PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Pittsburgh has given the world the Ferris wheel, the Big Mac and pull-tabs on cans. No one knows what the next local product to take the world by storm will be. But here’s an idea where it might come from — an old bowling alley in East Liberty.
Today, that old building is the home of AlphaLab Gear – a “start-up accelerator” that invests in fledgling inventors and innovators and helps develop their product ideas into viable companies.
In one corner of AlphaLab Gear’s expansive workspace you’ll find a team manipulating computer programs and scale models, conjuring a whole new way of building houses. In another section, a team has come up with a way to re-do home and office heating and cooling, to maximize efficiency and comfort. Still another group tinker with the wearable device they invented to improve worker safety.
Key to the mission here is providing each team with hands-on mentors — legal experts, design experts, manufacturing experts, marketing and sales experts.
AlphaLab Gear takes about eight aspiring startups at a time under its wing, invites them to set up shop in its workspace for several months, and nurtures them with resources to help them advance from concept to market.
Mike Neilson, of Kennedy, is a recent AlphaLab Gear “graduate” whose product was inspired by a daily peeve. Upon entering his home and flipping a wall switch, he could only turn on the one lamp plugged into its one paired outlet. Neilson dreamed of more. He dreamed of flipping one wall switch and having lamps plugged into a whole bunch of outlets come on. He pondered his options.
Extension cords? Too unsightly.
Opening up walls for re-wiring? Too costly.
Using an app-based “smart home” system? Too complicated.
Neilson figured Amazon must sell some simple device that wirelessly links your wall switches and outlets – however you might want them linked.
“Someone must have made this,” he thought. “There’s a lot of people out there, someone had this problem, someone fixed it.”
Nope. So Neilson went to work, tinkering. He got accepted into AlphaLab Gear – and is now ready to begin marketing his baby, called Switcheroo. It promises to easily change which outlets in your house are controlled by your existing switches.
“It’s still crazy to me to see a physical product in my hand and know that this was just an idea at one point,” says Neilson.
Back at AlphaLab Gear, Daniel Mosse and his colleagues are working on a concept born of another problem that no one else had solved.
“I would get home with my daughter from high school and at 3:30 we’re downstairs. And two bedrooms upstairs are being heated,” says Mosse. “And then when we go upstairs at 11 o’clock to go to sleep, the downstairs is being heated. That drove me nuts.”
The solution? Hibersense – a system of small wall sensors that “learn” household or office patterns, detect when humans are actually in rooms and adjust airflow accordingly.
Right next door, Brian Gaudio and Hallie Dumont are working on Module – a system of building homes – kinda like Lego.
“Your initial house, that might be your first Lego piece,” says Gaudio.
And when you need a bedroom later for your baby – or a home office – or another bedroom for your next baby, “each of those are Lego blocks that basically connect in with our patent-pending technology and expand your house,” says Gaudio.
Like Switcheroo’s Mike Neilson, these products’ creators say AlphaLab Gear’s expertise and support are helping pave their way to market.
AlphaLab gear is part of the larger organization, Innovation Works, which takes ownership of a percentage of each company in return for a financial investment, in addition to all of its resources and services. It says more than 90 percent of its companies go on to attract further investment.
Ilana Diamond, AlphaLab Gear’s managing director, gives much of the credit to the volunteer mentors, and to a certain spirit they embody.
“They come, they roll up their sleeves and they sit with these folks and really help them,” Diamond says. “Pittsburgh is amazing in that regard.”