Back in 2010, as Google was moving to its Bakery Square location, the radio show Marketplace aired a story heralding Pittsburgh as the “Silicon Valley of the east.”
Indeed, Steel City is earning quite a reputation as the local incubator and startup scenes continues to thrive. This year’s AlphaLab Demo Day packed over 500 people into Stage AE to watch a crop of nascent companies — ranging from a subscription box service for romance to an iPhone case that acts as a self-defense mechanism — pitch their brands to investors.
And while many of the businesses launching in Pittsburgh today might reflect national trends, the city has an identity all its own.
“A world-class education community, supportive foundation and government entities, and a spirit of collaboration all contribute to Pittsburgh’s thriving startup environment,” says Robert Stein, interim director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at University of Pittsburgh. “Combine this with a city built on strong work ethic and a high quality of life, and you have the perfect formula for success.”
That work ethic and quality of life have made Pittsburgh a great place for startups for over a century. The companies profiled below all got their start in the Greater Pittsburgh region. Some only exist in the history books while others are relatively new, but all have helped shape the contemporary city.
PNC Bank in Lawrenceville
PNC Financial Services Group
PNC Financial Services was founded as the Pittsburgh Trust and Savings Company in 1852, making it the oldest bank in Pittsburgh. Throughout the better part of two centuries, the company has had many identities. In 1853, it was renamed the Pittsburgh Trust Company and, in 1863, after becoming the first bank in the city to receive a national charter as part of that year’s National Banking Act, it changed names again to First National Bank of Pittsburgh.
After a series of mergers, it evolved into Pittsburgh National Bank, which became the leading subsidiary of the Pittsburgh National Corporation. In 1982, the Pittsburgh National Corporation merged with Provident National Corporation to become PNC Financial Corporation. At the time, it was the largest bank merger in U.S. history.
In 2008, after acquiring National City Bank, PNC doubled in size and became the sixth largest bank in the United States by deposits and fifth largest by branches. Its corporate offices have been located at the corner of Wood Street and Fifth Avenue since 1858, though in 2011, it unveiled plans for a new $400 million corporate headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh known as the Tower at PNC Plaza.
H.J. Heinz Company
Entrepreneur Henry John Heinz founded his namesake company in Sharpsburg in 1869. The company is known for its “57 Varieties” of product, a marketing slogan introduced in 1896. The number 57 has since become synonymous with the company so it’s no coincidence that when Heinz purchased the naming rights for the local professional football arena in 2001, they signed a deal to pay the Pittsburgh Steelers a total of $57 million.
The company manufactures thousands of food products in plants on six continents and markets those products to 200 countries worldwide. Of course, its flagship product is ketchup — 650 million bottles are sold each year — however, its first manufactured product was bottled horseradish made from Heinz’s mother’s recipe.
In February 2013, Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital purchased Heinz for $23 billion. According to Heinz, the deal is the largest in the history of the food industry.
Mellon Financial Corporation
Thomas Mellon and sons Andrew W. and Richard B. founded T. Mellon & Sons’ Bank in 1869; the institution became Mellon National Bank in 1902.
Prior to the First World War, Andrew and Richard took investment risks on coal, steel, aluminum, oil pipelines and railroads — they were acting as something of an incubator. These risks created great wealth for the family and supported Pittsburgh’s rise as an industrial power. With the bank as its proxy, the family played a major role in the founding of behemoths such as Alcoa, Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, Heinz, General Motors, Koppers and ExxonMobil.
The Mellon Financial Corporation eventually became one of the world’s largest money management firms. In July 2007, it merged with the Bank of New York to become the Bank of New York Mellon in a $16.5 billion deal.
In 1883, Captain John Baptiste Ford and John Pitcairn, Jr. founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in Creighton, Pa., 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. It was the first commercially successful plate glass factory in the U.S.
The company expanded rapidly through new facilities and acquisitions, and came to be involved in paint and chemical businesses. The company changed its name to PPG Industries, Inc. in 1968 to highlight its diverse offerings.
Today PPG is ranked 190 on the Fortune 500 and is a global supplier of paints, coatings, optical products, specialty materials, glass and fiberglass. It has 156 manufacturing facilities worldwide and four primary research centers in the United States, three of which are located in the Greater Pittsburgh region. It is headquartered in PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh; the building is known for its reflective glass façade and has been called “the crown jewel in Pittsburgh’s skyline.”
The birth of Alcoa can be traced back to an experimental smelting plant on Smallman Street known as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, founded in 1888. The company was started by Charles Martin Hall, who discovered the process of smelting aluminum about the same time the process was being discovered in France by scientist Paul Héroult. To this day the Hall-Héroult process is the way aluminum is produced.
In 1891, the company opened a site in New Kensington, and four years later, one in Niagara Falls. The firm changed its name to the Aluminum Company of America in 1907, and the acronym “Alcoa” was coined in 1910. Alcoa has shaped advances in many industries including aerospace. Lightweight aluminum made flight possible, from Kitty Hawk to the lunar landing, and continues to be critical to the aerospace industry.
Today, Alcoa operates in 21 countries, is a major producer of aluminum, and is active in technology, mining, refining, smelting, fabricating and recycling. In 2013, its revenues totaled $23 billion.
George Westinghouse, inventor of the railway air brake and founder of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, founded Westinghouse Electric in 1886.
The company helped spread electricity across the country by pioneering long-distance power transmission and high-voltage alternating-current transmission.
In 1920, Westinghouse entered the broadcast industry and launched KDKA, the world’s first commercial radio station. In the 1930s, the company opened the Home of Tomorrow to demonstrate Westinghouse home appliances and built the world’s first “industrial atom smasher,” a result of its nuclear physics research.
During the 20th century, Westinghouse engineers and scientists recieved more than 28,000 U.S. government patents, the third most of any company.
Thanks to a series of mergers in 1990s, the company came to be known as the CBS Corporation in 1997, and sold itself to Viacom in 1999. The Westinghouse name was revived in 1999 as a result of yet another merger and, in 2010, The Westinghouse Electric Company moved its new global headquarters from Monroeville, Pa. to Cranberry Township, Pa.
Today, the company is fully committed to the nuclear power industry and controlled by the Toshiba Group.
Carnegie Steel Company
Andrew Carnegie’s first profitable steel mill was the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, Pa., which opened in 1875 and was named after the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The mill employed the Bessemer process, the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass production of steel. Within one year of production, the mill produced 32,228 tons of steel rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
With the profits from the mill, Carnegie and his associates purchased other nearby steel mills which would become the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892. He controlled the most extensive iron and steel operations ever owned by an individual in the United States.
In 1901, Carnegie sold Carnegie Steel Company, including the Edgar Thomson Works, to J.P. Morgan, Elbert H. Gary and other investors for $480 million (or $13.6 billion in today’s market) as part of the foundation of U.S. Steel.
Jerry McGinnis founded the medical supply company Respironics, which is headquartered in Murrysville, Pa., and has offices in countries around the world. Though the company technically got its start in McGinnis’ kitchen, he opened the company’s first manufacturing facility for anesthesia masks in 1976. By 1982, the company expanded manufacturing operations overseas.
Respironics released the first commercially available continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device in 1985 for the treatment of sleep apnea.Three years later, the company went public and was traded on NASDAQ under the stock symbol RESP. In 1989, it released the first bi-level continuous positive airway pressure device (BiPAP®) and received a U.S. patent for the bi-level technology in 1992. Both CPAP and BiPAP devices have been shown to be effective management tools for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute and chronic respiratory failure.
Throughout the years, Respironics has developed numerous medical devices that are considered to be technological firsts. In 2007, the company announced a merger with Royal Philips Electronics and is now known as Philips Respironics.
Born from founder Susan Gregg Koger's love of hunting for vintage fashion treasures at thrift stores, ModCloth launched in 2002 when Koger was a student at Carnegie Mellon University; she partnered with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Eric Koger. Unable to pass up stylish finds while thrifting, even if they weren’t her size, Gregg soon found her closet overflowing with clothes she couldn’t wear. Her boyfriend helped her create a website to sell her finds, and the rest is fashion history. Today, Susan serves as chief creative officer while Eric oversees the business as CEO.
In 2010, Inc. named ModCloth “America’s Fastest-Growing Retailer” and the “#2 Fastest-Growing Private Company in America.” That same year, ModCloth relocated its headquarters from the Strip District in Pittsburgh to San Francisco’s South of Market District, though its Pittsburgh division remains operational along with an office in Los Angeles. ModCloth now features more than 700 independent designers as well as a proprietary line of clothing and home décor.
4moms is a rapidly growing company that’s changing the way people think about baby equipment — strollers, bouncy seats and infant tubs — through advanced robotics. Celebrity moms such as Natalie Portman, Halle Barry and the Kardashians are clamoring for the space-age baby gear.
Friends Rob Daley (CEO) and Henry Thorne (CTO) founded 4moms in 2006. The company is named after the first focus group of mothers that provided valuable insight on the development of its earliest product, an infant tub that allows clean water to flow in while dirty water flows out.
Today, 4mom’s state-of-the-art infant rockers, playpens, temperature-monitoring baby baths and electric-power folding strollers sell in more than 40 countries online and in major retailers like Target, Babies “R” Us and Nordstrom. The company is currently headquartered in the Strip District, but it was recently reported that it's looking to relocate to downtown Pittsburgh.