Photo courtesy of Argo AI.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This is one of the many companies that have pivoted to address the central crisis of our time, the Covid pandemic. Pre-pandemic, 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.
Nanowave Air in a doctor’s office. Image courtesy of Dynamics Inc.

Dynamics Inc.
From their factory in Cheswick, Dynamics Inc. mainly produces flexible electronics for smart cards and mobile phones. When the Covid crisis hit, they saw something else they could do. So they built Nanowave Air, a portable, conical pod-shaped device has four motors that pull in air. Using ultraviolet light, the device can inactivate up to 99% of the Covid virus, in less than two-thousandths of a second.

The device is already being used in homes of Covid-positive people, and has potential applications for everything from hospitals to bathrooms to cubicles. Dynamics has raised more than $110 million since its formation, employs more than 50 people and is hiring. They recently signed a deal with Concordance Healthcare Solutions LLC, one of the largest independent, healthcare distributors in the U.S., to sell Nanowave Air nationally.

K-MAX helicopter. Photo courtesy of Near Earth Autonomy.

Near Earth Autonomy
You’ve already heard that Pittsburgh has an edge in the race for a self-driving car. Self-driving aircraft is next. Point Breeze-based Near Earth Autonomy has partnered with the Kaman Corporation and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) to develop a fully-autonomous K-MAX helicopter, which can lift up to 6,000 pounds. It’s got the potential for everything from resupply missions to medical evacuations while reducing the risks to a human pilot. Near Earth employs 80 and is hiring engineers.

IAM Robotics’ Swift robot. Photo courtesy of IAM Robotics.
IAM Robotics’ Swift robot. Photo courtesy of IAM Robotics.

IAM Robotics
Pittsburgh’s booming Robotics Row in the Strip and Lawrenceville has a couple of new residents, Swift and Bolt. These two robots move about the warehouse floor completely on their own, using computer vision to identify items and grab them from the shelves. IAM Robotics moved this year from Sewickley to a new 30,000 square foot headquarters in the Strip, and expects to grow. With the explosion of e-commerce, the company sees incredible opportunities ahead for Swift and Bolt.

Are you sensing a pattern here—? Pittsburgh’s strengths in autonomous vehicles extend to trucking, too. Locomation’s Autonomous Relay Convoying technology allows a driver in the lead truck to have a truck following along autonomously. In effect, one driver manages two trucks, while the second driver in the following truck rests. In October, Locomation announced that they will install their technology in at least 1,120 trucks operated by Wilson Logistics — and the pilot program, a route between Idaho and Oregon, was successful.

Safe Space Technologies’ Mobile Disinfection Robot.
Safe Space Technologies’ Mobile Disinfection Robot.

Safe Space Technologies
Covid has a new opponent in Pittsburgh — robots. Safe Space Technologies makes robots that disinfect entire rooms using UVC light, which kills viruses. The tall, thin ‘bots are basically a UVC light on wheels, with a sophisticated camera system on top. It roves the room like a Roomba and can be used for classrooms, offices, factories, gyms, cafeterias — really, rooms of just about any space. The company also makes a disinfection cabinet for laptops, also using UV light, that can disinfect 45 laptops or tablets in three minutes.

Vector, the robot, courtesy of Digital Dream Labs

Digital Dream Labs
Vector and Cozmo, robotic toys originally developed by the Silicon Valley robotics company Anki, put an incredible amount of artificial intelligence into a very tiny package. Anki had $100 million in revenue in 2018, then unexpectedly went out of business. A maker of educational video games (teaching coding, math, art, and chemistry) based in Pittsburgh, Digital Dream Labs, scooped up Anki’s assets. Cozmo, which has sold more than a million and a half units, is an autonomous instructional toy that teaches the basics of robotics, plays games and performs tricks.

The more advanced Vector is also marketed towards adults and has become a beloved companion for many. It’s also an open-source robot — meaning there are 200,000+ users who can program it to do whatever they want. Digital Dream Labs has also developed the robotic race car system Infinidrive, an update on Anki’s Overdrive (which has already sold several million sets), that uses wireless technologies to keep its cars racing around the track continuously. The little robots with expressive eyes are starring in a new cartoon series called “Cozmo & Friends,” from UK children’s television company Sutikki (“Moon and Me”). Another recent project is the Butter Robot from the cartoon “Rick & Morty,” a fan-favorite character who questions the reason for his own existence — which is, sadly, merely to pass the butter at dinner.

Josh Fabian of Metafy and his sons.

A high school dropout whose dreams of becoming a professional gamer flamed out, Josh Fabian noticed something interesting. When his sons began to play Pokemon competitively, he found he could hire one of the best players in the world to coach them for $20 an hour. That’s where the idea for Metafy was born. Competitive video gaming is worth billions worldwide — and to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Pittsburgh-based Metafy gets you one-on-one coaching from champion-level gamers, at rates starting at $15 an hour, on games games like Fortnite, League of Legends, Smash Ultimate and more than 40 others. There are also 150+ world-class coaches to choose from — and Metafy enables those gamers to make a living doing what they love, playing video games. Metafy recently raised $3 million in seed funding for their platform.

Photo courtesy of RE2 Robotics.

RE2 Robotics
RE2 Robotics specializes in arms — robotic arms that can do everything humans can do, and many they can’t (safely). They’ve been used by bomb squads, underwater Navy explosive disposal work, and nuclear disaster cleanup in Fukushima, Japan. They’ve received more than $1 million from the Army to develop a mobile robotic system to allow medics to extract wounded soldiers from the battlefield. They’ve also developed a robotic kit that you can fasten into the seatbelt in the cab of a construction vehicle that grabs the steering wheel, joysticks, pedals and switches and operates it like a human. This company began as a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon in 2001, but this has been a big year for growth. The company grew their employees by 50% this year, despite the pandemic.

Peptilogics is a clinical-stage biotech firm that designs and develops novel peptide therapeutics. They combine drug development expertise with artificial intelligence and machine learning, to address drug-resistant bacterial infections. They were spun out of the University of Pittsburgh in 2013, and just closed $35.4 million in Series B financing, led by Presight Capital and existing investor Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

Ten more Pittsburgh tech companies to watch in 2021:

NOVID: the only contract-tracing app to use both Bluetooth and ultrasound frequencies on your phone, to determine your potential exposure to Covid-19
Othot: a startup aimed at colleges and universities, helping them understand which students will succeed or struggle academically
Idelic: a startup that uses AI to predict truck driving accidents, violations and risks, and increase safety for everyone on the road
Civic Science: gathers consumer insights from online polling
Maven Machines: develops hardware and software for trucking fleets
JazzHR: an applicant tracking system to help businesses recruit the best talent
Adrich: manufactures smart product labels that track real-time usage
Jetpack Workflow: software to manage accounting firms and bookkeeping

Smart Futures: PA is the first state to require all students to graduate with a personalized career plan and portfolio. This nonprofit provides educators with a K-12 career planning and portfolio platform.

LegalSifter: incorporates artificial intelligence into legal services, helping law firms negotiate and organize contracts

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.