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.


2 Responses to "Pittsburgh's BetaLab"

MH said... 5/17/2009 8:31 PM

Speaking of viable enterprises, portions of the front section of the PG looked like an essay written by a student who thinks his teacher has never heard of playing with spacing and margins to make a 6 page paper into a 10 page paper.

Jia said... 5/17/2009 11:48 PM

Mike, I agree with you that this PG article was well-written, but is probably too traditional to be much help to the local startup scene. However, I do know people writing in some of the three areas you identified:

1. Pittsburgh Ventures = Written by local venture capitalists from Meakem Becker, Innovation Works, etc...this blog gives valuable insider information on how early stage investment works and shines a spotlight on local startups. In fact, Alan Veeck just finished a series of articles about all the AlphaLab startups mentioned in the PG article, but analyzing them from the VC perspective.

2. Pop City = A weekly local e-magazine that does great coverage of local startups in its Innovation section (top article right now compares Vocollect with a newer local company in same space called Lucas Systems). However, I do agree that there's currently a lack of enough followup articles about local tech companies, especially for the smaller updates that can't justify a feature length article. For example, how come the PG never found someone to take over the very useful Bits & Bytes column that basically summarized the week's local tech and business happenings? After Cori Shropshire left for the Houston Chronicle, I knew the PG would have a tough time finding someone to fill her shoes, but it's been over two years and still the PG's tech business coverage is noticeably weaker. Which explains why most industry people now read Pop City and newer stuff like TECHburger instead, but it's disappointing that the local newspapers don't do a better job.

3. Startup Pittsburgh = I recently started writing and doing video interviews about the local tech community for this blog since Ryan Hopkin's Public Square Project inspired me to actually start doing something to improve the media coverage of local startups rather than just complain about it. So as a citizen journalist, I amateurishly interview Pittsburgh early stage tech startups and cover local tech events whenever I'm in town. And despite a lack of formal training, we still manage to sometimes outscoop the local press (compare our multimedia coverage vs a traditional Tribune-Review article). Anyway, we've already done video interviews with most of the current cycle of AlphaLab companies and plan to do followups later on. And we've even interviewed AlphaLab companies from the first cycle, so those will be the first "six months later" interviews we'll be posting up soon. If you have any questions you'd like us to ask them, feel free to let us know.

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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.

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