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Pittsburgh's 'Strip District' New Home of Ford Autonomous Vehicle Development Venture

The artificial intelligence startup developing the brain of Ford's self-driving vehicle will settle in what it sees as Pittsburgh's tech hub.

by Daniel Moore and Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / February 24, 2017
From left top right, Peter Rander, Argo AI COO; Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO; Bryan Salesky, Argo AI CEO; and Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Product Development, and chief technical officer.

(TNS) — Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence start-up that hopes to build the brain of the autonomous vehicle for Ford Motor Co., announced Thursday it will make its home in the Strip District.

According to real estate sources, Argo will be subleasing an entire floor in the Crane Building at 40 24th Street, along the Allegheny River.

Argo AI declined to comment on the specifics of the building. But in an interview, Bryan Salesky, co-founder and chief executive of Argo AI, said the company was attracted to the Strip District because of its location and the proximity of tech-minded companies.

“I think that’s the tech hub here in Pittsburgh,” Mr. Salesky said.

“I think you see what’s happening in that area in terms of development: You’ve got so many different companies there that are setting up high-tech operations,” Mr. Salesky added. “It’s got easy access to all the different neighborhoods from a commute standpoint. It’s easy to do a mixed-use/industrial office in that area. We’re excited to be a part of that community.”

Developments will happen quickly: The company expects to be fully moved in by late March or early April, Mr. Salesky said.

“From a functional standpoint, it’s a lot of software engineers, right? So an open, collaborative environment is essential,” he said. “We will also be doing testing, so a garage space where they will maintain and service vehicles and do some hardware development is also important.”

Ford announced earlier this month it plans to invest $1 billion in Argo over five years. The Detroit automaker wants to have a fully autonomous vehicle in production by 2021, and Ford officials said Pittsburgh’s pool of engineering talent will help it reach that goal.

Argo was quietly founded late last year by a group of robotics veterans previously affiliated with Uber, Google and Carnegie Mellon University. Argo, currently advertising for 10 job titles and an internship, plans to hire 200 people by the end of the year.

Argo is believed to be taking the 23,350 square feet from JazzHR, a software company that is vacating the space this weekend, according to real estate sources. JazzHR is moving to the Cardello Building on the North Side, where it will occupy 8,500 square feet.

Neither Bruce McClellan, the Hanna Langholz Wilson Ellis vice president who serves as broker for the Crane Building, nor Allie Kelly, vice president of JazzHR, would say who is subleasing the space. JazzHR has 18 months left on its lease.

Erected in 1920 by the Crane Company, the main building is six stories and served mainly as a warehouse. A two-story section in the rear originally was used as a foundry. The building was purchased in 1995 by the current owners, including Chuck Hammel, president of Pitt Ohio Express. They converted it to office space.

The Crane Building is near the Cork Factory apartments and the Oxford Development Company Three Crossings office and residential complex, which is home to tech companies Apple and Robert Bosch LLC. The Strip is also a hub for ride-hailing company Uber.

Mr. McClellan said that when he started leasing the building 15 years ago, the asking rate was $15 per square foot. Now it’s $24.50, a reflection of how hot of an office market the Strip has become.

He said tech companies are particularly attracted to the Strip because of the combination of nightlife, residential, restaurants, free parking and good transportation.

“It’s like night and day,” Mr. McClellan said. “We were one of the few office buildings in the Strip in 1995. The owners took a real risk doing that conversion. It was before the Cork Factory was converted to residential and now there’s so much activity with Oxford’s Three Crossings right in the same area. It’s one of the most active areas in the city right now.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, who met with Argo last week, estimated there are now 20 robotics companies within a few blocks in the Strip District.

“When you're talking about doing artificial intelligence, autonomous manufacturing, you're dealing with sites that need large scale,” Mr. Peduto said. “And the fact is, the Strip is prime for it.”

The 125,000-square-foot Crane Building is fully leased with tenants including Net Health and EFI.

In a blog post Thursday, Mr. Salesky wrote, “Just as Pittsburgh, and this neighborhood in particular, played a significant role in rolling out the infrastructure of this country, I expect it will again play a major role in the automation of the automotive industry and beyond.”

Some of those people Argo hopes to hire could end up based in Detroit or San Francisco, as Mr. Salesky said Argo is giving employees the choice of where to live and work.

Though Argo’s research will initially focus on supporting Ford’s autonomous venture — and though Ford owns a majority stake — Ford officials said the start-up will have the freedom to license software to other companies, including automakers, to expand business in the long term.

©2017 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.