Pittsburgh flies into the longer term

Donald Bonk interviews Dick Zhang, founder of Identified Technologies, a drone company, on the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. This interview was conducted before COVID-19. The transcript is shortened and edited for the sake of clarity.

View the episode archive here. View Dick Zhang’s profile here.

“Without a doubt, Pittsburgh can be the place for anything to do with technology, robotics and artificial intelligence.” – Dick Zhang, Founder of Identified Technologies

Donald Bonk: Welcome, Dick. Please tell us a little bit about how you ended up in Pittsburgh and where you started.

Dick Zhang: The construction business is all about real-time mapping and we use drones to capture and process the data for project management purposes on the construction site.

Bonk: Has this use of drones developed a long time or is it newer?

Zhang: Drones have been used on construction sites for six or eight years. In a real commercial setting, it has increased over the past two or three years.

Zhang: Why don’t we just start with how you ended up in Pittsburgh?

Zhang: I grew up in central New Jersey. I went to the University of Pennsylvania where I was studying to be a mechanical engineer. Halfway through my studies at Penn, I didn’t show up for my fall semester. I worked as an investment banker on Wall Street.

About six years ago, I felt that this business had a lot of opportunity and that I had a lot of opportunity to grow. We moved here because of their deep technical expertise in robotics and AI. Many of our early customers were here. Our first investors were here.

We participated in a program called Alpha Lab Gear, a startup accelerator incubator run by Innovation Works and funded by the state. Ilana Diamond, who now leads the Alpha Lab Gear program, sold me in Pittsburgh.

Bonk: Tell me about the development process as you move from an Alpha project to a seat here at your headquarters in East Liberty near Bakery Square.

Zhang: You always think if you want to do it, it will be a direct experience from point A to point B or point C. In retrospect, it’s anything but that. You obviously keep working and trying. Progress happens. We arrived in Pittsburgh in late 2013.

Bonk: Now in 2020 we are seven years in the future. Just to give people a quick understanding of the company itself: How many people work as employees or employees with Identified Technologies?

Zhang: A little over two dozen people. Since we are offering the drone as a service, we have pilots in key hubs across the country.

Bonk: What we are interested in today are your views on Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Tomorrow. What would make Pittsburgh the best city in the world?

Zhang: The only dimension that drives a “big city” is people. It’s important to have passionate people. Smart people definitely don’t hurt, but passionate people who make a contribution, want to be part of a problem, and want that influence on their mission – that’s the most important thing.

Bonk: What does Pittsburgh need to cultivate this attitude towards passionate people? Do you think passion is here now?

Zhang: I would say passion is here now. It’s definitely not here in the quantities that you can get in some of the larger cities. As a resident and business owner, I would definitely say there is this minimum; I wouldn’t say critical mass. I would call it the minimally viable product.

Bonk: Is there anything you would suggest to add to the critical mass of passionate, dedicated people that you think Pittsburgh needs? Is it recreation or more transportation? Is there an outside element that you think would be a catalyst for adding these types of people?

Zhang: You’re starting to ask questions about the quality of life here in Pittsburgh. And it is absolutely the right question.

I don’t think professional opportunities are the main driver. Once people realize that there are opportunities here in the world of work, they start asking these immediate questions: What is it like to live here? Where do I live? How do I live, what do I eat and where do I go for fun?

Maybe this reflects the things that interest me. Living and easy transport without a vehicle are extremely important.

You want to draw people who don’t have families and those who do. I noticed this when I was looking for an apartment myself. There are a large number of houses that are 100 years old. Granted, I’m not interested in having to maintain a 100 year old property.

Bonk: How do you find the rental options for you or your employees?

Zhang: We were never limited by the rental options. The city has always been able to meet our needs. There were times when it was a seek operation so the volume may not exist. But this is also the chicken or the egg.

Bonk: Tell me a little about what would make Pittsburgh the best or ideal city in terms of transportation. What is the void?

Zhang: The gap is that we need to be able to walk or use our own devices to get between the key nodes. I don’t know the answer to that, but if I live in Philadelphia I can get downtown from University City. I can walk it in 20 minutes. I can take the SEPTA (subway); it might take 10 minutes.

The neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are so scattered and diverse. For example, I can’t get to the north coast from East Liberty or Squirrel Hill. Or from anywhere in Pittsburgh to the airport. I shouldn’t be paying $ 70 for an Uber ticket to get to the airport.

Bonk: Do you think Pittsburgh is an ideal city for what it gives you in terms of absence?

Zhang: I would say so. The things that are important to me are the culture and the arts. Pittsburgh has one of the greatest symphonies in the world. I have tickets. There is no lack of culture, art and history. Again, it may not be the volume that other cities have and you may have to do a little research, but it certainly is.

The other thing I care about is physical activity and being able to do it outdoors. My biggest hobby outside of the office is triathlon and Iron Man endurance racing. Being able to drive 40, 60, 100 miles is extremely important for my training.

Bonk: Let’s just say we give you magical powers. What are three immediate things that you think would help Pittsburgh achieve its future? Three wishes, if you will.

Zhang: The first is a community of experienced entrepreneurs. More important than people, more important than capital, more important than office space than anything else are entrepreneurs who have successfully implemented a vision and can lead the next generation.

Unfortunately, experience can only be gained through failure. So I want to draw the people who have that experience.

Bonk: 25 years ago there was no drone industry. You’re an iterator in an industry. Do you feel that there is an opportunity for Pittsburgh to become a hub for this type of industry or business?

Zhang: Without a doubt, Pittsburgh can absolutely be the place for anything to do with technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence. An experience I recently had convinced me of that. I’m in a different city and my friend had just seen a self-driving car pull up for the first time to pick us up. And it wasn’t for me. We’ve seen Ubers and all these other self-driving companies in Pittsburgh for years. It’s just another daily thing.

We’re leading the way in these technologies – drones fly over the Carnegie Mellon and Pitt campuses. It’s just another daily backdrop to some really cool, awesome, almost freaky technology that was born and developed here.

Bonk: Finally, is there anything you would like to share about where Pittsburgh will be in the years to come?

Zhang: I have no doubt that Pittsburgh will become a prime city like New York City, Boston and San Francisco. I am very happy that it happened and that it was part of it.

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