“How do we make Pittsburgh a smarter city?” Dr. Susan Catalano repeats what she’s been asked. “That’s a good question.”

Let’s begin with the premise that we’re pretty darn smart as it is. According to Forbes, Pittsburgh stands number two in the country, behind brainy Boston with its Harvard-MIT corridor.

Like Boston, we’ve got plenty of college grads and world-class learning centers. We also wrote the book on moving from heavy industry to high tech, translating brain power into start-ups.

Still, economies these days are a moving target and to stay on top we’ve got to be smart—and get smarter. Luckily, there are plenty of smart people in Pittsburgh raising the bar for all of us. Here are five in various fields who are leading the way.

Jesse Schell of Schell Games. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Jesse Schell of Schell Games. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Jesse Schell, Chief Executive Officer for Schell Games

As Jesse Schell so memorably said in his presentation at Unboxed, an innovative retreat held by Leadership Pittsburgh for nearly 200 community leaders in November, “technology and the power of curiosity will drive the 21st century. The education we need starts where the learner is and goes absolutely anywhere and everywhere.”

Schell ought to know. As a creator of transformational educational games, and a Carnegie Mellon distinguished professor of entertainment technology, he believes we make Pittsburgh smarter by hooking kids early on learning—and keeping them engaged.

When it comes to games, Schell noted, “you put stuff in and it gives stuff back. Games give clear feedback and a feeling of progress.

“A huge part of what we do at Schell Games,” he says, “is change the way education works so that students can explore ideas in their own way. They can follow their own curiosity and make discoveries.”

Picking up a prototype of their new chemistry set, Schell manipulates a ball with rubber tendrils attached by magnets. “In schools,” he says, “they teach chemistry like algebra. When chemistry is really Legos. You snap atoms together and build molecules. Then you haul out your smartphone, take a picture of it, and send it to your app. Pow! you’ve found out that you’ve made oxyacetylene. Then you read what properties it has and what it’s used for. Kids learn through play!”

This kind of learning fits perfectly here, Schell believes. “Pittsburgh has so many self-educating opportunities,” he says. “Museums. Clubs. Centers. People need to take advantage of them.” See Schell’s video from Unboxed here.

Dr. Susan Catalano. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Dr. Susan Catalano. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Dr. Susan Catalano, Co-Founder, Chief Science Officer at Cognition Therapeutics

Dr. Susan Catalano’s research is aimed at making everyone smarter by saving all those minds and all that wisdom lost daily to Alzheimer’s, dementia and other devastating neurodegenerative diseases.

At Cognition Therapeutics, she and her team are working to find if not a cure, then a drug that will slow or stop the brain’s disintegration. “I’m absolutely thrilled to contribute to this work,” Dr. Catalano says. “It’s my sincere hope that we can find a cure for dementia right here in Pittsburgh.”

As chair of Women in Bio’s Pittsburgh chapter, Dr. Susan Catalano supports lifelong mentoring, training, partnering and employing women in the sciences, especially life sciences. “We put women scientists in front of young women,” she says.

Just back from a Girl Scouts outing at Carnegie Science Center, Dr. Catalano also had a hand in last September’s landmark POWER (Pittsburgh’s Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs Rally), where a dozen local women-led life science companies pitched to women investors. “That was the first time in the city’s history such a thing was done,” she says. “We need a woman-and-minority-owned business incubator. I look to helping make that happen.

“Pittsburgh is ready for the 21sth century,” Dr. Catalano adds. “We’re poised for explosive, double-digit growth because we have one of the largest concentrations of neurobiologists in the world. We’ll make Pittsburgh smarter by unlocking the vast potential of cutting-edge companies, especially in life sciences.”

Dr. Walt Schneider, Professor of Psychology, Neurosurgery, Radiology & Bioengineering, UPMC

Dr. Walt Schneider and his team are leading the way in groundbreaking work around traumatic brain injuries.

“From traumatic injury to Alzheimer’s, there are 10.4 million cases of brain connectivity disorders a year,” Dr. Schneider told the Unboxed audience in his presentation. “What we’ve done is develop the technology to see the wiring. We can track the breakage, make it visible and quantifiable. We can see what cable is broken and how badly.

“If you can’t see the problem,” says the former electrical engineer who has been featured on 60 Minutes, “you can’t fix it. Now we’re employing technology and images that were impossible to get just two years ago. We can see damage, quantify it, and show you what’s missing.”

Pointing out that the trio who created this breakthrough includes a Pittsburgher, Chicagoan and Indian, Dr. Schneider adds, “we’re doing a pretty good job of making Pittsburgh smarter. We have two great universities and a good supply of young talent. I tell colleagues that they can have a good life here.”

What will make it better, he adds, and therefore smarter, is creating a more effective spinoff model.

“We have no trouble attracting talent,” Dr. Schneider says. “Pittsburgh is a wonderful place to take initiative and explore something new. Few places have Pittsburgh’s level and quality. Where we have trouble is maintaining entrepreneurial talent. Pittsburgh is a good place to grow ideas. But it can be challenging to get those ideas commercialized. To get things off paper, out of the lab, into the marketplace and economically viable.”

See Dr. Schneider’s Unboxed presentation here.

Dr. Lenore Blum, Project Olympus Founder

Returning to Carnegie Mellon, where she’d been an undergraduate in the ’60s, computer science professor Dr. Lenore Blum was struck by the lack of entrepreneurial initiative.

It was 1999, and, polling her students, she discovered that none of them planned to stay in town after graduation. There was no network, no business infrastructure, no development money, no business plans. Nothing.

“I was struck by the fact that there was no high-tech infrastructure like that at MIT or Berkeley,” she recalls. “Our students here were being recruited before they graduated. They were getting great jobs—elsewhere. They’d come from all over the world but found no reason to stay or develop their ideas here.”

By 2005 she was talking to the Pittsburgh Technology Council, telling them, “we produce the best students, then export them. But our students love it here and would stay if they had the chance.

“I’m not part of the entrepreneurial or business world,” Dr. Blum says. “I’m a researcher. I came from left field. But what I said struck a resonant chord.”

Two years later, she launched Project Olympus, an off-campus incubator to explore the commercial potential of students’ ideas—how to take them from the university to market.

Organizing what she called Show and Tells, Project Olympus showcased CMU faculty and student research. Wildly successful, to date there have been 18 such showcases—10-minute presentations on new ideas. “It was a place for our students to make business connections,” she says.

And those connections have paid off. In the past three years, Project Olympus has helped launch no fewer than 90 CMU-based spin-off companies. “It’s gotten to be huge on campus,” Dr. Blum says, “and is having a huge impact on the region.”

“I used to ask my students who wanted to stay in Pittsburgh,” she recalls. “The answer used to be zero. Now all of them do. Aside from loving the place, they say, “we’re so connected, why would we want to leave?

“The excitement and energy is here,” she says. “We’re ready to go to the next stage: funding coming into the region. That’s critical.”

Catherine Mott. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Catherine Mott. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Catherine Mott, Blue Tree Capital Group/Blue Tree Allied Angels Founder and Chief Executive Officer

“Pittsburgh’s done a lot of things right as far as how to attract and retain talent,” says Catherine Mott of Blue Tree Allied Angels, a members-only group of investors funding promising start-up companies. The group meets monthly to evaluate and consider private equity investments in early-stage, pre-institutional ventures in the region.

“There’s a healthy eco-system that supports start-up companies,” says Mott. “When we started in 2003 there were only three support agencies. Now there are more than 18 incubators and shared-space accelerators.

“My own firm has invested more than $30 million in 46 companies, three-to-five new companies every year, $3 to 5 million a year. They’re all about transferring ideas into markets. These companies have attracted $338 million in venture capital, almost all of it from outside Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of outside interest. That never happened before.

“But outside capital tends to take companies out of Pittsburgh,” she warns. “We need to have more firms like mine, more of our own venture capital so that companies will stay and grow here. If we had our own local venture capital we would be smarter and better. I do that,” she concludes. “But I’m not enough. We need more.”

We welcome your recommendations for people who are making Pittsburgh smarter in this series. Email us  or comment below.

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.