5 years later, Thrival Innovation + Music Festival — and Pittsburgh — are growing up

Tickets are still available for the “AI for Good” keynote and the “Intelligence: Humans X Tech” marquee event, as well as Friday and Saturday’s music festival.

CHVRCHES Wide Shot Image
Courtesy of Thrival
Rossilynne Culgan

Pittsburgh is done asking for permission. The days of the city meekly raising its hand to ask for a chance to join in on the conversation about innovation — they’re over.

“What we’re saying this year is a demonstrative statement: Pittsburgh is back. And not only are we back, we’re leading. Pittsburgh isn’t simply requesting a seat at the table. It’s taking one. And it’s not asking permission,” said Dan Law, director of Thrival and vice president of business development for Ascender. “I think that signifies a really, really important culture shift. This city is thinking of itself in different terms.”

Thrival Innovation + Music Festival, which begins today and runs through Saturday, celebrates its fifth birthday this week. In a half-decade, Thrival grew from a small concert in a dirt lot with a few thought talks to a multi-day festival drawing national acts and big-name speakers and earning (often complex) comparisons with SXSW.

Thrival 2016 Chainsmokers Set
Adam Piscitelli / Courtesy of Thrival

As Thrival has evolved, so too has Pittsburgh’s culture of innovation.

Startup incubators and coworking spaces are popping up around the city. Self-driving cars whiz around near Google’s campus. Pittsburgh’s courting Amazon to establish a headquarters here — a project that would bring $5 billion in investment and up to 50,000 jobs, per TribLive.

No, this isn’t Pittsburgh just patting itself on the back. Tech leaders across the country are taking note, too. Among them is John Battelle, founder of Wired Magazine and CEO at NewCo, who will host Thrival’s “Four Talks on the Future” at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Thursday.

“I don’t think Pittsburgh was on anybody’s radar five years ago in my community,” Battelle told The Incline via phone. Sure, he said, people knew the city was having a resurgence, and you’d read an article about it every once in awhile. But then, he said, Google and Uber joined the neighborhood, moving in down the street from Carnegie Mellon University, an established powerhouse in automated mobility.

“Everybody started paying attention,” he said. “I think that began a renewed interest in the place.”

As CityLab wrote this week in proposing an intermediary called the “InnovatePGH Partnership,” Pittsburgh’s got potential, but it needs to do more. Even to this day, many people outside of Pittsburgh don’t know much about the city, other than the major tech investments, Battelle said, but perhaps that could change.

“One of the goals of [Thrival]: We identified a handful of people from outside of Pittsburgh, and we want them to have the same kind of eye-opening experience that I had,” Battelle said. “I think the end-game would be that word spreads and more people say, ‘I want to locate a significant division in Pittsburgh.’ … It’s got all sorts of things going for it. I think idea is consider Pittsburgh.”

Thrival Crowd Shot
Adam Piscitelli / Courtesy of Thrival

How Thrival got here

Law, of Thrival, paints this picture: A full decade ago, Pittsburgh was pulling around its red wagon and hoping somebody would think the city was cool. Five years ago, when he called to book bands, the agents asked, “Who are you, and what do you want to do with acts?”

Thrival sprouted from a dirt lot that now houses Google’s headquarters. In 2013, it was an active construction site and, most importantly, it was free. The humble dirt patch hosted the music festival once again in 2014, before it moved to Hazelwood for a year and then to Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale.

This year, the multi-day music and innovation festival hosts innovation events today and Thursday in the East End, as well as music Friday and Saturday, again at Carrie Furnaces.

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Rasu Shrestha

Courtesy of UPMC

A longtime supporter of Thrival, Dr. Rasu Shrestha, UPMC’s Chief Innovation Officer, said he recently noticed something different about Thrival.

“This year I didn’t have to go out and tell anybody about Thrival,” he said. “This year, people came to me.”

UPMC Enterprises is a sponsor of Thrival, and a sold-out plenary session will be held at UPMC Enterprises’ Bakery Square office on Thursday.

For Shrestha, his unlikely relationship with Pittsburgh has changed over time. When he answered a phone call 10 years ago from a recruiter trying to lure him to Pittsburgh, he was hesitant to leave sunny Los Angeles. But the recruiter was insistent, and after several phone calls, he agreed to visit the city. As soon as he landed in Pittsburgh on a lush summer day, everything changed.

“That hesitancy, that reluctancy changed really quickly in that first visit itself,” he said. “I fell in love with the opportunity that I saw.”

In addition to seeing Thrival’s growth over the past five years, Shrestha’s also seen Pittsburgh mature and capitalize on its skillsets and attributes. In his work, that means building bridges to the local university community.

“Innovation is about having fun. The reality of innovation is it’s really about change, and change is never fun. … But innovation can be fun,” he said. “We can really leverage all of the activities that are happening in the region here.”

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Nisha Blackwell

Courtesy of Knotzland

Designing a future

As an outside observer, Battelle, too, has noticed the way Pittsburgh stakeholders work together. Pittsburgh is unique for its alignment between various entities, from the city to the universities, the business scene, the startup community and nonprofits, he said.

“Pittsburgh was remarkable for that fact and then the second fact that makes it remarkable is it has a narrative. … That story is obviously a very attractive story and it’s one that you want to be a part of.”

As far as narratives go, Nisha Blackwell’s is pretty amazing.

She “stumbled into entrepreneurship” and is now the CEO of her own company, Knotzland, which makes bowties out of fabrics and materials rescued right here in town from local designers and upholstery shops. Blackwell taught herself to sew and worked with Thrival’s producer Ascender, which provided space and professional services.

Ascender, a local nonprofit that helps early-stage entrepreneurs, works behind the scenes to run the show, and Thrival proceeds benefit Ascender. Buying a ticket to Thrival Innovation or its music festival helps Ascender help budding business owners like Blackwell.

Nowadays, Blackwell works and lives in Homewood, where she grew up.

She can’t attend Thrival this year because she’ll be in Haiti working with another Pittsburgh company, Thread, which turns trash from the world’s poorest neighborhoods into recycled fabric. Knotzland sources some materials through Thread, and she’s going to get an up-close look at Thread’s process.

“As a whole, Pittsburgh has definitely been extremely extremely welcoming and resource-driven,” she said. “It’s a fitting city for entrepreneurship, and the resources are there.”

Over the past few years, Blackwell said she’s seen growth in creative entrepreneurship and noticed more women at the table.

“If we can continue to put [focus] on grooming and supporting more women but not just women, minority businesses, I think that’s where we need to put a focus,” she said.

Blackwell’s dream for the next five years: To see even more resources focused on people who traditionally don’t have access to resources, such as technology, space and capital.

Indeed, it’s a subject Law feels passionately about, as well. As Pittsburgh designs its future, there lies a lot of “accountability and responsibility,” he said.

“We’re going to have to own and live with the decisions that we are making when it comes to using those big terms like inclusivity and diversity,” he said.

Per last year’s Pittsburgh Regional Diversity Survey, only 42 percent of Pittsburgh workers surveyed view their employers as “‘very committed’ to advancing and promoting minority workers,” NEXTPittsburgh reported. (Read the full study here.)

As Law stands at his office in East Liberty, he said he can see multi-million-dollar homes from one window and condemned buildings from another.

“That is an example of the significant gap within this whole narrative,” he said. “There [are] clearly people benefitting from all of this development, all of this advancement, and there are people who are not.”

Though Thrival isn’t in a position of authority, he said, it serves as a convener, offering a space to lift up and support voices. In these conversations, it’s important that just the status quo leadership isn’t grandstanding.

“It’s about building a bigger tent and sharing the microphone or maybe just giving up the microphone,” he said.

Thrival 2016 ER MM
Courtesy of Thrival

A look at this year’s Thrival Innovation

Thrival was designed to “elevate the conversation and the celebration of innovation in Pittsburgh,” Law said.

It’s stayed true to that mission over the years, but a lot has changed, like the budget, which has grown 1,000 percent — and its attendance, which went from 2,000 people to 16,000 people last year. That figure represents people from 60 cities and 20 states, according to the festival.

Past Thrivals were intentionally broad, offering event leaders the chance to experiment and find out how the community would respond to a mix of music and innovation.

For the first time, Thrival Innovation, taking place today and Thursday, has a laser focus, with the theme: “Intelligence: Humans X Tech,” a relevant topic to Pittsburgh’s growth in areas such as AI and autonomous vehicles.

Thrival Innovation events are scheduled for various venues in East Liberty, Larimer and Oakland. Though daylong innovation passes are sold out, tickets are still available for the “AI for Good” keynote and the “Intelligence: Humans X Tech” marquee event for $15 each.

The innovation festival also focuses on storytelling, exploring how Pittsburgh can powerfully tell the story of its role as an international technology hub. Thrival wants its VIP speakers to connect with local research institutions, robotics labs, startups and cultural assets.

“It should give a very interesting mosaic of what a post-industrial city looks like in 2017, and our bet is it’s a lot different than they thought it would be,” Law said.

Thrival Music Back Crowd Shot
Adam Piscitelli / Courtesy of Thrival

SXSW of the east?

Each year, the profile of the musical acts have grown, as well, with Logic, Carnage, Two Door Cinema Club, Wiz Khalifa, GRiZ and Kiiara on this year’s line-up. Tickets are still available for Friday and Saturday’s outdoor music festival, as well, at $55 for each day or $80 for a two-day pass.

In the beginning, Law had to sell Pittsburgh “very, very hard” to book musicians. Throughout the years, Thrival’s core message has resonated with the musicians who play here. Musicians are wowed by the venues, and and some even have family members who once worked at Carrie Furnaces.

“What we’re doing is demonstrating another example of creative reuse in Pittsburgh,” Law said. “I think Donald Trump maybe intended for us to turn on mills in one way. But we actually are turning a mill back on, but it’s just producing a different product. We’re giving a new life to places like the Carrie Furnaces. They don’t have to be blighted marks on our topography. They can be cultural and institutional assets.”

So, what should we expect to see in the future from Thrival?

“You’ll see Thrival as a concept growing more confident and more proactive and being able to take bigger risks,” Law said.

And that goes for Pittsburgh, too.

“A much more confident Pittsburgh and one that is very much looking at making waves and making impact.”

As Thrival continues to grow, the inevitable SXSW comparisons start to pop up … and that’s where it gets complicated. While the comparison is flattering, it’s a cautionary tale as Thrival event organizers said they’ve noticed the influence of international corporations on SXSW.

“We need to be telling the story of Pittsburgh and the rust belt, not the mouthpiece of this corporate giant,” Law said. “If we are lucky enough to continue to grow, we should never lose sight of who we are and where we came from.”

Editor’s note: Thrival Innovation + Music Festival is a sponsor of The Incline’s Who’s Next bash, happening tonight at the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh.