When it comes to economic development, the term “cluster” refers to a geographical grouping of companies, research, capital and infrastructure that’s big enough to form its own gravitational pull, drawing in others to take advantage of a region’s skill set. Silicon Valley is perhaps the best-known current example, but the steel manufacturing expertise in Pittsburgh a century ago was another.

Now, the Pittsburgh region is betting big on robotics and that is being recognized with a $62.7 million federal grant. It’s one of 21 places (from 60 finalists) to receive funding from the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Administered by the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative, the Build Back Better grant will fund the following five major projects, which are intended to work together to grow the robotics industry in the 11-county region:

$4.8 million for Small & Medium Enterprises Robotics Adoption led by Catalyst Connection. This will focus on regional competitiveness by bringing Pennsylania’s innovations in robotics and automation to other industries such as agriculture, construction, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, mining and transportation.

$14.2 million for the Robotics Manufacturing Hub led by The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute. The hub will “derisk” the adoption of advanced robotics and automation technology by small and medium enterprises and accelerate the commercialization of robotics technologies in these sectors.

▪ $24.8 million for Expanded Pathways to New Economy Careers, led by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. This effort will advance a coordinated, regional system serving both robotics technology developers and robotics technology adopters by opening a range of training options outside of traditional four-year and advanced degrees.

$12 million for the Robotics Startup Factory led by Innovation Works. The Factory will accelerate the formation of startups focusing on robotics and automation in industry sectors including agriculture, construction, mining, energy, warehousing and manufacturing.

▪ $6.9 million for Expanded Pathways to Entrepreneurship, led by InnovatePGH. The program will increase participation in the robotics sector from underrepresented populations and launch Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise companies.

Digit. Photo courtesy of Agility Robotics.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative is chaired by Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University.

“The Build Back Better grant will bring renewed vitality to our 11-county region and enhance opportunities for a wide band of people, businesses and places in ways we have not seen before,” says Pashman. “These projects are designed to open doors to anyone who wants to participate in the region’s thriving robotics cluster.”

Phase 1 of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge — part of the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021 — elicited 529 applications from across the country. Phase 2 narrowed it down to 60 applications.

“Southwestern Pennsylvania winning this significant Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant is a testament to the sheer power of collaboration that’s been so integral to the transformation of our regional economy,” says Jahanian.