Pitt becoming a launchpad for entrepreneurs

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Fueled by big ideas grown into small businesses and a push for innovations in every department from English to engineering, the University of Pittsburgh is rapidly developing a reputation as an entrepreneurial launch pad.

In recent years, Pitt started the Randall Family Big Ideas competition for student businesses; kicked off its own Start-up Weekend; merged the Office of Technology Management, the Office of Enterprise Development and the Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence under the umbrella of the Innovation Institute; and embarked on a campaign to promote the virtues of small business throughout the campus.

Maybe all that was at least a factor in making Pittsburgh a top city for start-ups, as designated by tech site Mashable,

"I think Pitt is a bit like a sleeping giant," said Babs Carryer, director of education and outreach for the Innovation Institute. "Not that we haven't done innovation in the past, because we have. I think the difference now is there is a lot of pent-up energy, excitement and focus around innovation and entrepreneurship that's new."

Mrs. Carryer, founder of entrepreneurship blog NewVenturist and a serial entrepreneur who co-founded South Side-based life sciences investment firm LaunchCyte, said she hopes her new role with the Innovation Institute draws in student and faculty entrepreneurs from across the campus and forges greater connections with established entrepreneurs who got their start at Pitt.

A revamped Randall Family Big Idea competition that connects past contest winners with student contestants as mentors has been one way to help re-establish ties with successful Pitt entrepreneurs. Students who have gone through the mentoring process and several training classes since February were judged in the competition's final round Thursday night. 

Nicki Zevola, who took home a $20,000 second place prize in 2012, said the competition gave her the confidence she needed to follow through with her idea for her science-based skincare and beauty company FutureDerm and connected her with the mentors and investors she would need to make the dream happen.

After winning the $20,000 prize, Ms. Zevola acquired $25,000 in seed funding from South Side accelerator Alpha Lab and was able to raise a Series A funding round that included money from Chris and Robin Randall.

Win or lose, Ms. Zevola said students should take advantage of the opportunities presented to them through the competition.

"Ask questions, ask mentors who they know, keep leveraging that network," she said. "You're going to meet a lot of people and some of them aren't going to get you or your vision for your company. But ask them for another contact, because chances are there are going to be more people who are on the same page as you and see what you are trying to do."

For Aaron Ingley of energy bar company Pure Barre, the $1,000 second place prize that he and his partner Julia Erickson won in 2011 wasn't enough to launch the East Liberty company to national distribution. However, networking connections made through Pitt's Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence helped the company move the product from local dance and yoga studios to shelves at Whole Foods, Giant Eagle Market District, Marty's Market, East End Food Co-op and other local grocers. 

He said if student entrepreneurs hope to make similar strides, they can't be intimidated by any learning curves.

"Don't be afraid to ask a lot of dumb questions. Me and Julia are both classically trained dancers with no previous business experience, but we we have been successful and come a long way by asking a lot of dumb questions," he said.

For more information, visit http://www.innovation.pitt.edu/2014RandallBigIdea

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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