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TechVibe Explores Protohaven and LaunchBox

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting


TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.



Audrey, you know, Pittsburgh is a place that's been making stuff for like 250 years

It's what we do. I mean, think about it go back to like, the French and Indian War, we started making stuff. It was all about the rivers and access to make stuff and our steel and everything and but we continue to make stuff even though tech is our thing right now. It's our it's our economy. But we have not lost our making roots. And we're seeing that through a bunch of cool new accelerators, and startup spaces throughout the region.

So who's doing some new stuff? Well, if you remember, right, before the holiday break, I was really stoked about this. We had two really cool spaces stopped by our business as usual webcast, we had the LaunchBox from New Kensington with Kevin Snider at Penn State, we also had very close to my own neighborhood, we had Protohaven, with Devin Montgomery, both bases were the trying to give people access to cool tools, things you normally couldn't get couldn't get your hands on to, to make stuff and create companies and launch them. I think it's really exciting stuff.

Well, I think it's great, because I do think since COVID, people have definitely reprioritize the things that matter to them. Definitely. And listen, if you're in the house, and you're in your confined space, I believe that people have gotten creative and started to think about what really matters to them. Exactly. And there's, we're probably unleashed a whole bunch of creativity. And if people have tools, they can do stuff. Absolutely, yeah. And he's and now you can get your hands on the tools like welders and CNC machines, and all kinds of all types of fun stuff. So we got a great segment here from the business as usual that we do every basically every afternoon at noon. And we're going to learn a little bit more about launch box and a little bit more about proto haven from both the folks that basically run these things. So let's give that a quick spin and see what happens.

Let's talk about the overview of Penn State New Kensington a little bit, and then what your focus has been, and our focus.

Right. And, you know, as you probably know, the state of Pennsylvania is really struggling a little bit with student enrollments because the population is going down. And that's really impacting the cities that we're in in the areas that we're in as populations are smaller and more people are leaving. So our focus has been for 13 years, I've been here on trying to figure out a way to improve the communities to help with economic revitalization do that in ways that facilitate student learning. We have a mixed student body on our campus. And since of some of our students go to University Park after two years, or up to Erie or another campus to pursue a degree that we don't have, and an increasing number actually stay in the area and major in one of our 10 majors or in one of our to associate degrees. So we have a little bit of a mix of people. Most of our students from the area, although we're starting to see a large number of people coming, a larger number of students coming from outside of the state to new Kinsey tend to take advantage of the programs that we'll talk about in a moment.

So let's talk about the Digital Foundry. You know why what?

Yeah, it's actually part of a program that started with the corner, which was a Penn State Initiative to provide entrepreneurial training to students and community members who had ideas. The idea would be by putting the corner in New Kensington, could we spur economic revitalization by building an ecosystem, a place for co working a place for training, a place for makerspace. And so we got started with two pieces of that the CO working and the entrepreneurial training to try and revitalize the downtown area. And that really has taken off and it's fun to hold new way of thinking. And we really realized that if all we did was bring people in and out of a corner, and you can see Tim we were really good To do anything, so we started to think about how do we create walkable pathways in that city that people would feel comfortable doing? And how do we attract business. So we came up with the idea of a corridor of innovation. And that's when things took off. When we did that, we got research from Penn State research from Carnegie Mellon, researchers who came into task, what we were doing and were interested in. But we also got big industry in the area, Siemens and our conic. For the for the most part, they said they were dealing with something called industry 4.0. And that is really what started the Digital Foundry. And I'll explain why. The The idea was when we got into industry 4.0, we're not training our students in higher education or in K through 12. Really, for the world that's coming, right, we're training them for the world that has been, we need them to get into the world of smart cities and smart factories and smart devices where technology is going to be compete, continually disruptive. And we're going to be thrust into digital environments and having to change. So we knew that we had to do some things differently. And we also knew we needed to makerspace. And so when I met. And so from an educational point of view, we knew we had to change everything that we were doing to try and get students ready for that world and get them into the digital environment. We pitch that to RK Mellon, the RK Mellon Foundation and they said, You know what, we like this, we know you need to makerspace let's get in as partners. And so we've been able to partner with them with the economic growth connection, and the with the wi DC out of what's Warren County to try and figure out, how do we develop a makerspace. And we said, you know, what we're trying to prepare students for the digital age. What about our digital makerspace. And that has been what, really spurred on the idea of the foundry. It's important that to note that there were about 5500 manufacturing companies in this area in southwestern Pennsylvania, that are in danger of being left behind as we start to get into the digital age. And so the focus of this value is really on, how do we help them first it's a way of helping make the foundry sustainable. But then secondly, how do we do that for various populations for K through 12, for displaced workers, for our students of Penn State, New Kensington for the community at large. And so we're working, looking at the Digital Foundry is a place where the digital world comes to life. It's a place that companies can come in and test drive technologies it wouldn't be able to afford and we can help get them acclimated and on their way into the digital age. So that's really what that that concept is about.

That's exciting. That's great. Thank you. And thank you for spending the time with us. I want to I just want to switch gears right now. I want to bring Devin Montgomery on and welcome Devin.

Yeah, thank you for having you, Audrey. No, it's great to have you. Let's talk about you. You being safe. Everything's good on your end. You feeling okay?

Yeah, yeah, I'm here at Protohaven in the shop. And yeah, masks and all the things I've taken off because in our conference room, but yeah.

Great. Tell us about your journey. Tell us about the creation Protohaven.

Yeah, um, so I guess my my sort of career journey, I graduated from college and started working, actually for Habitat for Humanity. I did that for a few years in Maryland, and met my wife there. And then we moved here to Pittsburgh, to I went to both business and law school here at Pitt. And as I was finishing that up, I sort of found my way into product design, by way of making a backpacking stove. In release, oh, yes, yes, called the back country boiler, no longer in production, but a wonderful learning experience. And that sort of turned me towards a really a career in product design, both in physical products and some software products. And through the course of that gotten involved in in maker spaces and saw the value, you know, just as Kevin was, was mentioning, of, of as a product designer, you know, being able to access equipment that you didn't have to shell out all the money for, you didn't have to necessarily maintain all your own, and also the kind of, you know, natural network that it creates. So the the space that I had been a member of went away and closed. And so I and some other folks that saw the value of that kind of space, but also wanted to see that kind of space, used and and really positioned as a community asset, form pro haven as a 501 c three nonprofit organization to keep those kinds of those kinds of assets in that kind of, you know, community around in the Pittsburgh region. So we're, we're here in in wilkinsburg. And some of the things that we wanted awesome Make sure that we were doing was, you know, rethink the kind of way that you know, those spaces were inclusive and were accessible, and the way in which they could really focus on, you know, I see makerspaces as, as lowering the barriers to entry, to making physical products are pursuing something that has to do with physicality as a career, and making sure that we find out what those barriers are, whether it's a piece of equipment, whether it's education, in terms of developing, you know, either equipment skills, or through some of our partners, business skills, that can help people, you know, either as a way of making a living, or just in terms of enriching their lives, being able to make physical things. Because for me, it was something that I I started doing relatively late, or relatively recently in life. It was kind of a watershed moment, and, and I and I think the people who are excited about it, I want to share that kind of thing with everybody.

So you're in Wilkinsburg? And you did you are able to secure equipment from TechElevator, which is what what Devin was referring to that is no longer in Pittsburgh, so you're able to get their equipment.

Yeah, so So we, we started, when we started, we were all volunteers and members. So we started without a space, we started with just just a bunch of people who like to make things and wanted to do something. So we, we pretty quickly were able to get a room one room and what is now are the building that we have. And and then after that we were able to, through through a loan, secure that secure that equipment at quite a good, quite a good price. So So we really started off with memberships in terms of financial support volunteers and in terms of, you know, the day to day running of it, we were able to to then grow expand to our full building with some grant funding from the Henry Komen Foundation. They've also provided the Hillman Foundation has provided some some some follow up capacity building opportunities so that it could we could have a professional staff and start to do some of the things that we wanted to do.

I'm telling you Audrey, it's just a lot of fun. I just love hearing the stories of these two makerspaces accelerators coming to life here in the Pittsburgh region.

I like the fact the affiliation one with Penn State and one not with the university yeah goes to show you the people coming grassroots but you're also seeing it coming from the education side where they see value and it's being attacked at all angles in a very good way.

Founder is actually has such a fascinating background.

Absolutely. Totally cool stuff like all the way around like I just can't believe it. So we're gonna take a quick break and come back with more tech vibe radio. Come back more to learn about proto Haven and launch box smart business as usual webcast series. You can catch that every weekday afternoon at noon, good PGH For details. This is Jonathan Kersting. We'll be right back with you.

Audrey, I really love geeking out with all these cool accelerator and makerspaces you know, pro Haven is like I'm not kidding you five, six blocks from my house. I could I could walk there if I really wanted to ride my bike very easily and Kind of pumped to know that I can learn to do some forging, if I wanted to, I guess you just cut through the back part of Wilkinsburg.

Yep, just right over and Trenton, just go right across Penn and then boom, you're right there. Once once we're allowed to, like hang out at places like that, I think I might go over there and learn to do a couple things just keep cruising. And so I'm just excited that we had them on our business, as usual show that we have, you know, punch every weekday at noon to go to PGH, you can sign up and be part of all types of conversations we have with all sorts of leaders throughout the tech community, but we had Prideaux haven on and of course, we have launchbox on and we got some more segments for you to learn more about what these two accelerator spaces are up to and how they work. So let's give the rest of this segment a listen to Adrienne, we'll be right back.

Thank you for doing that. That's a great pivot. Thank you so much. I want to I want to shift back to Chancellor Kevin Snyder Really? now and I want to talk about I think you mentioned earlier just about all the changes in the Trent and the vision for this work, but you really changing a neighborhood in the community. And if you think about all the different people that are actually in some of these more suburban, right, and maybe close to rural communities, having a center and having a un location, how has that been? And in terms of COVID? And are you still seeing the excitement and proliferation of internationally i think you know, one of the one of the only benefits of COVID has been that, if you can call it that has been the realization of people that we are in the digital age. I mean, what we're doing right now is digital age, right? It's changing the way that you're having to lead, it's changing the way that you're having to connect with people, it's changing it on the way that we do our business. And so we had a lot of trouble earlier trying to convince people that a disruption was going to be a thing in our lives, and be that that disruption would have to do with technology. COVID changed all that six days, Penn State went completely virtual back in March. And that was just a phenomenal undertaking. And lots and lots of organizations have done that. And they realize now that this is not going to go away, I mean, businesses that decided before COVID that we were never going to have people go virtual are now thinking about why do I need to invest all this space, like, I'm getting a lot of productivity out of people. So it has really added to the excitement around the Digital Foundry, I think and people can't wait until it gets open. And it's probably going to be open in December, which you know, a year from now. But we've got lots of programming and things that people are interested in learning about different technologies and kind of building awareness of what those technologies are, and how they can help people not just in manufacturing, but in all professions. And so there's been a lot of energy and a lot of interest in this and some of that has been supported by this pandemic.

And but are you seeing that, uh, people are excited about the community too, because hopefully that will take some spread in terms of.

Absolutely, I mean, right, well, before COVID right before COVID you were starting to see a street in New Kensington, a downtown area that had been boarded up for a long time come back to life teeming with people walking down the streets, going to the brewery going into shops around the brewery, starting to come down to eat at the need cafe and places like that. And so we were really seeing a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. And then when COVID hit that put a little bit of a damper on it. But you know, people can't wait to get back and they keep asking us, you know, what our plans are. And we're getting a lot of interest from the business and the manufacturing community about the opportunities we're going to be able to provide. And we also have seen an uptick in the number of people who have an interest in entrepreneurism. You know, and I think as people start to think about, you know, their roles and their jobs, and they want to do something exciting, like Devon's doing, you know, they're, they're starting to find that maybe there are some opportunities for that, that the the pandemic has brought either through some unfortunate circumstances or just causing people to reevaluate their lives.

And so is there a coffee shop there now in a brewery?

Well, the coffee shop, unfortunately I think has fallen victim to COVID the brewery is still doing takeout, it's Voodoo brewery down in on Fifth Avenue in New Kensington. And there's a really unique as you can or pays to go cafe called the need cafe that has been there since we opened up our our facility as well. And that is a really, really neat, neat place. So if you get a chance, you go in and you might say you know the going price for for a meal but if you give a little bit high you're paying for the person behind you and they have some programming so you might go in alone. You might sit with the person next to you and you have no idea what walk of life they're from, but you can get into

it. What's the name of That place, What's the name? Eat cafe eight and e ad?

It's great. That's great. And so 10? And what about in wilkinsburg? What are you seeing in welcomes work? Now that you have your footprint there, even though it's been COVID?

Yeah, um, I think things have gotten kind of quiet. Um, you know, in light of COVID, I think, you know, since we've been here, so it's been about three years that we've been here. And I've just been really excited by all of the all the positive, you know, community developments, that there, there have been, we had some really good opportunities, actually through COVID to work with some other nonprofits here in wilkinsburg. So both the freestore operated by cynically, we were able to, you know, partner with them to do some facemask distribution, the same is true with Santa's house, and work with them as well, for facemask, you know, distribution, I just think there, there are a lot of really exciting things going on, you know, broadly, in terms of the development of the Bureau, you know, as well as, as some other, you know, organizations that are working, you know, here, I know that when we, when we first started here, it was a little bit after a community Forge, which is a sort of a community center that is operated out of a former elementary school here in town, we were able to do, you know, to do some work with them. And, you know, from a, from a makers point of view, which is a thing that I think about a lot, you know, Knott's landing, has just moved on to the other side of Trenton Avenue where we are, so we're really excited about that, you know, in our So, so, one thing that was true in terms of what we were looking for in a space is, you know, we wanted it, we wanted to shop, you know, we sort of wanted sort of, you know, a big space for folks to do big projects. So we're in sort of this light, industrial, you know, area. But, but what's interesting is even in that industrial area, you know, right across the street from us, there, there's a it's not CrossFit, but it's just sort of broadly similar to a CrossFit gym. And just, you know, being part of I think the the, the exciting things that are going on in the borough has been a really, you know, fun thing to be part of, I know that, you know, there's a farmers market right down the street from us as well, that will hopefully return, you know, in the spring, I think if there's a thing that I'm looking forward to it, I'm looking forward to, to this vaccine, right. And it being a broadly distributed, so that we can, you know, get back to, to making some of these these physical communities as nice as these digital relationships. All right, that's great. It's great that you've taken a chance on this, and you've pivoted yourself. So you're, you're a great role model for any of your members and people who want to participate. So, so Chancellor, we, you know, in terms, we want to get youth excited about all this, right, you know, in terms of the intersection of art and technology and digital design and making things etc. What opportunities are there for people who are outside, you know, not ready, that are in college.

But before that, well, and actually, we've been involved with something called ABC create, which is a consortium of 14 school districts that we started years ago, to think about just that it's a collaboration with CMU. And what we decided to do is to try and take those excited advocates for technology and in creative endeavors. And have them develop a network. So we could for the region, develop that type of thinking cross grades across school districts, school districts are small. So you might have a real advocate, someone who's really excited about technology and creativity in third grade, and then maybe people are interested in other things and, and not really portraying that to students, they've developed pathways to basically get it this type of thinking. And it's not just for college bound students, it's for any student who's coming out of high school right now they need to know about the opportunities, and the skill sets and the thinking that has to go into surviving during the digital age. And so that's really what we've been trying to develop. And it's just, it's been a great fit now into what we're calling, future readiness thinking. And so, you know, as soon as they come into our campus, we'll have an opportunity to integrate and to be interns and deal with companies and find out about technology and use it, regardless of the major that they're in. And I think that is so important. So there are lots of lots of opportunities to get engaged. There's also lots of opportunities for community members to get engaged. And I think, you know, that's another thing you know, no matter what, where you are, if you are a displaced worker, or if you are in the workforce now, the odds are that you're going to be asked to retrain, and some of that training will come around technology and digitization. So we think we can serve that role and serve it well. Not just for our community, but because it's digital, we want To be able to be a model for communities around Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh is really revitalized on technology revitalization. And so Pittsburgh county technical Technology Council, right. So when we take that and start to get it into communities like New Kensington them Anakin and McKeesport and places like that. That's really what we want to do. And I'm, by the way, Devin, I am delighted, I'm really jazzed to hear that you have taken the Tech Shop and put it where you are, I'm just that place was amazing. I can't wait to come over and see your place and see if we might be able to collaborate as well.

There we go, Audrey, like I said, you can see why I'm so excited. I thought that was a good time that you that we had with them on our business as usual show.

It's great. They're great. I love and I'm thrilled.

This reminds me the story used to tell me back in the day when you go to camp and build birdhouses. I love to build. And engineer, she never lifted my spirit, you know, right, encouraged it. And I like to see that all people of all, you know, no matter who you are, no matter what age you are, you should be encouraged to build stuff. Exactly. Not lasted a long time, it was solid. That's what I'm saying. Man, I believe it. And I'm sure if it could if it would have had some technical features, if it were available back in the day, but just say

it was great. And I love to be able to use a circular saw. I thought all that stuff was just fabulous. And who gets has access to this kind of equipment. It's only people who you know, are able to afford this stuff.

Exactly. This brings it down to where anyone can roll in there and get access and start creating so so that'll put a spotlight on it. That's for sure. So I'll do another show under our belt. We'll be back here next Saturday with a ton more tech live radio 2021 tech live every Saturday here on ESPN 970.

This has been Jonathan Kersting. This is Audrey Russo and the Pittsburgh Technology Council has been helping our region's tech companies succeed since 1983. The Pittsburgh Technology Council helps its members meet new customers hire top talent, make headlines and have a strong voice in government. From startups to multinational. The PTC helps tech companies and advance manufacturers of all sizes. See how we can help your venture grow at PGH That's PGH Transcribed by