If one company has done more to make business possible during this pandemic, it’s Zoom. And when Zoom was looking to build a new tech hub this year, they chose  Pittsburgh.

That’s no accident. Pittsburgh’s strengths across many high-tech sectors — computing, robotics, medicine — are no longer a secret.

Even in a horrible year like this, with mass layoffs virtually everywhere, Pittsburgh tech companies continued to make moves, make deals, and make new products — and the world is buying.

We checked in with experts in the tech sector and, based on our own knowledge, came up with our picks for the top tech companies to watch in 2021. Of course, there are many more, but you can expect big things from this group. They range from billion-dollar behemoths to hungry young startups with a few employees and an idea.

We tried to feature different companies than last year, but a few standouts had to be showcased a second (or more) time.

Self-driving truck, photo courtesy of Aurora.

Aurora

There was no bigger tech story in 2020 than Pittsburgh self-driving car startup Aurora acquiring ride-hailing behemoth Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG). Like a minnow swallowing a whale, Aurora gobbled up the ride-hailing giant and household name Uber’s entire self-driving car operation.

This will push Aurora (which employs 600 at the moment and is co-headquartered in Silicon Valley) into a $10 billion valuation. Uber ATG employs 1200, mostly in the Strip District, and they are expected to come aboard at Aurora. The new self-driving behemoth is working first on self-driving trucks, with plans for lighter vehicles to follow. Uber is staying involved, however, investing $400 million in Aurora, and CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is joining Aurora’s board.

Photo courtesy of Duolingo.

Duolingo

Okay, so we’re like a broken record touting Duolingo, but the fun, game-like language-learning app is a true Pittsburgh success story that is close to being a household name worldwide. It offers 82 languages —including difficult ones like Gaelic and Arabic — to more than 300 million users. They’re valued at $2.4 billion — a unicorn in Silicon Valley parlance. They’ve even been spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.”

Co-founder Luis von Ahn was just named as a Fellow of the prestigious National Academy of Inventors. Duolingo was added to a list of “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company. They’ve also committed to $150,000 to creating public artwork in Pittsburgh, their hometown, coinciding with a new mural on their East Liberty headquarters.

Peregrine lander. Courtesy of Astrobotic.

Astrobotic

While most of us isolated at home, Astrobotic had a year in 2020 that was literally out of this world. The space robotics company was awarded nearly $200 million for its Griffin lander to deliver NASA’s rover to the Moon. Directed by Mission Control on the North Side, the mission is to find water on the moon, which can be turned into rocket fuel for further exploration.

In 2023, that will actually be their third trip to the Moon. Their Peregrine lander received a $79.5 million NASA contract last year. Astrobotic is currently working on the CubeRover, planned as the smallest rover ever to traverse the Moon’s surface, currently undergoing testing at NASA Kennedy Space Center. They also have a program called DHL Moonbox, in which people can send anything to the moon for a few hundred dollars — so far, they’ve included everything from family photos to hair from a deceased pet. The company is expected to exceed 100 employees this year.

Image courtesy of CleanRobotics.

CleanRobotics

We’re kind of in love with TrashBot, an idea whose time has clearly come. It’s a trash can that automatically sorts out recyclables so you don’t even have to try to figure out what’s recyclable and what isn’t. Using robotic sensors, computer vision and AI, TrashBot sorts out several streams of waste — recyclable, compostable, landfill. TrashBot lets staff know when it’s getting full, and its connection to the cloud allows it to “learn” from other TrashBots, so it becomes more intelligent and effective over time. They’re one of the 10 semifinalists for the world’s most prestigious prize for artificial intelligence, the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.

Image courtesy of CytoAgents.

CytoAgents

This is one of the many companies that have pivoted to address the central crisis of our time, the Covid pandemic. Pre-pandy, the North Side-based biotech firm was working on a drug, GP1681, to treat the cytokine storm, when the immune system response goes haywire in response to severe influenza. This immune system overreaction also happens to kill a lot of Covid patients, so it’s especially relevant now. They’ve received funding of $1.6 million from the National Institutes of Health, and Phase 1 trials are beginning in Australia.

Argo AI

The future is being driven by Pittsburgh. Literally. The city has emerged as one of the world’s few hubs of self-driving vehicle technology, and Argo AI became by some measures Pittsburgh’s first “unicorn” (worth $1 billion), with an investment by Ford in 2017. The company builds the hardware and software computer platforms, sensors, cameras radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging radar) needed to make self-driving vehicles function. They also secured a $2.6 billion deal with Volkswagen last year. According to TechCrunch, Argo is now worth $7.5 billion, and employs more than 1,000 people.

Nanowave Air in a doctor’s office. Image courtesy of Dynamics Inc.