Pittsburgh Welcomes the Nation’s Top Innovators

Health, art, sports, music, and culture were just some of the topics presented this week at Thrival Innovation and Music festival hosted at Alloy 26 inside the newly redesigned Nova Place on Pittsburgh’s north side. In the first three days of the five-day festival, attendees took part in various panel discussions, keynote speakers, interactive demonstrations, and art exhibitions. Regional professionals and the nation’s top innovators came together to examine the “city of the future” and what integral parts of society can do to facilitate positive change moving forward.

Tuesday, themed “Lost and Found”, saw UPMC’s Dr. Rasu Shrestha, physician and chief innovation officer speak in The New Hazlett Theater. Dr. Shrestha offered new ways the medical community can continue to bridge the gap between technology and medicine. Dr. Shrestha, who is changing the future of medicine as we know it, emphasized that one does not necessarily have to have a stethoscope around their neck to reinvent healthcare.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist, amongst other titles, who discovered chronic traumatic enecphalopathy (CTE) spoke on his life experience and how it came to shape his career. Dr. Omalu, who was joined by Jeanne Laska, author of “Concussion”, touched on sensitive subjects such as personal depression and rejection from the medical community. His persistence and dedication to his craft kept him focused for nearly 10 years before his fellow colleagues accepted his findings, beginning with the late Mike Webster. Before closing his keynote, Dr. Omalu stressed that, “The greatest contribution you can make to society is to be yourself.”

Day two continued with the theme “Authenticity” which featured panel discussions with urban planners and other individuals interested in reshaping Pittsburgh’s infrastructure. By creating a more efficient and inviting environment, coupled with technology, Pittsburgh and other metropolitans can shift from once-booming industrial regions to high-tech cities of the future. Ian Neumaier, of Find Some Flow, raised the question, “How can we deal with technology and not make the same mistakes in the future.”

Sam Franklin, Executive Resident at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, presented a keynote on education reform and our troubles with our current system. Franklin was joined on stage by CEO of Million Dollar Scholar and Breaux Capital, Derrius Quarles.

“We need to begin to prototype new paradigms for learning that look a little like the ones we know today,” Franklin said.

“If we are going to implement [education] innovation, how can we make sure it’s accessible to everyone?” Quarles added.

Food and drink culture was also a hot topic addressed. How can a city build and sustain an identity that is beneficial and accessible to everyone? Local restaurants and micro-breweries are popping up everywhere but it takes collaboration with neighborhoods, city officials, and consumers to help maintain the momentum. The panel, consisting of local restaurant owner, Joe Hilty (The Vandal), Chef Jamilka Borges (Spoon), Sandy Cindrich (CEO Penn Brewing Co.), Scott Smith (East End Brewing Co.), and Jake Voelker (VooDoo Brewing Co.) discussed the benefits of local farm-to-table cuisine along with the setbacks it has on the consumers. The panel raised the big question, “Can we continue to make all of these neighborhoods thrive simultaneously?”


Wednesday’s featured keynote, “The American Identity: Who Are We, and Where Are We Going?” with MSNBC’s Eugene Robinson and Fox News’ Meghan McCain presented a fireside chat where attendees could ask questions and participate in open discussion. Topics centered around the current election and racial inequality. Robinson pointed out how technology and the speed of information have drastically changed the political and cultural landscape of today. He also touched on recent events concerning police brutality amongst minorities. McCain explained her frustration with the divide in the current Republican party and what patriotism, amidst all of the protest, means to her.

Day three concluded with the theme, “The Ripple Effect” which began with a panel discussion including Arsenal F.C.’s Dan Law; Cameroon Football Development Program Executive Director, Justin Forzano; Robert Morris University President, Dr. Chris Howard; Pittsburgh Penguins Statistical Consultant, Sam Ventura; and Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Analytics, Karim Kassam. The panel discussed the impacts of statistical data and technology with improving performance and safety concerns in professional and collegiate sports. The use of GPS chips, impact detectors and other data has proved to be beneficial to the NFL, NHL, and other high-contact sports.

Kassam stated, “We’re using technology in practices to help keep players safe.”

Thursday continued with presentations by Chris Messina, Developer Experience Lead at Uber and founder of the “hashtag” and D.S. Kinsel, a Creative Entrepreneur and Cultural Agitator based in Pittsburgh.

“It’s been valuable to learn how to communicate across communities.” Messina said.

Messina works with developers, product designers, entrepreneurs, and communities to bring to life projects that should exist but don’t. His superpower is pioneering initiatives before most people realize they’ll be important.

Kinsel, who strongly believes hashtags and social media are the new protest signs and platforms, is co-founder of Boom Concepts, a creative hub and project incubation space that hosts exhibitions, screenings, shows, and meetings. Both panelists touched on the importance of communication and how it can impact businesses in an emerging community.

“The best business is still word-of-mouth,” Kinsel said, “it’s about how to translate it digitally.”

Producer and DJ legend’s Phil Hartnoll (Orbital) and King Britt joined technologist and producer Nate Mars along with Roland U.S. Product Representative Peter Brown and Pittsburgh Modular Synth CEO, Richard Nicol in a discussion on analog versus digital sound production. Brown talked about modernized old machines with a digital touch. Roland, the creator of the well-known TR-808 and 909 is set to launch a smaller, less expensive but just as powerful model to accommodate a less expensive market. King Britt explained his connection with music, “I like the combination of both hardware and software, but there’s nothing like the sound of analog.”

“The modular synth is an instrument designed to give an artist the sound they want when they want it,” Nicol said, “it’s a direct interface from an artists mind to the sound he creates,” he added.

Hartnoll, who has 25+ years experience as a producer and DJ, well-known for his contribution to acid house in the early 90’s said, “The rock-n-roll industry was very anti-electric…and that took a long time to turn around.”

Producer and DJ Tommie Sunshine joined Magnum PR’s founder, SiouxZ and Movement Festival Operations Director, Sam Foitas along with DJ Mag’s Gabrielle Pharms in a conversation on how to build a “music identity” in your market and the overall music festival industry. All four panelists agreed the shift away from “cookie-cutter” festivals with predictable and repeated lineups will soon fade away and more niche and multi-genre festivals will undercut the market. With more and more regional festivals occurring each season, the market is saturated, giving attendees less of a reason to travel cross-country to see an act coming to a town near them. It is becoming more evident that consumers value quality over quantity when it comes to music consumption and entertainment.

While festivals like SXSW in Austin, Texas and Movement in Detroit, Michigan have focused on an “urban style” of festival, encapsulating the entire city, Pittsburgh has a chance to form an identity of it’s own in the coming future. Thrival is paving the way for a more collective experience, not just focusing on certain aspects. Tommie Sunshine said it well, “The best part about living in a city like Pittsburgh is that you can cultivate your own identity.”


Thrival’s final keynote featured Ann Makosinski, an eighteen year old inventor and English major at the University of B.C. Makosinki, the inventor of the Hollow Flashlight, a flashlight powered by thermoelectric energy, talked about her childhood and how that led her to become an accomplished scientist at an early age. While STEM education is extremely important to her, she explained that her true passion is in English literature, film and the arts.

“It’s important to balance science and the arts,” Makosinski said, “I always found that I excel at science outside of school, as a hobby, it’s important not to abandon your particular interests,” she added.

Makosinski, who competed in 10 science fairs over 7 years, explained she would not be where she was without determination, failures, and a little luck. With just hours before the deadline of the Intel Science Fair, Makosinski submitted her project, “Like classic high school fashion”, she said.

Above all, Makosinski emphasized the importance of taking risks and not being afraid of sticking true to your nature.

“The most dangerous thing you can do in your career is to play it safe, I think it’s important to take risks,” she said.


In just it’s fourth year, Thrival Innovation has shown the local Pittsburgh community how much it cares about preserving the traditions of the Steel City while taking the necessary steps to move forward with developing a clean, efficient, and sustainable town. Pittsburgh is once again on the rise in creating an identity for itself that does not compare to any other cities. While it may seem far-fetched, experienced individuals and young professionals working with technology can make a difference and create an environment where everyone gets a chance to Thrive.


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