At first glance, the $62.7 million federal grant designed to “supercharge” Western Pennsylvania’s globally renowned robotics and autonomy sector would seem to be all about technology.
But the grant, funded by 2021’s American Rescue Plan Act, is really about people.
“(The award) is not just for the robotics software engineer in Pittsburgh,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “It is for the small town in Westmoreland County and in Beaver County, the manufacturing facilities that are transitioning and the type of training that can happen throughout our community colleges – but for families.
“It’s about hope and for the future, for the next generation who are out there wondering what’s going to happen,” said Fitzgerald, who joined other regional leaders on a call with President Joe Biden announcing the award.
The $62.7 million will be distributed over four years across an 11-county region, with the overarching goal of ensuring that the economic benefits of the area’s world-class robotics industry “equitably reaches rural and coal-impacted communities,” according to the Southwestern Pennsylvania (SWPA) New Economy Collaborative, which is administering the funds.
The Collaborative includes a broad cross-section of the region’s university, philanthropic, and private sector leaders. Its board is co-chaired by Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian and Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman.
“This effort will catalyze new programs and partnerships that share our region’s distinctive strengths in robotics, AI and automation with new and small businesses in our key sectors, while elevating and training a more resilient workforce,” Jahanian said in a statement.
As part of the American Rescue Plan, organizations were encouraged to submit applications for funding to the Build Back Better Regional Challenge.
The goal of the challenge was to “identify a set of interconnected investments that, together, could transform their local economy, expand economic opportunity and competitiveness, and create thousands of good jobs,” according to the White House.
Of 529 applicants to the challenge, 60 were chosen, and each was given a $500,000 seed grant. Of those, 21 were selected for grants between $25 million and $65 million. Those awardees will fund 123 individual projects that benefit 24 states.
Other awardees include an organization building a sustainable mariculture industry in Alaska, a group boosting the hydrogen energy sector in New Orleans, a university project to accelerate innovation in battery technology in New York and a coalition in Oregon using mass timber to accelerate affordable housing production and restore forest health.
Western Pennsylvania’s reputation in robotics and artificial intelligence is well-established, and the federal grant will help spread it outside of urban cores and universities, Pashman said.
“These projects are designed to open doors to anyone who wants to participate in the region’s thriving robotics cluster,” she said. “This includes expanded opportunities for women and people of color, as well as provide geographic equity throughout the region.”