Arriving at Pittsburgh in the summer of 2008 as a freshman 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 in this city. What started as a senior honors thesis exploring how big data and machine learning could help identify victims of human 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 Marinus Analytics in 2014.
Just this June, Marinus Analytics beat out 800 global competitors while taking third place in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE Competition, securing $500,000 in funding to further our efforts to help victims.
We couldn’t have done this anywhere else—Pittsburgh is a major player when it comes to global AI progress. But why?
Consider my perspective. Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary nature—which empowered a lowly humanities student to pitch an off-the-wall social-impact research project to a professor in robotics—was critical to getting the idea off the ground.
Pittsburgh exudes 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 it was a crucial lifeline we needed to get over some financial humps and maintain our momentum.
Pittsburgh is extremely friendly to the risks endemic to entrepreneurship. Serial Pittsburgh entrepreneur Mark Heckmann, CEO of the Crooked Company, said, “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.”
For me, the importance of that Pittsburgh culture became clear over the years. At the beginning of our company, I lived in the Bay Area of California. I spent enough time at the coffee shop in the nearby Twitter building to hear 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. 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.
What I participated in during my time in Pittsburgh and as a founder of Marinus was the true Pittsburgh spirit: the grit needed to get things done, and actually doing something meaningful before ever bragging about it.
We say 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.
Emily Kennedy is co-founder of Marinus Analytics