Ascender incubator 2021-2022 cohort headshots.

Pittsburgh’s startup scene is swiftly reviving after the pandemic, if startup incubator Ascender’s new class is any indication. And it’s not just the tech scene that is growing, either.

While Curieye, for example, makes museums and businesses more accessible by using a “telepresence robot,” Mamalux is a postpartum nightgown designed for nursing women to sleep in comfort.

“The idea of a startup is usually that it’s a tech startup,” says Ascender’s Executive Director Nadyli Nunez. “For us, it can be an entrepreneur who is building a plus-size clothing brand for women. For her, success is different than Kloopify, who is in the manufacturing world, making it easier to comply with ecolabels.”

This is Ascender’s most diverse lineup to date, with 82% of companies founded by women, and 64% of founders who identify as BIPOC.

Out of 60 new companies that applied for this year’s cohort, 11 were selected to participate. Submissions came from as far away as Europe and Africa, but all of the companies chosen are Pittsburgh-based.

Most will receive space at Ascender’s coworking site in East Liberty if they want it. In the past, the community of startups created by Ascender benefited from proximity and serendipity. That had to change somewhat because of the pandemic.

“How do you curate meaningful relationships where so much of the meaningful and deep connections come from two people — one microwaving their lunch while the other was getting more coffee, and they share something or learned something from each other?” asks Nunez.

Ascender in East Liberty.

Each new company receives $12,000 in business assistance. For the next 12 months, each company will work with a coach from Ascender’s network of experts (and more than 60 alumni) to launch, build and grow their businesses. Once they reach the milestones set for them, the companies can receive up to $5,000 in direct funding.

“They have to put in the work,” says Nunez. “We don’t handhold. They have to learn how to do things for themselves. Anyone who tells you exactly what you have to do — you probably shouldn’t listen to them. Instead, it’s ‘Here’s something you should do — what we recommend.’”

Past graduates from Ascender’s incubator range from Nisha Blackwell’s Knotzland Bowtie Co., to Forest Devices, which developed a portable electronic device to help EMS first responders identify a stroke.

Nisha Blackwell, founder of Knotzland, with custom bow ties she made for Inclusive Innovation Week. Photo courtesy of Pulsus Digital.

All the startups this year are for-profit companies or social enterprises, with one nonprofit exception, re:Bloom. “They help small businesses and entrepreneurs get their websites cleaned up and attractive so people can buy their things or visit their store,” says Nunez. “And teach them how to manage it on their own.”

“Working together will open an endless amount of opportunities and enable Kloopify to continue its growth journey,” says Daniela Osio, co-founder of Kloopify.

“We are eager to learn, grow and give back to Pittsburgh’s community for entrepreneurs, adds Osio.

Here are the 11 startups selected for Ascender’s new cohort:

Conscious Unbias: A crowdsourcing tool that provides a safe space for underrepresented and marginalized employees to share their workplace experiences.

▪ Curieye: Making museums and businesses more accessible by leveraging robot technology to create live, curated and virtual experiences.

▪ Hardly: Technology that helps people take control of alerts across all apps.

▪ IMIHI Designs: Creates fashionable, custom formal pieces and ready-to-wear garments for women of all shapes and sizes.

▪ Kloopify: A platform for the electronics industry that makes compliance with ecolabels digitized, automated and navigable.

▪ Mamalux: A postpartum nightgown for nursing women that features built-in (yet removable and washable) contoured pads to keep leaking in check.

▪ re:Bloom: A platform that connects volunteers with small businesses and nonprofits to help them enhance their overall technical infrastructure.

▪ Selling Later: Connects future home sellers and buyers up to a year before a house hits the market.

▪ Sustainible: A data-driven venture feasibility engine that helps determine the likelihood of business success and provides evaluations and refinement strategies.

▪ The Tea: An app that engages college students through virtual games, events and campus resources by providing customizable and interactive solutions for residence life staff.

▪ The Woven Kente: Supports vendors and artisans that have strong ethical, social and environmental values by curating a collection of small-batch and hand-crafted products.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.