One of the world’s most impactful AI startups – Marinus Analytics – was founded in Pittsburgh
Arriving to Pittsburgh in the lush, green summer of 2008 as a freshman humanities major at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I never would have imagined that I would one day found a company that would represent the United States in a global AI competition.
But as I quickly learned, whether you study tech at CMU or not, the influence of tech seems to seep into every part of life quite easily. What started as a senior honors thesis exploring how big data and machine learning could help identify victims of sex trafficking on the Internet became an official research project at the Auton Lab in the CMU Robotics Institute, which became a full-fledged company when we spun out of CMU into our company, Marinus Analytics, in 2014, and then a globally-competitive pitch representing the United States in a global AI competition. Just this June, Marinus Analytics beat out 800 global competitors, taking home third place in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE Competition, securing $500,000 in funding to help victims. It’s clear that Pittsburgh is a major player when it comes to global AI progress.
So why this journey for me and why Pittsburgh? As I already mentioned, my journey started at CMU. Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary nature—that empowered a lowly humanities student to pitch an off-the-wall social impact research project to a professor in robotics—was game-changing to getting the idea off the ground and building traction. I can say with 100% certainty, that without Dr. Artur Dubrawski giving me a chance to explore a crazy idea, none of this would have happened.
When Dr. Dubrawski and I joined our third cofounder (and Marinus Analytics CEO) Cara Jones to officially launch the company in 2014, funding became an important piece of the puzzle. We took advantage of advisory resources through CMU’s Project Olympus—extremely crucial when you don’t have money to pay a lawyer for legal advice, or get guidance from an accountant on structuring your company finances from the ground up.
We enrolled in Idea Foundry’s social impact accelerator, which funded us with some initial seed money, supported us to grow our internal processes as a social enterprise venture, and continues to advise us to this day. Idea Foundry’s ability to fund us and help us find new non-traditional sources of funding was key to our success as a social impact enterprise, a space where it can be very difficult to find funding when your market is not big enough to attract venture capitalists.
Although we are not in the hardware space, I’ve had friends find success with Pittsburgh resources in that space as well. Courtney Williamson, CEO and founder of Abililife, engineers products that improve the quality of life of Parkinson’s disease patients. She says, “Participating in AlphaLab Gear’s accelerator program gave AbiliLife the tools to go from concept to prototype in a cohort environment, which helped my team learn and grow faster than if we had attempted to build our medical device alone. The mentorship and seed funding were both crucial to AbiliLife’s early successes.”
Pittsburgh also seems to have greater social good consciousness than other cities. In 2015 as a young company, we participated in the BNY Mellon UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge, a pitch competition for startups solving some of the biggest problems in the community. We secured $150,000 in investment and $50,000 in grant funding, which may not seem like a lot, but for us at the time it was a crucial lifeline we needed to get over some financial humps and maintain our momentum. For a city with a history of so much financial success—see Andrew Carnegie and others—there was a rich history of foundational philanthropy, from The Pittsburgh Foundation to the Hillman and Heinz families, that spilled over into companies like BNY Mellon, who funded the UpPrize competition as a part of their own company’s focus on social finance.
Pittsburgh’s history has also fostered a culture of informed innovation. Kenny Chen, AI Ambassador and cofounder of both PART and PGH.AI shares, “One of the things I appreciate most about Pittsburgh’s innovation culture is how people from across sectors, industries, and backgrounds have come together to help shape the future without losing sight of present realities or forgetting lessons from the past.” He points to the importance of longevity in innovation, “It’s encouraging to see the Pittsburgh community’s commitment to supporting world-class innovation that’s also inclusive, ethical, and sustainable.”
Pittsburgh is also extremely friendly to the risks endemic to entrepreneurship. Serial Pittsburgh entrepreneur Mark Heckmann, CEO of the Crooked Company, shares, “People take for granted that Pittsburgh is among the most fail-friendly cities you can find…an entrepreneur can launch a new business and fail spectacularly without jeopardizing their ability to own a home, start a family and rebound professionally.” He acknowledges the extra burden that financial stress inevitably places on business owners: “It’s hard to take risks when failure creates an existential crisis. Pittsburgh is where risk and reward are perfectly calibrated for the innovative spirit.”
For me, the importance of the Pittsburgh culture became extremely clear over the years. At the beginning of our company, I lived in California—the Bay Area specifically. I spent enough time at the coffee shop in the Twitter building to hear random patrons pitching “the next Uber” or “the next Twitter” to each other, dreaming of what could be and peacocking about all the success they might have. But I also spent enough time there to know that the Bay Area / Silicon Valley bravado was not for us. We wanted to make real, lasting change that would impact the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities, and that meant not just talking about doing something, but actually doing something.
What I observed and participated in during my time in Pittsburgh and as a founder of Marinus was the true Pittsburgh spirit: the grit needed to get shit done, and actually doing something meaningful before ever bragging about it.
We said this often at our company: let’s do something big, make a real impact, and then we can figure out how to talk about it later. Pittsburgh was the perfect place for our company to realize this vision of impacting the world for the better.
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