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Pittsburgh, Austin and SXSW 2013

on Mon, 03/18/2013 - 09:54

The South by Southwest Festival in Austin has become one of the most anticipated tech events in recent years, corresponding with the Texas city’s rise on the cutting-edge map of the nation. The event itself is an amalgamation of music, film and technology, and has the ability to create “buzz” for anything within those mediums. Each March, thousands of Pittsburghers make the journey to the Lone Star State for the festivities, but in 2013, the Steel City’s presence in Austin was even larger than in the past, including a special Pittsburgh Innovation Party on the first Saturday of SXSW, with representatives of Apple and Google in attendance along with an assortment of Pittsburgh and Austin entrepreneurs.

Mike Woychek, program manager of the South Side’s AlphaLabs, was one of those present, and in a guest column for the Pittsburgh Business Times, noted that the event appeared to be a success. “Local sponsors provided some technology demonstrations and handed out some great swag,” he writes. “I personally spoke with many people from outside the Pittsburgh area who were impressed with what was happening here. I don’t have access to the final number, but there were several hundred who stopped by for a visit as well as a long line around the building.” Woychek also noted that a handful of Pittsburghers were featured in the series of panel discussions held as part of SXSW, including Nathan Martin, co-founder of DeepLocal, and Jesse Schell of Schell Games, likewise located on the South Side.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, meanwhile, ran an article in its March 10, 2013, edition which featured numerous Austin-based entrepreneurs commenting on ways in which Pittsburgh could grow when it comes to startups, including tax incentives for investors and continued development of a startup “culture” within the community. Arguably the best advice, however, came Pittsburgh transplant Tim Kern of Austin-based Wawadoo. “There are all kinds of cities that become known for technology like Austin, San Francisco, New York, Chicago,” he told the Post-Gazette. “I think what that creates is an opportunity for cities like Pittsburgh to stand out in their own right. I think Austin is really well known for the events space, really well known for enterprise. What Pittsburgh can do is look at what’s being left out, look at the unserviced market and cater to that, and I think they’re already doing that with the medical industry and other industries.”

The high-tech research of Carnegie Mellon University notwithstanding, Pittsburgh has indeed found its greatest success in products that reflect the working-class aspects of the region. In addition to online apparel retailer ModCloth and baby products innovator 4Moms, for instance, the most notable Steel City startups include NoWait, which makes it easier to make restaurant reservations, ShowClix, which has done the same for purchasing tickets to music events, and Cellhelmet, which offers a one-year warrantee on their iPhone protectors. None of those products are necessarily glamorous, but do reflect the growing needs of ordinary people in the Twenty First Century.

In his book The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the ’70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul, author Chad Millman argues that the rivalry between the two football franchises in the 1970s went beyond the playing field but reflected a difference in culture within the respective cities as well. While there may not be a contemporary rivalry between Austin and Pittsburgh in regards to startups, maybe the Steel City’s future lies within its working-class roots nonetheless—just like the “everyman” football team that once defeated the more glamorous franchise from Texas in two Super Bowls.

Anthony Letizia (March 18, 2013)

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