StartUptown began as an incubator/coworking space “by default” in October 2006 when Dale McNutt shuttered a corporate design business after 26 years. The building at 1936-1942 Fifth Avenue is 12,700 square feet with two residential apartments and 10,000 square feet of commercial space.
McNutt purchased the building and began its renovation in Spring 2002.
The need to fill the building with activity — having furniture and all the essential components to create ready-made workspaces — the McNutts found their first tenant, Nakturnal LLC, in 2007 through their community engagement. Nakturnal provides socially innovative event production, sponsorship and marketing services for arts and entertainment organizations. Female owned and staffed, they asked to rent space on the big studio loft during their coordination of the Uptown community’s Sprout Fund mural selection process. Four principles, and up to 12 interns each college semester — at their Wednesday night meeting were 16 females, all but one under 30 years of age — the site was baptized in a coworking feminine aura and work hours that often extended until 2:00AM.
Then, in July 2008, young 23-year-old entrepreneur Nick Pinkston of Cloudfab rented the remainder of the loft space through an ad posted on Craigslist. His business helps jump-start the new decentralized manufacturing revolution.
Shortly after in early winter, Harold Lessure of Lechtzer Incorporated — product developers of innovative sensing and optics for government and industry — leased 1,500 square feet on the ground floor. On a typical weekday up to 7, including 3 interns, work from this product development laboratory.
Through Pinkston’s enthusiasm — he also founded Hack Pittsburgh, a tech-based educational collaborative and maker’s space, in 1,700 sq. ft. on the building’s ground floor — his networking capacity and insightful thinking across a wide range of current topics, Dale McNutt was motivated to spend the following 3 years gaining perspective about the scope of entrepreneurial activity in urban Pittsburgh and its potential to energize community development.
[ Note : Hack Pittsburgh is part of the worldwide “makers space” phenomena — an outgrowth of the swell of interest in do-it-yourself (DIY) projects in art-tech-friendly environments, where tools and knowledge are freely shared. Recipient of Maker Faire Detroit Editor’s Choice Award in July 2011, it is membership-driven, and has garnered a national reputation. On a Friday night, up to 25 gather for an evening of learning and networking; or for a Thursday evening lecture; or during daily open shop hours to complete a project with another team member. ]
As an artist, designer, and writer — with experience in creative problem-solving and business operations — McNutt could directly relate to entrepreneurial risk-taking; the vocabulary and process of rapid prototyping; the marketing and communication requirements of a new organization; and the early-stage startup’s struggle to build corporate culture while developing leadership skill-sets — all this concurrent with developing product, building capacity, understanding market requirements — alongside the need to gain investment interest. It is no small task often accomplished with less than ideal funding.
StartUptown was born out of this energizing range of criteria and understanding that:
1.) a “place to work” should inspire both the entrepreneur and his/her clients
2.) it should provide workplace essentials and a “coolness” factor at very little cost and financial commitment to the entrepreneur — like a month-month-only lease commitment
3.) architectural layout that provides extreme flexibility and room for growth.
This was a nurturing niche that was largely unfilled for early stage startups in urban Pittsburgh during this critical stage of their business development.
[ Note : Skill-Life — a game-based platform that lets youth earn real-world rewards as they play cool games that teach life skills — was purchased after just three months as a StartUptown resident. ]
It was “coworking-plus” — and the coworking concept was not in Pittsburgh’s urban vocabulary until just recently. It was McNutt’s immersion in this challenging activity along with the development challenges of Uptown itself (his wife Jeanne McNutt is executive director of Uptown Partners) — that prompted the vision of a much larger campus of activity. And the insight that in a larger world that was beset with economic challenges at all levels — both startup business and community development might be served at the same time.
[ Note : McNutt works alongside the startups — as Todd Eichel of Fooala commented, “Dale, you live the life”, referring to McNutt’s own entrepreneurial skill-set — Fooala tackles instant online ordering for restaurants. At the heart of it is a robust transaction network , a convergence of consumer-facing e-commerce to restaurant point-of-sale systems through a common interface. A rich social experience built on user-generated content and semantic analysis of syndicated and spidered content, Fooala local search portal is a revolutionary step forward from today’s business listings-based directories. ]
This insight, startup + community, spurred the development of StartUptown as an incubator/coworking “laboratory” — aided by its location in the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone (PCKIZ). The PCKIZ helps support startups in the Hill/Uptown communities through grant-making, tax-credits, and other incentives. It’s a technology based economic development (TBED) PA state program that Duquesne University helped bring to the community in 2007. Bill Generett, Executive Director of the PCKIZ, encouraged Dale McNutt to expand and formalize his commitment to TBED. And StartUptown was born as a PA nonprofit in 2009; a board of directors was formed in 2010; and the Federal 501c3 application was filed in Spring 2011 with the aid of the Law Clinic at Duquesne.
Impact and opportunity
The Fifth Avenue site has supported 14 startup groups and socially innovative organizations over the past 4 years. Many of these groups graduate from Innovation Works/AlphaLab; or Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus program; or directly from CMU Robotics Institute like Allpoint Systems, StartUptown’s fastest growing company which is slated to be an anchor tenant at StartUptown’s new upcoming Paramount site.
[ Note : Allpoint: founded on robotic principles, solving problems of large scale LiDAR analysis, Allpoint Systems provides solutions for 3D data scanning and modeling — enhanced visualizing, measuring, processing, modeling and map-building from point cloud data in a fraction of the time it takes traditional methodologies — it’s 3D made easy. ]
Startups require space at well below market rate, and often come with very little funding and up to 5 employees. StartUptown supports them with month-to-month lease agreements to minimize risk, at price points that sometimes start at 0 dollars per month and build.
McNutt sees great increase in entrepreneurial activity, and a desire for early-stage startups to grow in creative environments that support innovation through proximity, shared experience, and the excitement of the collaborative experience fed through daily networking. It’s the creed of the generation that’s built “latte capitalism” — and the notion is simple: vitality, creative strength, and confidence evolves through the experience of shared entrepreneurial risk-taking in a friendly, bustling atmosphere (more likely than not, adjacent to light food and coffee). It’s the busy-ness of creative activity out in the open; where everyone has the opportunity to “start something big!”
StartUptown, presently at full capacity, wants to seize the visible opportunities for a larger campus of urban entrepreneurial activity in Uptown — alongside the expansion of its footprint at the present Fifth Avenue site.
All the right conditions exist:
1.) A community with available architectural resources ripe for adaptive reuse.
2.) A strategic location between two of PA’s largest economic generators, Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland.
3.) Burgeoning entrepreneurial growth from Pittsburgh’s major educational and medical institutions.
4.) Innovation Works/AlphaLab’s growing reputation as a leading national incubator, attracting other startup organizations into the Pittsburgh region — and then there’s Google in nearby in East Liberty offering young talent another good reason to relocate, or to remain in Pittsburgh after graduation.
Campus expansion at the historic Paramount
The Paramount Film Exchange is StartUptown’s first opportunity to create “campus” through a public-private partnership. It will expand its footprint by 5,000+ square feet. The Paramount offers a site that can accommodate up to 12 businesses and as many at 62 employee/residents. Both entrepreneur and community residents, will have access to the Paramount café and screening room. It will provide not only a greatly needed, walk-able, bite to eat and a hip place to buy a cup of coffee, or sit with laptop on the roof deck. (No coffee shop presently operates at the east end of Uptown); it is an opportunity for historic preservation and recognition as a small performing arts/film center.
The Paramount will provide a natural increased ability for StartUptown to offer event programming and networking opportunities on a larger scale and with a more frequent schedule. The art on the wall, and the creative ambience will fall naturally from the site’s history of film, viewing and distribution — film was at the technical edge for its time — a form that brought the broader social network of activity closer in view, and made it accessible to wider audiences.
Uptown: an articulate vision
The Uptown community, through Uptown Partners and others, continues to accelerate development activity: like the Fifth Avenue High School conversion into 65 market-rate loft apartments; the URA’s designation of Uptown as a redevelopment zone and the Miltenberger/Dinwidde connecting corridor as key to an Uptown/Hill commercial/residential/connecting zone (note that the Paramount sits on Miltenberger); URA’s purchase of property at Fifth and Dinwiddle, and at Forbes and Miltenberger, for Uptown Partners-directed development; the purchase, with acquisition of major funding by Action-Housing Inc. to convert the Shanahan Warehouse into a net-0 energy housing and commercial space (it sits on Forbes Avenue and Miltenberger behind the high school and two blocks from either the Paramount on Miltenberger, or StartUptown’s Fifth Avenue location); a new contemporary series of twelve free-standing units of rental living space one-half block from StartUptown designed by Studio D’ARC for a local resident/investor. And the Castlebrook/Williams 45-unit apartment complex by Fuikui architecture in the nearby 1600 block of Fifth Avenue. Each of these sites will contribute to the vitality of the eastern uptown community as will StartUptown’s potential entrepreneurial campus.
Numerous other potential campus sites are becoming available in Uptown. Up to six other buildings present StartUptown with the opportunity for acquisition and adaptive reuse in this same eastern Uptown zone of activity. This interconnected campus could offer opportunity for 300,000+ square feet of entrepreneurial activity, employing up to 2,500; requiring all the service amenities normal to supporting daily business activity; like coffee, food, entertainment, retail development, parking, and living accommodations — like a Giant Eagle Get-Go; a boutique hotel; enhanced market-style grocery; and expanded artist residency/studio spaces along the nearby Gist/Tustin/Locust streets corridor — all together providing a vibrant mix of residential, commercial, and cultural activity.
It has been documented that bringing the Arts into an underserved community spurs growth and opportunity. It’s bootstrapped cultural revitalization — the “arts” initiate the upswing of an underserved neighborhood — the neighborhood is made “more safe” by the industriousness of the new community members. (And ‘art openings’ or book readings bring a public audience who might not have ventured forth.) StartUptown sees tech culture doing the same… Resident Hack Pittsburgh certainly does, not unlike the nationally recognized 10-year run of the Gist Street Reading Series at James Simon’s Uptown sculpture studio. That series brought 80-100 eager listeners the first Friday of each month. Hack Pittsburgh has done that and more over a four week period each month — simply exposing the neighborhood as a desirable place to live and work.
The bigger idea!
Boston, New York, San Francisco, Austin, Pittsburgh…why not? In a city of only 335,000 we have 3 outsized sports teams who win championships on a regular basis. And world-class university and medical anchor institutions — let’s put Pittsburgh on the circuit as an entrepreneurial hotspot. All the right conditions are in place — and StartUptown is uniquely poised to help.