View from Ascender's Penn Avenue location. Image courtesy of Ascender.

Bobby Zappala knew there was something off about Thrill Mill, the nonprofit startup incubator he co-founded in 2013.

“Part of it was this gut feeling I had that it was being misinterpreted in some ways,” says Zappala. “The other part was that I would sit down and talk to people, and at the end of the conversation they’d say, ‘This isn’t what I thought was going on.’”

He realized that people pegged the organization as a tech startup accelerator, when in reality they were trying to reach an audience beyond hardware and software companies.

As a result, the incubator formerly known as Thrill Mill became Ascender, a major move ushering in a new name, a new space and, more importantly, a new business model.

With assistance from a Hillman Foundation Opportunity Fund grant, Zappala and his team joined forces with the East Liberty coworking space, The Beauty Shoppe, to redefine themselves as a multipurpose incubator that benefits all businesses and self-starters. To fully realize the transition, the organization is moving to an 11,000-square-foot space on Penn Avenue, which Zappala says is twice as large as their current Broad Street location.

Outside of new Ascender space. Image courtesy of Ascender.
Outside the new Ascender space. Image courtesy of Ascender.

Described as a “curated workspace,” Ascender will serve as a place where universities, funders, service providers and corporations work alongside the entrepreneurs who need their support. It will also provide startup resources, access to coworking space, and mentorship, as well as programming such as a monthly business-focused series open to Ascender members and the public.

“What we’re trying to put forward is an environment where everybody who wants to try to build something feels like this is a place where they can go, regardless of what that thing is,” says Zappala.

He and his team will relocate to the Penn Avenue space next week. They plan on accepting their first cycle of applications for new entrepreneurs and startups in late December.

Ascender will begin auspiciously by hosting two representatives from IBM Watson AI XPRIZE, a four-year global competition challenging teams to demonstrate how humans can collaborate with powerful artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to tackle the world’s greatest issues.

“They’re interested in Pittsburgh as a marketplace that could produce some interesting ideas and applications around that challenge,” says Zappala.

Teams chosen for the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE will compete for $5 million in prize money.

From November 15-18, the XPRIZE representatives will meet with Pittsburgh area companies and institutions during a series of meetings, including a keynote event at UPMC Enterprises featuring some of the area’s top experts in AI and machine learning. They will also take part in a small gathering at Ascender’s headquarters on November 16.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.