Showcasing a piece of hometown entrepreneurship to the nation’s leaders, two Pittsburgh-based companies participated in yesterday’s first-ever White House Demo Day.

Along with 30 other start-up founders from across the country, Astrobotic Technology and Duolingo shared their messages with President Obama, Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship and other leaders in business, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

The purpose of the day was to stress the importance of providing entrepreneurs from all walks of life the necessary opportunities to turn their ideas into vital products and services.

“I wanted to do something that would bring access to education to everybody,” Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn told the President in his presentation that was streamed live. In front of a computer screen displaying his free foreign language app, the Carnegie Mellon University professor explained that he developed it three years ago to help those who could not afford to learn the necessary skills for career advancement.

With its friendly, game-like interface the app is completely science-based, company spokesperson Gina Gotthilf explained to President Obama. One study by the State University of New York showed that 34 hours with Duolingo is equivalent to a full university semester of language instruction, she said.

Today it’s the most popular way to learn a foreign language in the world and was selected in 2013 by Apple as the iPhone App of the Year.

“There are in fact more people learning a language from Duolingo in the United States than in the U.S. public school system,” Ahn said in his presentation.

Impressed, the President noted he would be interested in having the app – just as soon as he was able to have his own smart phone, that is.

With a model of their lunar lander, three Google Lunar XPRIZE milestone medals and a device that will ensure a safe and soft moon landing in their exhibit, Astrobotic Technology CEO John Thornton explained to administration officials the importance of building a lunar delivery service and what it means for jobs, education and inspiring children. Thornton was featured in the NEXTpittsburgh September 2014 event, What’s Next for Tech.

“From an entrepreneurship standpoint, we’re creating a brand new industry – lunar delivery,” Jackie Erickson, spokesperson for Astrobotic, said in an earlier interview.

Last month the company reached another milestone in its quest for the moon when it gained NASA approval of their simulation of the trajectory from the launch vehicle to moon landing. Partnering with CMU, the company is pursuing the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

“We’re going to be making a number of announcements very soon on other entities that want to part of our mission,” said Erickson.

Later President Obama referred to the group of entrepreneurs as a “driving force” in 21st century economy.

“Startups (and) young firms account for almost 40 percent of new hires and we fought back from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes,” he said. “Those firms have helped our private sector create more than 12.8 million jobs over the last 64 straight months which is the longest streak of private sector job growth on record.”

Honored to be invited to the event, Erickson said, “We’ll be over the moon and back for this one.”

Laurie Bailey

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.