up; you need those vital community assets, and you need a certain population level to support the market there.
I want to go back to one last question here. Is there any idea that you could import into Pittsburgh that would be a game-changing idea for the community that you saw either work or not work somewhere else, but you think Pittsburgh could take this idea and have that proverbial moonshot?
Luther: I should have a good answer for you around cluster development strategies and livability and investments in the innovation economy. But when I visit cities, what I experience is the transportation networks.
I was just in Geneva, Switzerland last year with the Green Building Alliance. They’re working with the UNECE (UN Economic Commission for Europe) on this really cool new center of excellence that’s going to be here in Pittsburgh. We got to Geneva on a train from Italy, and we never got an Uber while we were in Geneva; we had this amazing tram network. Basically, that’s just light rail cruising around. We took a regular old bus to get to the French border and went up their version of the incline.
I think Pittsburghers are transit people. We are passionate, and we love transit. And when you look at the numbers in downtown in Oakland of people who take a regular bus, this is an old-school technique.
We have an opportunity to really maximize what that looks like. Cities like New York are seeing really fast wins around their bus network, and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system that’s going to connect Oakland and the East End is a really exciting project. But there are really fast wins that will get us between here and BRT that will make our existing assets move faster. Investing in our bike network, investing in our pedestrian network—that’s what’s going to allow Pittsburgh to be differentiated from some of the fastest growing cities right now.
I am excited about a Pittsburgh that continues looking at big infrastructure investments like BRT and expansion of the T and a gondola system, whatever that looks like. But I also hope that we continue to look at the basic systems that we do have. I just took the busway into Oakland this week and got from East Liberty to Oakland in what felt like seconds, but then we sat at a red light once we got off the busway, because, someone in a car, a single person in a car, blocked an intersection. So we sat there for ten minutes. How can we prioritize, with quick wins, these great systems that we already take for granted?