Could Pittsburgh be the Next Silicon Valley for EEs?

January 23, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

In this article, we'll discuss Pittsburgh's silicon presence, university research, and cost of living to assess whether the Steel City could be the next hardware hub.

Following the bay area’s technology boom, we’ve now set our sights on identifying the next big nucleus of innovation. There’s been plenty of global chatter to date surrounding numerous cities. However, we’d like to showcase Pittsburgh—a longtime mecca of manufacturing. 


Google's Pittsburgh Hub

An employee at Google's Pittsburgh hub. Image used courtesy of Google

How do we assess the technological prowess of a region? We can draw a response from a number of factors. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Manufacturer presence
  • Nearby universities with electrical engineering programs
  • Cost of living

Although Pittsburgh has been discussed as a software hot spot in recent years, our analysis will take a special look at how electrical engineering is expanding in the area.


Manufacturer Presence

A number of component manufacturers in the semiconductor industry are springing up in Pittsburgh and the metropolitan area.

Companies like Spang & Co, Innovative Electronics Corporation, 5S Components, Composite Semiconductor Tech, and II-VI Inc. supply the parts for various systems in the following industries:

  • Aerospace and defense
  • Automotive
  • Communications
  • Consumer electronics
  • Life sciences
  • Materials processing


Innovative Electronics Corporation PCB assembly

Innovative Electronics Corporation offers PCB assembly, including quick-turn prototypes. Image used courtesy of Innovative Electronics Corporation

Tech giants like Google and Facebook also have footholds in the Steel City. Facebook’s own Reality Lab—focused on technology for AR glasses and VR headsets—is located in a Pittsburgh hub.

Facebook solicits new talent from "new graduates, post-doctoral and PhD researchers, and experienced professionals" in product design and electrical engineering. 

Pittsburgh was also in the running to host Amazon’s second headquarters—a testament's to the city's potential for hardware innovation.


Facebook Reality Labs

An employee tests new technology at Facebook Reality Labs. Image used courtesy of Facebook

The city also hosts a strong startup presence. One example comes from Argo AI, a company that has been developing self-driving technology since 2016.

Argo AI claims that one of their core game plans to develop such technology is to vet the "best in engineering," including EE minds driving the technology.

However, it seems that not all of these companies make it in such a competitive environment. A number of companies, including medical device manufacturer Blue Belt Technologies, depart the city or consolidate offices when they are acquired.

CBRE’s 2019 Scoring Tech Talent report also tells us that office vacancy rates have risen by 4.8% in the past five years. This may suggest that some companies, perhaps startups, are leaving or relocating outside of Pittsburgh’s city limits.


Nearby Colleges and Universities

Another consideration when assessing Pittsburgh's potential as a tech hub is nearby university influence.

Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Penn State University (which includes three satellite campuses in the Pittsburgh area) are all known for their reputable engineering and computer science programs. 

Many of the burgeoning young professionals coming out of these programs remain in Pennsylvania while maintaining research ties with their alma mater.

For instance, Argo AI (mentioned earlier) has partnered with Carnegie Mellon faculty in developing self-driving technology. Argo AI is also funding $15 million to build the Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research.


Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research

Over the next five years, Argo AI has pledged $15 to fund the Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research. Image used courtesy of Argo AI

Students and faculty from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering continually make research strides that may eventually affect working designers. Pitt researchers recently published a paper on using the existing signal-to-noise ratio margin as a "dedicated side channel for IoT devices."  

Penn State College of Engineering likewise prides themselves on research developments, including their most recent method to prevent light from reflecting back into optical devices.


Cost of Living

Pittsburgh certainly offers a number of vocational, educational, and research opportunities for the hardware engineer. But then there are the financial considerations when assessing an up-and-coming tech city. 

Even though the price of office rent in Pittsburgh has increased by 14% in five years, this rate pales in comparison to rates in New York, the Bay Area, Austin, and Seattle. It’s simply cheaper to launch a business in Pittsburgh. 

The CBRE Scoring Tech Talent Report also suggests that the cost of living in Pittsburgh is incredibly low compared to other major cities. The average cost of apartment rent in the city is $1,127. Rent in other big cities are astronomical by comparison:

  • New York—$4,120
  • Bay Area—$2,856
  • Los Angeles—$2,239
  • Boston—$2,164

Rent in most large cities undergo periodic price hikes—and job salaries that don't always rise in conjunction with these changes.

To illustrate how this rent-to-salary ratio affects those living in Pittsburgh, it may useful to take a look at the United States’ average cost of living index, which sits on average at 100. For points of comparison, San Francisco’s index is 163, Seattle sits at 137, and New York sits at 120.

By contrast, Pittsburgh’s cost of living index is 93.

It's possible that this reasonable cost of living might attract young EE professionals to the city. 


Forecasting the Future

Could Pittsburgh become the next Silicon Valley? It appears that other destinations like New York, Seattle, Austin, and even Vancouver are poised to carry that torch first. Pittsburgh’s location in the Rust Belt may also hinder its ability to attract investors or garner equal notoriety. 

However, Pittsburgh has unique advantages that other cities cannot claim. Affordability is exceptional, talent is readily available, and passion for new technology is zealous. The populace is relatively young and poised to branch into the engineering realm.

While the title of "Silicon Valley 2.0" might be a tad aspirational, it looks like Pittsburgh's progress in hardware engineering is promising.