Talent and Technology: The Story of the Pittsburgh Innovation District

What is an “innovation district,” anyway?

Sean Luther, PID Executive Director

Sean Luther, PID Executive Director

It’s a question we get asked a lot. I’m Sean Luther, the Executive Director of InnovatePGH and the Pittsburgh Innovation District, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s a part of my job description to answer that question.

The shortest answer is this: our Innovation District in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood (much like others in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, and elsewhere) is a neighborhood-based initiative to develop and promote Oakland’s critical mass of talent, entrepreneurship resources, urban amenities, and research strengths to attract new talent, startups, and innovation companies to Pittsburgh.

The longer answer is, well, longer — and we think that’s a really good thing.

The Pittsburgh Innovation District is unique mainly due to its globally significant research institutions. Our two universities, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, have overlapping campuses within less than one square mile. Even more critically, they have complementary (not competitive) strengths, and they share a truly collaborative spirit of innovation. The District is also home to UPMC, the largest academic medical system in the country and the only such center with an integrated insurance provider. 

It’s hard to visualize what two major universities and a research hospital look like when essentially stacked on top of each other until you visit Oakland, the knowledge hub of the Pittsburgh Innovation District. Oakland is a pulsing “city within a city,” home to 80,000 surgeons, scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs and 40,000 college students. The compact and amenity-rich urban landscape provides Pittsburgh’s innovators with award-winning restaurants, robust transit and bike networks, and the 450-acre Schenley Park, all working together in an authentic Pittsburgh neighborhood that has been constantly evolving since 1866.

Oakland has always functioned as a natural innovation district, but it wasn’t until 2017 that we knew what to call it. The Brookings Institution published a report on “Pittsburgh’s rise as a global innovation city,” and it was packed full of inspiring numbers and facts telling its readers everything that we already knew about Pittsburgh: that it’s a place where big things are happening.  

This was our favorite part:  

“The competitive advantage of the region is no longer its rivers and raw materials but high-skilled workers, world-class research institutions, and advanced manufacturing. These considerable assets place Pittsburgh in the ranks of the international innovation cities now competing for a suite of new technologies set to redefine the global economy.”

That’s a fancy (and long-winded) way of saying something that we’ve been saying all along, but we’re glad to hear outsiders finally saying it, too. Through InnovatePGH’s unique public/private partnership, we’re using the Pittsburgh Innovation District as a platform to better unite the city’s talent, research, technology and capital in new and exciting ways to keep propelling Pittsburgh forward — all from within one neighborhood. 

Sean Luther