Flickr/Eric Petor

The ride-hailing giant has built a development facility there, luring away some talented Carnegie Mellon researchers.

Ride-hailing giant Uber has brought the company’s driverless-car efforts to Pittsburgh, snapping up Carnegie Mellon researchers to come along for the ride. If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, this is something of a disaster for the acclaimed university, where I taught for nearly two decades.

“Carnegie Mellon University is scrambling to recover after Uber Technologies Inc. poached 40 of its researchers and scientists earlier this year,” the Journal reported this past Sunday, “a raid that left one of the world’s top robotics research institutions in a crisis.”

According to the report, Uber essentially stabbed the university in the back, luring “six principal investigators and 34 engineers” from CMU’s word-class National Robotic Engineering Center (NREC), including the center’s director, Tony Stentz, and most of its program directors—even after establishing a partnership with the university earlier this year. The pilfered researchers will work in Uber’s new driverless-car research facility, located just down the street from NREC’s laboratories.

Tensions abound when universities and industries try to work together, and even more so when a major funder like the U.S. Department of Defense is involved. (The Pentagon has supported major NREC research for decades.)

“If you want to do autonomous vehicles—we have a lot of people here doing that,” Jeff Legault, head of business development for NREC, told WSJ. “I would have preferred [Uber] just come to us” to work with the school to develop the technology, he said. But the biggest tensions tend to arise when the lines between the two—academia and industry—blur, and when companies influence university research, or worse, keep key findings from publication. The loss of key people may be temporary hardship for CMU, but ultimately, the fact that Uber is so interested in hiring its talent will allow the university to attract more and perhaps even better talent in the future.

Uber’s move to Pittsburgh and its hiring of CMU talent is good for the city. Universities are the talent magnets and anchors of the innovation-driven knowledge economy. But for decades, CMU has been generating talent and technology and subsequently losing them to more mature tech hubs like Silicon Valley. Uber’s location in Pittsburgh—and indeed, its hiring of top CMU researchers—signals that Pittsburgh has finally become a player in commercial technology. This will likely strengthen Pittsburgh’s talent magnet effect, attracting more top researchers and graduate students to the city and spurring the creation of more technology, more startups, and perhaps even a leading-edge industry cluster with Uber and CMU as its twin anchors.

First, a little history: CMU is the birthplace of the first autonomous vehicle, the DARPA-funded Terregator [PDF], built in 1984 by groundbreaking robotics researcher Red Whittaker. I used to see this proto-driverless vehicle tooling around the lot where I parked my own car when I taught at CMU between 1987 and 2004. NREC was incorporated into CMU’s robust Robotics Institute in 1996, two years after the center received its first funding from NASA.

A Hummer-based autonomous vehicle built by Carnegie Mellon researchers competes in a DARPA-sponsored race in 2005. (AP/Francis Specker)

Uber was drawn by this incredible constellation of technology and talent. The company established a research hub just around the corner from NREC in January. Since then, it has rapidly expanded its presence, with plans to lease a 50,000 square foot facility still just a mile away.

Uber’s decision to move to Pittsburgh indicates an important shift in what I once called the “Pittsburgh Paradox.” During my nearly two decades in Pittsburgh and at CMU, I was struck by the technological capabilities of the university. On a pound for pound basis, it was every bit as innovative as Stanford or MIT. But these scientific and technical capabilities never translated into the kinds of commercial innovation and high tech startups found in those other tech hubs. What the Wall Street Journal sensationalizes as the “poaching” of talented CMU faculty isn’t new at all: Tech firms like Microsoft, Apple, and Google have been convincing them to move away from Pittsburgh for decades.

In fact, it was the move of search-engine and web-portal Lycos from Pittsburgh to Boston—and the broader exodus of tech and talent away from CMU and toward other tech hubs like the Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Austin—that led to my own theories on the creative class. Universities are the hubs of such innovative knowledge-based regions. But in the case of Pittsburgh, the university’s “transmitter” roared away without the “receiver” of local industry to capitalize on it.

Uber’s move to the region changes all of that. It signals that Pittsburgh, which has always had that university capability, now has the commercial anchor required to be a world-class player in the driverless car industry.

Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, got it right when he told the Journal that Uber had other options when it looked for a place to build its facility—and for a university from which to draw talent. “We are really proud that Uber has decided to come here rather than those guys in Boston,” he said, in reference to MIT.

Back when I wrote Rise of the Creative Class, I called Pittsburgh my “base case,” arguing that of all the older rustbelt regions buffeted by deindustrialization, it was best positioned to make the transition to the knowledge economy. I noted that in addition to its remarkable university capabilities, it was blessed with three gorgeous rivers, fantastic urban neighborhoods, a superb network of parks, a stock of older industrial buildings and warehouses, and some of the best cycling terrain I had ever been on—a combination of technology and quality of place that could provide it with a powerful competitive edge.

With the election of Bill Peduto, the city finally has the leadership it needed to put it all together. And Peduto gets it: “Uber understands that Pittsburgh has the potential of becoming the global center of the autonomous vehicle world,” he says in an email. “We have the expertise to develop the software, the mapping, the robotics, and the manufacturing.” He’s right: The timing of Uber’s arrival could not be better for the region’s transformation.

Of course, there will be tensions along the way. And it will likely take the region and CMU some time to sort them out. But in the larger scope of things, Uber’s location in Pittsburgh means that the hard work the region and the university have put in for several decades is indeed paying off.

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