In Pittsburgh, a real-time 3-D modeling startup and the sewer authority have something in common

From a bridge and tree inventory to building renovations, the city is using its latest startup cohort to ride the coattails of a growing tech economy.

Pittsburgh’s startup incubator, now in its second year, is showing that city government has a direct role to play in stimulating the local tech economy.

The second cohort for the city’s startup incubator — called PGH Lab — began testing technology in June with the goal of gaining experience in real-world scenarios, while granting city agencies access to some of the newest technologies available. Pilot projects are planned for launch at the end of August with a demo day to showcase the work this cohort’s five member companies have developed so far. With the inclusion of more city departments and a larger cohort this year, the City of Pittsburgh is placing bets on a startup industry that continues to grow and topple traditional business practices.

“Before PGH Lab, there wasn’t a [framework for government to connect directly to] startups in Pittsburgh,” Annia Aleman, a civic innovation specialist with the city’s Department of Innovation & Performance, told StateScoop. “Cities need that platform where they can test. It’s a win-win situation where they can test new technologies and our staff can see what kind of solutions are out there for us that we might be able to use later on in the future.”

Among the companies now sharing their technology with the city is a company that uses scanners to create 3-D models of the environment in real time, providing an outlet for the company to grow while exposing the startup to new opportunities.


New partners this year include the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, the Housing Authority, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. More internal assistance allowed the city to boost the cohort size to five startups this year, up from three last year, Aleman said.

This year’s startups include:

  • CleanRobotics, maker of AI-powered and self-sorting trash and recycling bins
  • Cognowear, maker of embedded women’s clothing
  • Flywheel, a design company that helps teams collaborate
  • Mellonhead Labs, maker of a water quality sensors for home use
  • Kaarta, a real-time 3-D modeling company

So far, Aleman said the program has been a clear success in joining the city with the startup community, but proving the long-term impact of the program will take time.

“We’re still learning as we go,” she said.


Kevin Dowling, CEO of Kaarta, a real-time 3-D modeling company that was founded in 2015, told StateScoop that while his business is growing fast — they shipped their first products last year and now house 12 full-time employees — getting real-world experience through PGH Lab has been helpful.

The city is benefitting from exposure to the technology, too. Some of Dowling’s customers access the technology via the cloud, while some embed the software in their robotics. And some, like the City of Pittsburgh, are using hand-held devices to generate 3-D models of buildings and spaces quickly and with “little to no post-processing,” he said.

Common applications for real-time modeling include any discipline that requires validation against plans and blueprints or monitoring of a structure or object’s integrity — fields like aeronautics, robotics, engineering, architecture, construction, or asset management can all use real-time 3-D modeling.

“In many cities, they’re renovating or rehabbing existing buildings, rather than just building from scratch,” Dowling said. “So very often they need to start with a site survey and we can provide complete 3-D models as quickly as you can walk through that facility.”

Kaarta’s technology is also being used to help the city manage its bridges and trees, two assets it has a lot of. The Pittsburgh area has more than 1,100 bridges, and about 30 percent of them are “structurally deficient” according to a 2011 study from Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Transportation for America.


The technology is also being used to help the city conduct a “tree census,” Dowling said, as roughly 40 percent of the city is covered by tree canopy.

The city even found an unexpected use for the scanners after a recent fire uncovered huge steam boilers buried under the street, Dowling said.

“People didn’t know they still existed there and they’re historical artifacts, but they’re not worth anything, and they want to safely dispose of them or completely bury them,” he said. “And we went in and scanned those in a matter of minutes and now have a complete model. They can now observe it and make a plan because they have those scans.”

Minor edits to this story were made on July 28, 2017 for clarity.

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