Innovation Works President and CEO Rich Lunak.

When Innovations Works first opened its doors in 1999, Google was still beta-testing out of Palo Alto. Amazon mostly just sold books. And Bakery Square in East Liberty? It was sitting vacant because Nabisco had left town.

What a difference 20 years can make.

“It is absolutely incredible to look at where Pittsburgh’s economy is today and the role the startup community and Innovation Works have played to help support that growth,” says Rich Lunak, the tech incubator’s president and CEO.

Years before anyone thought of Pittsburgh as a hub of research and technology, Innovation Works was offering seed funding and coworking space for a wide range of start-ups.

Local companies that began with support from Innovation Works include CivicScience, a polling and data analytics firm based in Shadyside, Aurochs Brewing in Emsworth and the Homewood-based clothing company Thread International.

According to data provided by the company, Innovation Works has invested $78 million in 367 companies over the last two decades. These companies have in turn attracted $2.1 billion in outside investment. And 85% plan to expand operations within the next two years.

Beyond just money, Innovation Works offers accelerator and incubation programs to support small companies through every stage of their development. At the firm’s offices in Nova Place on the North Side, entrepreneurs get training in everything from honing their fundraising skills to actually making prototypes of their services.

Innovation Works is also celebrating major milestones of its signature programs. AlphaLab, one of the first and most prominent accelerators in the U.S., began 10 years ago. AlphaLab Gear, an accelerator specifically for hardware companies, is turning five. And Riverfront Ventures, a venture fund that invests in some of the highest-growth Innovation Works portfolio companies, also began five years ago.

Innovation Works, Lunak says, has “been a catalyst for the region’s startup community that is now exploding with new entrepreneurs, investor interest, university resources, grassroots groups and worldwide attention to the industrial and consumer innovations grown here.”

Along with growing here, the hope is also that most of these innovations will remain here.

While some companies have relocated since incubating with Innovation Works, the organization seeks out and prizes companies that will keep jobs and capital in their communities. Among the companies in their portfolio, 77 percent have at least three-quarters of their workforce based in the Pittsburgh region.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.