Who are Pittsburgh's Economic Anchor Tenants?

From the recent, brilliant Atul Gawande piece in The New Yorker on the health care crisis in the U.S.:

Woody Powell is a Stanford sociologist who studies the economic culture of cities. Recently, he and his research team studied why certain regions—Boston, San Francisco, San Diego—became leaders in biotechnology while others with a similar concentration of scientific and corporate talent—Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York—did not. The answer they found was what Powell describes as the anchor-tenant theory of economic development. Just as an anchor store will define the character of a mall, anchor tenants in biotechnology, whether it’s a company like Genentech, in South San Francisco, or a university like M.I.T., in Cambridge, define the character of an economic community. They set the norms. The anchor tenants that set norms encouraging the free flow of ideas and collaboration, even with competitors, produced enduringly successful communities, while those that mainly sought to dominate did not.

Powell suspects that anchor tenants play a similarly powerful community role in other areas of economics, too, ....

I don't mean to get carried away with the analogy, but Powell's work on biotechnology institutions -- building networks of public and private institutions that enable the free flow of ideas and collaboration, even with competitors, is the way to sustainable economic development -- resonates strongly with me when it comes to economic activity up and down the scale, and across industrial boundaries. (Here's a link to some of Powell's research.)

Pittsburgh sometimes suffers from a great deal of hoarding of economic opportunity; if Pittsburgh's modest rebirth (at least as reported in the media and recognized in the White House) is to continue, the hoarding must stop. (I'm reminded of the phrase -- "The beatings will continue until morale improves!")

In biotechnology and beyond, who are Pittsburgh's collaborative anchor tenants?

Pamela's Pancakes Key to G20 Meeting in Pittsburgh

From the PG's account of how the next G20 meeting got scheduled for Pittsburgh:
A little more than two weeks ago, White House officials contacted Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and other officials with two questions: Would they be interested in hosting an international event and could they keep it a secret? ...

White House officials said they focused on Pittsburgh because of the city's economic recovery from the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s, and because of its leadership in environmentally friendly buildings. The administration also is funding research on solar window panels under development for office buildings by PPG Industries.

Omitted from the story was the obvious, key connection to President Obama's fondness for the distinctive pancakes produced by Pamela's:
Ms. Klingensmith and Ms. Cohen were summoned from Pittsburgh to President Barack Obama's kitchen in the White House this weekend to make their famous, savory, crepe-thin pancakes for a Memorial Day breakfast for the president, First Lady Michelle Obama and 80 veterans.

Mr. Obama was introduced to the legendary flapjacks when he dropped in to the diner's Strip District location in April 2008 during the presidential Democratic primary race.

My prediction from a couple of years ago turns out to have an unexpected valence: The key to Pittsburgh's prominence really does lie in our stomachs and in our kitchen. Back then, I wrote: "If we bake it, will they come?" It turns out that they will. It's no surprise, I think, that the President is a member of the Cupcake Class!

A Bailout for Local Newspapers?

In this morning's Post-Gazette, my friend Otto Chu and his son Jonathan have an op-ed advocating a new version of an old solution to the problems of the nation's daily newspapers:
We believe the need is sufficiently dire for the U.S. Congress and state legislatures to amend antitrust laws so that newspapers could join together, perhaps with other media and Internet companies, and figure out how to charge enough for their content and services to survive. Provisions of the federal Sherman Act and state statutes that prohibit price fixing or collusion would need to be amended in a limited way to allow this to happen....
There is precedent for this type of action. In 1970, Congress passed the Newspaper Preservation Act, which created a limited antitrust exemption so that competing newspapers in a market could combine business operations if one of the newspapers otherwise would fail. The Post-Gazette and the former Pittsburgh Press worked under this type of arrangement for years before the Press folded in 1992.

This is a thoughtful analysis - and I couldn't disagree more. Creating media monopolies is not the way to preserve an independent watchdog on government authority, which is the First Amendment interest most at stake in the survival of contemporary journalism.

Way back in my law school days, 25 years ago, I researched and wrote a long (and, unfortunately, unpublished) analysis of the Newspaper Preservation Act, and I criticized it on several grounds.

First, as contemporary observers noted, the NPA was a flat-out bailout for newspaper publishers who complained about losing money. The First Amendment provided rhetorical camouflage, which even many newspapers themselves recognized. On the floor of the Senate, opponents labeled the legislation "a millionaire-crybabies-publishers' bill,” which was apt -- the seven largest newspaper companies of the time lobbied for its passage. The bill passed over the objections of many papers, including the New York Times, which worried that the NPA would threaten -- not reinforce -- the editorial independence of papers that participated in exempt Joint Operating Agreements. Today, research shows that media concentration in local markets tends to reduce the amount of local TV news coverage. Alarm bells have been ringing around the world for years about concentrated media ownership.

What's the problem? The Act would appear to create stable finances for media enterprises, but it would do that by creating or permitting the operation of monopolies -- or cartels, to use an equally accurate term. In the absence of further government regulation of their behavior (which we see with "natural monopolies," like many utilities) those cartels would limit competition and jack up prices. That's what cartels naturally do, and that serves as a barrier to entry. That's the key. You get to choose: The state-sponsored, officially-exempt-from-antitrust-law-newspaper-monopoly. Or competition -- which eventually came, from cable TV, then the Internet. Which is the better way to the Fourth Estate?

Second, the NPA didn't work. Most of the JOAs that were operating in 1970, and which were eligible for antitrust exemptions, have folded. Many of the original papers involved have disappeared, including, in many cases, the paper that was stronger before the JOA. [Fans of the Pittsburgh Press may pause here for a mini moment of silence.] Cartels raise prices and limit output -- when they're working. But cartels often are inherently unstable, both in the sense that cartel members are tempted to cheat on each other (the endogenous or internal problem), and in the sense that the economic conditions that permitted the cartel to get organized in the first place may change (the exogenous or external problem). The end of JOAs in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Detroit illustrates.

Third, the NPA, like any antitrust regulation, involved expensive and time-consuming government bureaucracy, federal lawyers mussing about the business in administrative proceedings to claim NPA benefits (Cincinnati, Seattle, Detroit) and private lawyers mussing about the business in private litigation to disqualify a JOA from NPA benefits (San Francisco). Newspapers usually use the First Amendment to keep the government at a healthy distance; it's hard to imagine exactly why they would want to have *more* government involvement. On the other hand, the NPA failed in part because the government *wasn't* more involved on the editorial side. The law was supposed to guarantee "editorial diversity," yet it contained virtually no standards for ensuring that "editorial diversity" would be maintained. Operation of JOAs wasn't regulated; termination of JOAs was regulated only lightly.

In fact, the best way to ensure that an amended NPA would be more effective would be to get the Justice Department and local courts involved in a kind of consent decree process, the way that desegregated school districts are monitored, to ensure that the cartelized media are in fact observing "editorial independence" as Congress intended. (This would be the rough equivalent of PUC rate regulation for state-sanctioned "natural" monopolies (utilities) and common carriers (railroads).) In other words, every publication and media outlet in the deal would be under periodic review by a kind of public ombudsman, and subject to being ordered to change their practices by a federal judge. That can't be a good thing.

The news is a public good, in all of the many popular and technical meanings of that phrase, and because it's a public good, it's increasingly difficult to find a sustainable way to produce it, distribute it, and store it. Economists will tell you that one standard solution to a public goods problem involves government provisioning -- either because the government produces it or the government directly or indirectly underwrites the cost of private production. But those aren't the only solutions to public goods problems, and in the media context, government provisioning seems to be an especially bad one.

Thoughts on an election that wasn't

Lest there be any doubt, the first story about the election last week was how few folks showed up at the polls. Low turnout in off-year elections is pretty normal, but all the talk about the historic turnout of the presidential election leading to some new era in voter participation pretty much went out the door. Here and elsewhere, some of the highest voter turnout ratios in recent decades have been followed by some of the lowest. Last fall in the City of Pittsburgh over 159 thousand people voted. Last Tuesday the number was around 46K; down by more than two thirds. Last Tuesday’s election may have had one of the lowest turnout percentages ever for a contested election in the City of Pittsburgh. Ever! And turnout in the city ran well ahead of turnout in the rest of the county where turnout was down more than 70%. There were hundreds of other races for a bunch of local mayors, municipal councils and the boards of school districts. These offices matter.

For those few who showed up there was an election. I always find the period after elections awfully confusing. It’s almost as bad as election season itself. People fight over silly things (apology anyone?) and recriminations make any and all progress that much harder in the future. People get caught up in a lot of things that may not matter as much as they think they do. Endorsed or unendorsed? Machine politicians or outsiders whatever either of those terms mean? East End, West End, North Side vs. South? Guess what? Most of those divisions within city politics have existed since before the city itself existed. Fw pols, past winners included, have ever united all those groups.

Nobody seems to want to look at it this way, but it is clear to me how simple this election was. Pat D. needed a couple years of work to repair his reputation in the African American community before he had any business running for a city-wide office. You can’t win a Democratic primary if you have absolutely no support from what is the largest, and often the most cohesive, block of votes in the city. African Americans at this point likely make up just about 30% of the city’s population which translates to maybe 40% of Democratic households. Pat got virtually zero votes from the African American community in town. It's mathematically possible to win without any African American support, but would anyone want to be in that position given how racially divisive such an election would have to be. So I am not trying to get into the history of why it is the way it is with Pat, but everyone who has followed local politics in recent years will know most of it. I believe time could have helped heal certain wounds, but time during an election campaign does not count. Why he chose to run without having a cadre of local African American leaders (or any one of them) standing side by side with him is a mystery.

The accusations that spring up after an election like this are that the results were pre-ordained by the mythical ‘machine’. The debate is always there no matter how many challengers or unendorsed candidates win office. Honestly it’s almost insulting because it has a corollary that voters are not thinking about their votes. Just to focus on the African American electorate in town, you would be hard pressed to say they voted as they were ‘told’ to by anyone. Carmen Robinson got what I think may be historically high support across African American districts (I estimate she pulled 40% of the city’s Black vote) is a sign that the results were not necessarily as pro-Ravenstahl as they were at best Dowd neutral.

Yet the mythos of machine politics in Pittsburgh thrives. It clearly is possible to sway voters no matter how the party apparchniki have decided, especially in the African American community. Remember that every elected official of note supported Clinton this time last year. Even some African American leaders (Payne comes to mind but there were others) were publicly in the Clinton camp yet none of that impeded the virtually 100% support for Obama. It goes beyond the race of the candidate. In the last Murphy/O’Connor race for mayor the African American community split as nearly 50-50 as is mathematically discernable. No evidence in that of people voting blindly because of an endorsement or any ‘machine’. You can even go back to the backlash against then County Commissioner Mike Dawida whose perceived disrespect of the African American electorate wrecked his rapidly advancing political career within the local Democratic party. It is all the more evidence that folks are making a deliberative decision.

Compared to any point in the past the power of anything remotely labeled as a Democratic Party machine in town is pretty trivial. Endorsements do matter, mostly in races that people pay the least attention which is something… but that’s a different issue. Both historically and recently plenty of folks have been elected mayor without the support, or against the active opposition, of the Democratic Committee in town. Pete Flaherty himself became mayor without party endorsement at a time when choosing to run without the endorsement was tantamount to sacrilege. In fact even when Flaherty was running and winning re-election in his second term it was Dick Caliguiri who was the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Committee. As is well known Caliguiri himself would later on win office running as an independent against the endorsed and nominated Democrat Tom Foerster. In 1989 Tom Flaherty would come in 4th out of 5 candidates even though he was the endorsed Democrat running for mayor in a large field. Didn’t do him much good at the time.

So what's it mean? Depends who you are. For everyone who came up short, blaming a loss on machine politics is at most a stretch and a pretty counterproductive path to future success. For the winners it's always easy to overinterpret a single victory. For everyone else, Democracy is alive and well.... if you showed up.

Find Jobs in Pittsburgh

Part of the positive hangover from last year's Pittsburgh250 celebration is an Allegheny Conference-sponsored "find a job in Pittsburgh" website: imaginemynewjob.com

Search for job listings if you're looking for a job; post job listings if you have jobs to offer.

There are internships there as well as paid positions.

Feedback? Is this a useful, helpful resource?

The Other Football

Last year, a day after the UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, I posted a long rant about Pittsburgh's inability to remember that it is an international city. Pittsburghers love Canadians and Russians when they're scoring buckets of goals on the ice (here I utter a ritual, "Let's Go Pens"), but most of the time, the region is perfectly happy to ignore the fact that there are thriving international communities here -- which might like to read the Post-Gazette's coverage of one of most anticipated sporting events of 2009. Game 4 of the NHL Eastern Conference NHL final? No. Instead: the 2009 UEFA Champions final, again featuring Man U, this time competing against Barcelona. Ronaldo and Messi on the same field, for all the marbles. Tomorrow afternoon, I and a lot of people in this region will be glued to the TV. The match itself will be played in Rome.

Consider this a rant on credit, two days early. Open Thursday's Post-Gazette and check me: Did the paper cover the match? In how many inches, and on what page?

Don't forget Pittsburgh's own glorious soccer history (really!). They've been playing real football here nearly as long (since 1894) as they've been playing American rules football (since 1890).

Just for the heck of it, then:

The City of Manchester itself is a good benchmark for Pittsburgh -- recovering industrial city and home to one of the most successful professional sports clubs in the world. Sound familiar? Read a neat blog about what Manucians are up: Mancubist. In the coming weeks, I'll try to find pieces to post about Manchester and other post-steel cities. Does anyone in Pittsburgh still care about our official sister cities?

Did you know that there is a Brazilian community in Pittsburgh? Here's their site: Arrepia Brasil! Ligando Pittsburgh ao Brasil! Connecting Pittsburgh to Brasil!

For tomorrow, here's a preview:

My view: Henry and Messi are electrifying, Ronaldo is sometimes more flash than substance, but watch out for Tevez and Park.

Who Reads Pittsblog? A Survey

Pittsblog readers, I need your help. Who are you? Who reads Pittsblog today? I'm trying to figure out who we're reaching, and where, and when.

Keep your anonymous and pseudonymous hats on, if you like, but in the Comments, please pitch in: Are you a resident of Pittsburgh or of the SW PA region? Did you live here once but move away? Temporarily? Permanently? Do you have a professional interest in art, tech, and/or economic development? Are you a journalist? Critic? Researcher? Politician? Just someone who is curious or cares or both? Do you surf by when the spirit or Google moves you? Do you read regularly? Once in a while? When you follow a link?

Little narratives are welcome, but if you prefer some structure, try this series of questions:

1 -- Occupation, profession, or life status
2 -- Gender
3 -- Age (over 40 or under)
4 -- city [including municipality, borough, or even neighborhood] or region of principal residence
5 -- city (etc. as above) where you base your occupation, profession, or life status, if different from (4)
6 -- Are you a Pittsburgh native? If you're an in-migrant living in Pittsburgh, how long have you been in the region? If you're an expat, where are you now? If you're a returning diasporan, where else did you live, and for how long?
7 -- how often you read Pittsblog, how you get here, and why
8 -- what would you like to see more of on the blog, and what would you like to see less (not that I'm making any promises about change!)

Thanks - thanks - thanks - thanks.

Pittsburgh Blows Up

Jay, at the new Writing Pittsburgh blog, pointed out something that I hadn't focused on: Looking at recent events, it appears that Pittsburgh really likes explosions.

One ought not to jump to the conclusion that Pittsburghers are better at tearing things down than at building things up. Still, there is something to the notion that if Pittsburgh were anthropomorphized, it would be an stereotypical young boy, fascinated by loud noises, trucks, things crashing into each other, and himself.

What Pittsburgh Expats Might Bring

From the current Economist magazine, a story whose significance to Pittsburgh requires making a few imaginative leaps.

[Update: Jim Russell at Return to Pittsburgh made those leaps! Read his excellent post.]

Anecdotal evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling aboad. Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link.

As they report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, presented 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in America with a test used by psychologists as a measure of creativity. Given a candle, some matches and a box of drawing pins, the students were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. (The solution is to use the box as a candleholder and fix it to the wall with the pins.) They found 60% of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.

A follow-up study with 72 Americans and 36 foreigners explored their creative negotiating skills. Pairs of students were asked to play the role of a seller of a petrol station who then needed to get a job and a buyer who would need to hire staff to run the business. The two were likely to reach an impasse because the buyer had been told he could not afford what the seller was told was his minimum price. Nevertheless, where both negotiators had lived abroad 70% struck a deal in which the seller was offered a management job at the petrol station in return for a lower asking price. When neither of the negotiators had lived abroad, none was able to reach a deal.

To check that they had not merely discovered that creative people are more likely to choose to live abroad, Dr Maddux and Dr Galinsky identified and measured personality traits, such as openness to new experiences, that are known to predict creativity. They then used statistical controls to filter out such factors. Even after that had been done, the statistical relationship between living abroad and creativity remained, indicating that it is something from the experience of living in foreign parts that helps foster creativity.

Merely travelling abroad, however, was not enough. You do have to live there. Pcking your beach towel and suntan lotion will not, by itself, make you Hemingway.

Economist link

The original journal article

The New, New Visioning Project

Earlier this Spring, I wrote somewhere skeptically (but with some guarded optimism - how's that for covering my bases?) about the upcoming "visioning" project for the Pittsburgh region.

The "Regional Visioning Project" now has an executive director (Allen Kukovich) and a website (here), and a PR firm (Judith Kelly). Off it goes to solicit grass-root input on a "shared vision of the region's best future," which is, without question, a noble enterprise and a far better approach to strategic planning than the top-down "don't look now, but it's a Renaissance" tradition that earlier Pittsburghers made famous. Tonight, in fact (May 20), at 6:30 pm at the New Hazlett Theatre on the North Side, CityLIVE! is hosting a "visioning" forum that's open to the public. (Click here for more info and to RSVP.) If you have time, by all means: go!

But I can't set aside my skepticism, on the principal ground that the RVP's Steering Committee is a bloated amalgam of names-being-dropped and usual (no new vision) suspects. Here and there, I can pick out people who are good at walking the walk as well as talking the talk. But you have to have a critical eye to get beyond the sense that this is just another excuse for a fundraiser and a future appearance in the Post-Gazette's SEEN section. There is meat on the committee. It is slathered in unneeded slaw and fries.

I also laughed quietly when I read Allen Kukovich's biography. He's not just someone who's been around the Pittsburgh block more than a few times and knows where the bodies are buried. Importantly, he and his family "live in Manor, Pennsylvania on the same property occupied by his family for four generations."

Not that Pittsburghers would ever want to validate the idea that outsiders are welcome contributors to regional visioning conversations!

Pittsburgh's Entrepreneurship Darknet

In recent conversations with experienced local entrepreneurs, I've formulated a new hypothesis: The conventional wisdom about Pittsburgh's entrepreneurship and startup communities is wrong.

That conventional wisdom runs something like this: There are lots of great ideas in Pittsburgh, but there isn't enough risk capital. Individual family + friends and angel investors are more risk-averse than their counterparts in regions where the entrepreneurial winds blow more regularly than they seem to here. Local institutional investors are reluctant to place bets here rather than in higher velocity locations. Local investors are skittish; they don't like to lose money and would rather take a break from investing rather than get back into the market after a failed play.

The new hypothesis is that the conventional wisdom applies -- perhaps -- if one focuses on the "public" entrepreneurship space, the one dominated by conversations that include regional economic development enterprises, local governments, big companies, and technology transfer operations at local universities. (I add the "perhaps" because my sense is that even that "public" space has gotten a little more lively and energetic, and investors there have gotten a little savvier and more risk-oriented.)

But the conventional wisdom may not apply if one focuses on what I'll call Pittsburgh's entrepreneurship Darknet. (Darknet or dark fiber? You choose the better metaphor.) What I mean is that there is, in fact, a vibrant off-the-public-radar community of entrepreneurs which is regularly and happily building enterprises based on excellent ideas, and getting funding for them from local investors, with none of the "no one takes risks in Pittsburgh!" angst that percolates via the conventional wisdom. It's a Darknet because this high-bandwidth network functions effectively to circulate ideas and money, yet it deliberately stays out of the news. There are no big public parties or show-and-tells; there is little engagement with the better-known local economic development institutions; they give few interviews to the media - even social media. Yes, these folks are trying to hit home runs, but in the meantime, they are doing what entrepreneurs do: Researching, planning, building, executing. In the words of Nuke LaLoosh, "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."

If the hypothesis is right, then it doesn't solve all problems, but it puts certain propositions in a different light. First, for example, it's still true that Pittsburgh lacks a legal community that can fully support a vibrant entrepreneurship and startup sector, Darknet or no Darknet. Second, entrepreneurs' reported difficulties in securing local financing may in some cases have less to do with the lack of local risk capital and more to do with the fact that the ideas in question are mediocre, or that the entrepreneurs themselves are lacking a certain something. Third, Darknets don't just happen; they get built, intentionally; Darknet entrepreneurs and investors may be cut from a slightly different cloth, or they may conceive of what they do in somewhat different terms. But they don't wait for good ideas to fall from the sky like manna from Heaven (i.e., they don't wait for the phone to ring with Pitt or CMU on the other end); they go in search of the good stuff; and they don't, as a rule, do their dancing in public (at least until the exit strategy has been executed). They don't focus their search for ideas on public meetings and conferences. By the time the ideas hit the show-and-tell, the good stuff may be gone, or the market opportunity may be gone, or both.

And the hypothesis says nothing about the fact that the conventional wisdom is, well, conventional. Nothing would be better for all of Pittsburgh's entrepreneurs than for the conventional wisdom to change and for Pittsburgh to be known as a place that is as welcoming of innovation as Austin or Seattle. At least some of the re-framed propositions in that last paragraph involve things that can be modified. The legal community can get brighter and more vibrant; entrepreneurs at all levels can be more aggressive in chasing down new ideas; with more experience and better mentoring, it becomes easier to distinguish promising ideas from lousy ones -- though this is more quantum mechanics than classical physics. That distinction is never easy.

The NYTimes on Ravenstahl

If the New York Times sometimes carries so much Pittsburgh news that it seems like the Pittsburgh Times, then the reason may be Sean Hamill, a veteran journalist who lives here and who feeds well-written story after well-written story to the paper. Today's Pittstory is tomorrow's mayoral primary, and it includes one (not particularly insightful, but pithy) quotation from me. (Saturday's Pittstory was about the Frederickstown ferry, which is named Fred.)

Interviews like that one are almost always more interesting for the material that doesn't make the cut than for the material that does. What didn't make the cut was this: Even though I don't live in the City of Pittsburgh, the primary election has disappointed me, because neither of the two main candidates (Ravenstahl and Dowd) has used his media time to point aggressively to things that matter to the people of the region. One is a sustainable economic model, or what does Pittsburgh do when it really dawns on everyone that higher education, medical care, and high tech startups aren't enough in the long run to stabilize the post-steel economy? Two is what we might call the Great Allegheny Divide, or the problem that I once labeled Third World Pittsburgh, between the stable and properous neighborhoods and suburbs that give Pittsburgh its modestly glamorous modern media image, on the one hand, and the neighborhoods and communities that suffer ever grimmer levels of crime and poverty, on the other hand.

Carmen Robinson, to her credit, has nodded in the direction of the latter issue, but let's be real: In this primary, no issue has traction unless Luke bothers to talk about it. (Gary Rotstein's column this morning isn't far from the truth.) And Luke doesn't bother to talk about much (the child who kills his parents and pleads for mercy because he's an orphan, Luke complains that no one is talking about issues). Patrick Dowd's signature issue has been public corruption -- which is important, but which is neither the first priority for the incoming administration nor enough to galvanize a somnolent electorate.

Ravenstahl, who has learned a thing or two as mayor, has the gall to point out that arguing about his corruption makes Pittsburgh look bad.

Well, of course, it makes Pittsburgh look bad, because Ravenstahl all but admits that his administration is corrupt. And outside of the passionate Dowdiac community and some bloggers I know, just about no one cares.

No one cares because the mayor's race and the future of Pittsburgh aren't about what happens on Grant Street. The public doesn't care about billboards and bag men. The public is facing high taxes, mediocre public services, and a grey economic future. Anyone who wants to dislodge Ravenstahl and the machine that backs him has to take a long running start and has to make the campaign about the people of Pittsburgh. The issue is: How can the mayor make their lives better?

It's not clear that any Pittsburgh mayor can do that these days, because the finances of the city are in a serious ditch. Still, a mayor can make people believe (Bob O'Connor, anyone?). If any of the current candidates has the ability to inspire, none has put it on display. If you want to inspire in Pittsburgh these days, maybe the best thing you can do is carry a stick and skate with a number 87 on your back. Get out there and chant "Let's Go Pens." It won't help much. But it's a start.

After Lawrenceville

Sunday's New York Times magazine Travel special includes an "Epicenters" column on Brillobox in Lawrenceville -- the Times and its Pittsburgh love affair strikes again! (not that anyone here is complaining) -- but I wonder whether there is any cool in Pittsburgh that *isn't* centered on Pittsburgh's own L word.

I did an interview last week with Dutch media (which is following the "why isn't Pittsburgh cratering in the recession?" story last seen in this space when I met with a team from Anderson Cooper 360), and the Dutch were smart and thoughtful and engaging, as the Dutch often are. At their request, we did the interview in ... Lawrenceville.

We want to spread the gospel of Pittsburgh to Holland and all, but if Lawrenceville is hip in Holland (and if I'm the one doing the 'splaining!), then Lawrenceville may be losing its edge.

So if you wanted to point to someplace cool or hip in Pittsburgh that hasn't yet been discovered by the mainsteam media, where would you go?

Pittsburgh's BetaLab

Today's Post-Gazette Business section includes a well-written, traditional newspaperish feature on the hatchling companies now emerging from the current round of AlphaLab incubation and seeking real first round investments. The story is all about the entrepreneurs and inventors and the neat things that they have figured how to do -- and that they hope that someone else will invest in (the company) and buy (products and services).

Here are the stories that I hope the Post-Gazette -- or someone ("anyone? anyone?") -- will write in the future:

One -- Where does this investment capital come from? How about a multi-page investigative report that really lays out the shape of Pittsburgh's investor community. There's nothing to be "exposed" here except a vital infrastructure that is known primarily to insiders.

Two -- What about round two? Today's story focuses on tiny companies that have a wing and a prayer and maybe -- if they win the lottery that the PG describes -- a kernel of cash. How about a feature on companies that started with a kernel and made it as far as looking for a second or third round? Or companies that made the transition to funding from operations? This stage has an "American Idol" quality (though perhaps the better analogy is the high school dance, with wanna-be startups as sophomore girls dressed up for the night, equally shy and optimistic, hoping to be asked out onto the floor); companies are preening in the spotlight, hoping for a payday. The next stage isn't so glamorous, but it is oh-so-important. What does it take to succeed?

(Here's are story ideas for that category: Go back to Talk Shoe, a recent startup which seems to be hanging in there nicely. Or profile Vocollect, a more established and successful but still relatively young local technology firm.)

Three -- Six months from now, what will have happened to the AlphaLab presenters featured in today's paper? They are: iTwixie.com; Stockcastr [the Pittsburgh Ventures blog uses the unfortunate slogan "where 'American Idol' meets Jim Cramer," which may be the worst endorsement for an investment-oriented firm ever]; Resumator; Bueda; AJAX Street; and InnomiNet. At least some of these look like very cool technologies, but there is no way to know whether any of them will turn out to be good businesses. How about a story about relative success -- and about failure? And then -- about renewal?

Statistically, the odds are against all of them. Six months from now, which will be viable enterprises? Some may still be operating as stand-alone operations. Some may have been acquired or merged into other firms. And some simply may run out of gas -- and cash. In each case -- including the failures, and perhaps especially the failures! -- what happens to the people, to the technology, and to the money?

As Lyle Lovett once sang, life is so uncertain. Pittsburgh's entrepreneurial community is starting, just now, to get a little traction, and that's a remarkable thing, given the community's history and given the state of the economy. It would be a terrible shame if Pittsburgh at large killed its momentum via the apparent kindness of celebrating successes and burying the losses.

Failure is an important option.

Biotech and Pittsburgh's Future

Folks say that biotechnology innovation is central to Pittsburgh's economic future, so more than patent lawyers are likely interested in the recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of certain cancer patients, challenging the proposition that human genes can be patented. The patients have been denied access to diagnostic tests produced by the patentee and defendant; that company (Myriad) is the sole producer of the tests, because it controls the relevant patent. The Post-Gazette ran a good story on the case this morning. The NY Times had a long story yesterday.

The public health implications of genetic patents aren't straightforward. These particular patients have suffered clear and demonstrable hardship on account of the patent system, but some might argue that the right to patent genes serves the greater good by offering private firms a needed incentive to research and produce relevant diagnostic tests and therapies. My Pitt Law colleague Alan Meisel, a health law expert, took that view in today's PG report. In addition, patent lawyers themselves, particularly patent lawyers who work in biotech and biomedical fields, tend to simply freak out when anyone suggests that patenting less than the entirety of the human imagination is being considered. To many people, the wisdom of the patent system and the wisdom of every particular patent is beyond question.

So I'll question it, at least in this case. Specifically, I'll disagree that questioning patents on genes puts investment and innovation in relevant diagnostics and therapies at risk. There's a ton of research out there on relevant science and technology that is not driven by patenting, much of it being done at Pitt and other research institutions. (Patents play a role in "pulling" useful applications out of these research institutions, but they don't matter so much to whether or not the research gets done.) Meanwhile, even to the extent that incentives to innovate are affected, they have to be balanced against the concrete harms caused by patenting in this area. And we're focused today only on harms in the US; harms abroad, especially in less developed countries, may be even more severe.

Is resolving this question a topic for Congress (which has been focused for a while on patent reform, and which may be close to a solution?) rather than for a court? My view is no; I tend not to like putting Congress in the role of industrial referee.

More later. But here's a concluding thought: I don't think that Pittsburgh's biotech community is being put at risk via this case.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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