Pittsburgh Selects Sustainable Startups Among a New Crop of Innovative Businesses

When Wyatt Miller and Wilson Morse graduated from college in the spring of 2022, they knew they wanted to help the fight against climate change and decided to create software that allows employers to encourage their workers to install sustainable technologies in their own homes.

Their vision was based on the idea that just a handful of companies have tried offering green benefits such as heat pumps and solar panels to current and potential employees. Those companies, they believed, didn’t adequately embrace sustainable technologies or forge relationships with providers.

So-called green benefits are a powerful recruiting tool, Miller and Morse argue, especially for young workers who want to join the fight against climate change and recognize that they are more likely to experience its effects than their older colleagues.

The result is Green Bean, a Pittsburgh-based startup that is currently talking to potential customers and the providers of green technology that may become their partners. 

Early this year, the partnership and six other startups got a boost from the City of Pittsburgh, which chose them as this year’s participants in PGH Lab, a six-month program that gives recipients a chance to pilot their products and services and test their concepts while working with Pittsburgh’s government, gaining feedback from city leaders. The winners were chosen from a pool of 17 applicants.

Other winners with a focus on sustainability and environmental improvement include AirViz, a maker of low-cost air monitors; Ecotone Renewables, which helps businesses and individuals reduce food waste, and Roto Software, a platform that enables users to post alerts when free or extra food is available for pickup by the public.

Ecotone chief executive and co-founder Dylan Lew said he believes the company was chosen for the city award because of its collaboration with large companies, nonprofits and individuals in the region over the last five years. Its track record has “built trust“ among local stakeholders including the City of Pittsburgh, he said.

Its goal for the next year is to expand its market share in Pennsylvania by building partnerships between farmers and restaurants. By 2033, it aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by using its digesters to convert food waste into fertilizer.

“City managers look for products or ideas that work well with what they are working on, or something that will fill a gap that we have internally,” said Alaa Mohamed, a senior civic innovation specialist who helps to run the PGH Lab. “When it comes to innovation, departments don’t know what they don’t know.”

For example, one of last year’s winners developed software for bicyclists that would automatically notify the city’s 311 system if there was a hazard in a bike lane so they could plan an alternate route. That idea appealed to the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, whose officers said “‘Wow, this is something we don’t have,’” said Mohamed.

A similar recognition that the city lacked a system of green benefits for current and future employees helped the selection of Green Bean as one of this year’s winners, she said.

That application checked a number of boxes in the city’s list of priorities, including sustainability and the potential to pursue the goal of offering green benefits through human resources. “It’s not something we thought about. So it’s not always about work that is already happening. This is really cool, so let’s try it out,“ she said.

The selection of AirViz as one of this year’s winners reflects a desire to detect, understand and improve air quality in Pittsburgh, which has been badly impacted by the city’s long history of coal and steel production.

AirViz, which spun off from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015, uses Internet of Things (IoT) technology to allow local air sensors to become high-performance devices to identify air-quality problems that would otherwise go undetected, said chief executive officer Ian Magazine.

More than 100 sensors already deployed in the Pittsburgh area can detect particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides—all of which can harm human health, especially when exacerbated by the region’s temperature inversions, which trap air pollution at lower atmospheric levels.

Now, AirViz’s sensors will be installed in and around City buildings. “The city wants to ensure that their employees are breathing the healthiest air,” Magazine said.

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Mark Dixon, an independent activist who monitors local air quality using sensors from AirViz and another provider, Purple Air, said the AirViz devices have helped him monitor volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a class of pollutants such as ethylene and propylene emitted by industrial facilities, including a major new Shell petrochemical plant in Beaver County about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. Combined with sunlight, VOCs form ground-level ozone, or smog, that has been associated with asthma, lung and respiratory infections as well as cardiovascular problems. 

“The main benefit they offered was early monitoring capability for total VOCs,” Dixon said. “This was what I needed before jumping into deploying the monitors around Shell, since a significant amount of Shell’s pollution emerges as VOCs.”

The sensors give officials more than just data, said Magazine. “We give decision-makers a tool to solve problems, not just identify them,” he said. “We provide automated digital tools and high-resolution data to provide robust, hyper-local air quality analytics to manage current and evolving air pollution and climate-change challenges. We deliver predictive analytics to reveal what could happen and prescriptive analytics showing where, when and how to intervene at the micro and macro levels.”

Through their selections by PGH Lab, startups like AirViz and Green Bean get publicity on the city’s website, access to municipal contacts such as other cities that might be looking for those services and a knowledge of how the city works that won’t be available to outsiders, Mohamed said.

“You get this inside view into the bureaucracies and complexities of how a city runs,” she said. “Until you’re in the program, you can’t quite develop a product that works well for the municipal government.”

The city recognizes that it plays a unique role in Pittsburgh’s ecosystem of incubators and accelerators for early-stage businesses, she said, and that led to a decision to maintain the PGH Lab program after an earlier review on whether it should continue.

“What’s unique about this program is that it’s housed within government,” she said. “So the question became, what is the role of local government in supporting its innovative ecosystem? That has guided the process of growing this program.”

Despite the decision to continue PGH Lab, the city has begun a commercial relationship with only four of the 44 winners since the program began in 2016. 

“Sometimes we decide that we want to pay for this service after the pilot has concluded. Other times, it’s, ‘This experience taught us these lessons’ and we need to think about them as we do this work moving forward,” she said.The goal is to learn from this and to use the lessons learned to serve residents. It’s a lab: We’re making room for successes and failures, and we’re not judging it at the end of the day.”

For Green Bean, participation in PGH Lab means an opportunity to test out a new concept that Miller and Morse hope to roll out to big employers throughout the United States.

They hope their work with the City of Pittsburgh will help them answer how effective their software can be in promoting employee engagement, and to what extent it results in decarbonization on a residential scale.

Their research suggests that green benefits are an effective way to recruit, engage and retain employees, in the same way that health and fitness benefits like discounted gym memberships are an incentive.

“The most meaningful way that we’ve seen to encourage behavioral change as it relates to sustainability is paying down the degree of premium of making any changes,” said Morse, 23. “The only way to do that is to provide some kind of financial incentive or mechanism that reduces the cost of these upgrades.”

He argued that their chances of success are heightened by the growth of remote working fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic. More homes are effectively becoming branches of a company’s office, and more employers will want to make green improvements to them as part of future climate disclosures, Morse said.

Employers that want to attract and retain young talent will increasingly recognize that green benefits are an effective way of doing so, said Miller, 22.

“We are seeing that our generation really cares about the impact that their employees have on the environment,” he said. “Essentially, it’s an opportunity for these companies to put their money where their mouth is, and to promote sustainability in their employees’ lives, not just within the company.”

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