It's hard to miss investment in Pennsylvania when it takes the form of a downtown high rise or new sports complex, but if you're not in the business community, you may not be aware of the robust — less visible — investments that propel the state's economy.
In Pittsburgh in the first nine months of 2014, the $250 million in venture capital dollars flowing to growing technology companies outstripped the annual totals for each of the past five years, according to state-funded business accelerator Innovation Works.
“The growth of technology startups isn't something the public can easily see,” wrote Innovation Works spokeswoman Terri Glueck in an email, “and yet if $250 million was going toward a new building, a new store or something like that, people would know growth was happening.”
Pittsburgh is home to a burgeoning tech scene spawned by first class universities, numerous grass roots organizations and influential start-up accelerators including AlphaLab, AlphaLab Gear and others. Recently, entrepreneurs have been moving back to Pittsburgh because, in addition to those supportive accelerators and all that well-educated talent, the city now has a growing pool of eager investors.
This month Riverfront Ventures, a new Pittsburgh-based fund launched by Innovation Works, announced it will invest $24 million in local early stage companies.
“We are going to invest in a broad range of technology sectors including information technology, life sciences, medical devices, robotics, advanced technology and other industries,” says fund managing director and Innovation Works Chief Investment Officer Gary Glausser.
Riverfront Ventures is funded in part by Innovation Works with backing from the McCune Foundation. Other investors include the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the City of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Pittsburgh, The Pittsburgh Foundation, several family offices and individual investors.
The fund has already made investments in six compelling startups.
The Resumator provides a popular recruiting platform to small and mid-sized businesses hoping to find and hire great talent.
NoWait helps casual restaurants manage customer waiting time, seating and other customer service functions. The NoWait app enables diners to put their names on the wait list in advance.
Wombat Security Technologies provides software-based cyber security training software to eliminate phishing in corporate settings.
In the healthcare domain, Riverfront Ventures has invested in ALung Technologies, inventors of a blood filtration device that can eliminate a patient's need for breathing machines.
Complexa, meanwhile, is working on a drug for acute and chronic kidney disease.
Lastly, the fund has invested in RE2 Inc., a company that developed a high-functioning robotic arm, used in Afghanistan and Iraq to analyze roadside bombs. RE2 is now moving into agriculture, hoping to employ their robot on tasks such as picking grapes.
Investments made in these companies total $6.2 million, and more money will be invested in other businesses in the future.
“We are going to invest in another 12 to 14 more companies over the next several years,” says Glausser. “Our average investment will be about one million dollars.”
In addition to supporting the local economy, the idea behind the fund was to use knowledge gained through Innovation Works' access to early stage companies (through its seed fund investment program) to make follow-on investments in later financing rounds. Innovation Works' seed fund has a portfolio of over 170 active companies and Riverfront Ventures will be able to help continue the companies’ growth by participating in follow-on investment along-side venture capital firms.
In the future, as Riverfront Ventures exits portfolio companies, Innovation Works will reinvest the proceeds in more startups. The Riverfront fund allows Innovation Works to remain connected to its seed fund portfolio companies as they continue to grow.
In a news release Joe Ferrara, president and CEO of Wombat Security, described the impact the fund has had on his company.
“Riverfront's backing helped us complete our recent series B investment round which is allowing us to expand our team, increase our market reach and achieve other growth milestones,” he said.
“The $24 million that Riverfront Ventures will invest into the region's growing technology companies is the same as steel girders going up for a new building,” insists Glueck. “It's the support system these emerging companies need to grow on and it attracts other venture capital to the region to help companies here hire more people, sell into new markets, launch new products and more. So, that's why Riverfront is an important addition to the region’s technology landscape.”
ELIZABETH DALEY is a New York City native and freelance writer who relocated to Pittsburgh in search of a better life. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters and numerous San Francisco Bay Area publications. She is the innovation editor of Pop City. Follow her on twitter @fakepretty.