Looking back on when Thrill Mill’s Thrival Innovation + Music Festival was first created, program director Kenny Chen marvels at how much the event has expanded.
“Each year has grown exponentially,” says Chen. “In comparison to this initial backyard barbecue concert we had back in 2013, the production we have this year is incomparable.”
Funded by a generous grant from UPMC Enterprises, the Innovation portion of this year’s festival runs from September 20-22 and will host keynotes and panels featuring over 70 speakers representing tech, medicine, politics and more. There will also be around 50 exhibitors from Pittsburgh companies, nonprofits and community organizations.
That includes an after-party featuring three world-renowned DJs, featuring Philadelphia’s own King Britt, Chicago house music legend Tommie Sunshine and Phil Hartnoll of the English EDM duo, Orbital. And there’s sure to be a thought-provoking conversation at New Hazlett Theater when African-American Washington Post reporter Eugene Robinson and Fox News correspondent Meghan McCain present their joint keynote.
For something a little wacky, there are performances by the Pittsburgh experimental theater group Squonk Opera. For something more cerebral, there’s a talk by forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu and author Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose book on Omalu’s discovery of a chronic brain disease in football players became the basis for the Will Smith film Concussion.
It will all take place on Pittsburgh’s North Side, with guests and companies presenting in tandem at the co-working space Alloy 26 and the developing conference center Nova Place (formerly Allegheny Center).
“In previous years—especially last year—we tried to hop around a lot,” says Chen, reflecting on how the 2015 festival went to 12 different sites from East Liberty to Allentown. “That was a logistical nightmare.”
He adds that the choice of setting puts everything within an easily-accessible, one-mile area. It also showcases the historic neighborhood and integrates it into the festival’s three main themes, which examine the past, present and future of Pittsburgh.
The theme for day one of the festival is Lost and Found, which, as Chen explains, is about finding new and exciting ways to utilize “assets and resources that already exist in our communities.”
The North Side exemplifies this, he says, offering the example of one of the festival’s venues, City of Asylum. The unused Masonic Hall-turned-writers’ community will host a Thrival after-party featuring a set by DJ Gianni Carter and live music by Chupacabra.
The following days’ themes, AuthentiCity and The Ripple Effect, look at the present struggle to retain Pittsburgh’s individual identity and its future as a major player in the tech and innovation world.
The themes explore who benefits from Pittsburgh’s transformation as the city struggles to make the emerging industry more inclusive. Thrival will confront the issue by presenting the Women in Bio P.O.W.E.R Summit, which showcases technological and scientific advances made by women for women.
“It’s looking at how [these advances are] used to fight and prevent sexual violence against women,” says Chen. “This is also paired with great ongoing narratives about the need and significance for more women in tech and throughout these industries.”
The panel Food City, USA will look at Pittsburgh’s newfound fame as a food destination and what that means for the city’s various communities.
“When we’ve got 35 new restaurants opening in a month, what does that mean for gentrifying neighborhoods and creating a sustainable food economy?” asks Chen. The panel features food writer and 412 Food Rescue co-founder Leah Lizarondo, Spoon chef Jamila Borges, and Jake Voelker of the award-winning Voodoo Brewery.
Chen explains that Thrill Mill wants to embody the idea of inclusion by making the festival experience available to as many people as possible. For example, a number of middle and high school students from around Pittsburgh will get to attend all four keynote talks for free.
The choice to reach out to city youth is especially relevant for featured keynote Ann Makosinski. The 18-year-old Canadian inventor won multiple awards for her Hollow Flashlight, which is powered by heat produced by the human hand. She also developed a mug that uses the excess heat from coffee to charge various devices via a USB connection.
The Thrill Mill Thrival Innovation Festival will take place from Tuesday, September 20 through Thursday, September 22. See a complete schedule and buy tickets on the Thrival website. All daytime activities are free and open to the public, although registration is required. The exhibit floor is open to everyone.
Watch a preview video about the festival below: