Udi Hershkovitch of Safaba. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Pittsburgh is on a roll. While everything from the food scene to the arts scene has captured the media spotlight, here’s what the global tech world sees: Autonomous cars, machine-translated language and robotics-assisted surgical access. That and more is all coming out of Pittsburgh.

Fed by nationally-recognized research universities, an existing manufacturing infrastructure and a healthy business network, Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community is in high gear. And Amazon, Delphi Automotive (Delphi) and other global, household name companies are taking notice. They are acquiring Pittsburgh companies, scooping up intellectual property, integrating software solutions, expanding the application of robotics and creating new approaches to education.

Following is a brief recap of just a few Pittsburgh companies—all CMU spinoffs—that were acquired in high-profile deals in the last year.

Raj Rajkumar of Ottomatika.
Raj Rajkumar of Ottomatika.


How about a car that travels up to 70 miles per hour, changes lanes and navigates construction zones across a 3,400-mile trip from San Francisco to New York City? Not that impressive, unless 99 percent of that journey was made without human interaction. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Pittsburgh-based Ottomatika.

Dr. Raj Rajkumar is a George Westinghouse Professor at CMU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and founder of Ottomatika. He and his team developed the software intelligence that powers Delphi’s Drive System, a complex network of software technology for autonomous vehicles.

An autonomous, or self-driving, vehicle mimics a plane on autopilot. Dr. Rajkumar points out, however, that an autonomous car requires additional layers of complex sensors necessary to respond intelligently to unexpected braking, pedestrians and hazardous road conditions. Eventually, he predicts, the technology that powers a $100 million airplane will be available in an automobile that sells for less than $50,000.

Ottomatika’s path as a company was intense, jettisoning from creation to acquisition in less than 18 months. Now that he has handed over his “baby” as part of Delphi’s August 2015 acquisition, Dr. Rajkumar will continue as a CMU professor, working to develop embedded technology that will further transform transportation and manufacturing as we know it.

Safaba Translation Solutions

Next consider Amazon’s acquisition of Pittsburgh-based Safaba Translation Solutions (Safaba), also completed in 2015. Another Carnegie Mellon University spinoff, Safaba was the brainchild of Dr. Alon Lavie, a research professor at CMU’s Language Technologies Institute, and Dr. Robert Olszewski, Ph.D. in Computer Science at CMU, whose specialty is machine learning.

Safaba’s technology has improved the accurate translation of digital content, aka machine translation, a service that is especially beneficial to global enterprises. By the time Amazon acquired the company, Safaba was already servicing Paypal, Dell and other high-profile clients.

While the Safaba brand (Hebrew for language inside it) is no longer in existence, the company’s translation technology is a central cog in Amazon’s newly formed Machine Translation R&D Group.

Dr. Lavie views Pittsburgh as a leader, particularly in the areas of big data, machine learning and robotics. He notes, “Pittsburgh is a mecca of talent that is difficult to find and fiercely sought after. That’s one reason companies like Google, Apple, Uber and Amazon are developing local R&D facilities.”

Robotics-assisted Accuracy and Precision
Robotics-assisted Accuracy and Precision

Blue Belt Technologies

Smith & Nephew (SNN), a global medical technology company that boasts nearly 15,000 employees worldwide, announced in 2015 its acquisition of Pittsburgh’s Blue Belt Technologies (Blue Belt), another CMU spinoff company.

Craig Markovitz, Blue Belt’s co-founder and seven-year CEO, explains how the company’s robotic technology is reshaping mobility for patients undergoing partial knee replacements. Blue Belt’s Navio Surgical System (NAVIO) allows surgeons to achieve robotics-assisted accuracy and precision when planning, balancing and implanting an artificial knee.

The precision of the NAVIO robotics-assisted procedure increases accessibility to partial knee replacement surgery for both surgeons and patients.

Blue Belt is also a prime example of what Pittsburgh wants to see. Instead of technologies that follow companies out of Pittsburgh, Smith & Nephew is building a Pittsburgh presence where none existed. The company has already shown a commitment to focus on its talent network throughout Western PA, with Pittsburgh serving as the company’s center of engineering, as well as quality and regulatory oversight.

I love to write about the manufacturing, tech, and startup sectors; there are great stories to tell, especially in Pittsburgh.

In the past year, I have become a spokesperson on the issue of domestic violence: publishing a book, joining the board of Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence; and speaking on occasion to high school and college students, as well as community groups. A passion fulfilled!