The future of Pittsburgh will be determined, in large part, by a partnership forged deep in Pittsburgh’s past.

In 1967, Carnegie Tech merged with the Mellon Institute, a science research center founded by the Mellon family, to form Carnegie Mellon University. Today, the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced that it’s making a series of strategic grants totaling $150 million to Carnegie Mellon University — the largest in its history — to go all-in on creating the scientific breakthroughs of the future, and make sure that they’re happening here.

The donation will be split among three different projects.

  • A $75 million lead grant toward a new $210 million science building located in a prominent spot on Forbes Avenue next to Carnegie Museums.
  • A new Robotics Innovation Center to be built at Hazelwood Green, fueled by a $45 million grant. The building (which will cost $100 million total) will add 150,000 square feet of space to Carnegie Mellon’s already world-leading robotics research programs.
  • A $30 million commitment to the Manufacturing Futures Institute, which already operates in Hazelwood Green’s converted steel mill, Mill 19.

“This historic investment will help Pittsburgh to control its economic destiny and to reassert its rightful place as the national leader in the most important industries of today and tomorrow, with access to everyone who wants to be part of the story,” says Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation. “The Hazelwood community has been waiting for more than 18 years, since the J&L mill closed, for the site to become a source of jobs once again.”

The vision, says Reiman, is to make Pittsburgh “a global leader in advanced and additive manufacturing, robotics and the creation of technology jobs that are accessible to the entire community.”

On CMU’s campus, the new science building will be designed with collaboration in mind, with cutting-edge lab space shared by student and faculty researchers. It will complement a simultaneous $40 million investment from the university in the world’s first “academic cloud laboratory,” showcasing automated, remote-controlled robotics for collecting data and experimentation.

“So much has changed in the world of life sciences over the last year, but certainly over the last 30 years, with the biotechnology revolution truly taking hold,” says Reiman.

The ways that scientists are conducting research are completely different now, with students, faculty and researchers collaborating with each other, and with others across the world. Tools like big data and artificial intelligence amplify their efforts tenfold. And, of course, there’s the expectation that universities become creators of technologies that will eventually be commercialized, resulting in spin-off companies.

More than a decade ago, the R.K. Mellon Foundation partnered with The Heinz Endowments and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to purchase and painstakingly refurbish the polluted industrial site along the Monongahela River that would become Hazelwood Green. The need for specialized space for emerging technologies was already becoming apparent.

“Well, there’s no other place in the city to do it, and its proximity to the universities is part of the reason why the foundations acquired Hazelwood Green back in 2002,” says Reiman. “So if you want to do research that also is in partnership with the corporate sector and other for-profit startup companies, that’s something that is extremely difficult to do in the Oakland corridor, which is configured primarily around the academic side.”

CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville has been wildly successful in creating and attracting companies, forming the nucleus of a cluster that now includes at least 80 robotics businesses — dubbed by some as “robotics row.” The Robotics Innovation Center is intended to complement the National Robotics Engineering Center’s work, and do something similar at Hazelwood Green.

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green. Photo courtesy of CMU.

“The technologies developed at the Robotics Innovation Center will ripple across every part of our society and economy, impacting fields including health care, transportation, national security, education, agriculture and retail,” says Martial Hebert, dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science.

CMU has already designed robots to enter nuclear reactors and navigate the rocky landscape of Mars. They’ve created robots small enough to enter the bloodstream, and surgical assistants for heart surgery. And, of course, self-driving cars, which created an entirely new industry for Pittsburgh.

Future robotics innovations planned at the Robotics Innovation Center include agricultural robots that can optimize plant care and resiliency in the face of climate change, aerial robots that can detect pollutants, and soft robots that can form intelligent symbioses with humans — including next-generation wearable robotics for elderly, disabled and sick people.

The $30 million grant to the Manufacturing Futures Institute is intended to claim leadership in an era of constantly accelerating technological change in manufacturing. The goal is to develop advanced materials, equipment and processes (like additive manufacturing and manufacturing of biological tissues), in collaboration with local and national manufacturers of all sizes. CMU predicts the institute will catalyze more than $200 million in research in the next 10 years.

Through this grant, “CMU will feed a humming engine of innovation for advanced manufacturing, not just for Pittsburgh but for the nation,” says Gary Fedder, director of the Manufacturing Futures Institute.

The grant expands the institute’s footprint at Mill 19 — a remarkable building constructed inside the frame of the former J&L steel mill, with a massive solar array on the roof. It also gives creates an endowment to ensure its future.

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green. Photo courtesy of CMU.

The timeline for these projects envisions completion by 2026.

Over the next decade, robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced materials and manufacturing are expected to grow at double-digit rates, and their total market size will likely exceed $2 trillion by 2030, according to CMU estimates.

“Pittsburgh’s future — and the future of U.S. innovation and global competitiveness — are inextricably linked to scientific and technological advances, and how well organizations, communities and industries can stay ahead of the rapid pace of change,” says CMU President Farnam Jahanian.

It’s hard to predict what the future will hold, of course.

“When you go back to the ‘60s and you look at the foundation’s seed investment in the School of Computer Science … I often like to say Richard King Mellon and his wife Constance didn’t sit down with their counterparts at CMU and ask whether there would be autonomous cars within the next three years.”

Making the long-term investment, without really knowing where it will lead, has worked for R.K. Mellon and CMU in the past.

“So, these are fundamental investments in the core of these three areas of life sciences, manufacturing and robotics,” says Reiman. “And we have every expectation that we’ll see immediate benefits in terms of the types of jobs that will be created, the spin-off companies and corporate partners. But as far as the potential for the technology itself — really, the imagination is the limit here in terms of where this will all end up, resolving and producing for society over the next 50 years.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.