Newly formed AlphaLab nurtures technology startups


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When Felix Lloyd's wife, Jordan Bookey, was hired by Google as programs manager for global diversity and talent inclusion, the couple were put off by the price of living in Google's hometown of San Francisco. On learning the search giant had a facility in Pittsburgh, they came for a visit and decided that the city on the Point suited them better than the city by the bay.

So when they moved to Pittsburgh in August, they were not -- repeat not -- looking for free office space for Mr. Lloyd's startup company.

But Mr. Lloyd's company, Skill-Life, is now one of a half-dozen technology startups that on June 2 became the first occupants of AlphaLab, a South Side business incubator.

The companies occupy the first floor of 2325 Carson St., which Innovation Works began leasing in May and renovated with input from software developers to create "a very flexible environment that's conducive to peer learning," with a central open space surrounded by offices for the individual companies, along with conference rooms for formal meetings.


AlphaLab roster
The companies in the first cycle of AlphaLab:

Created by Hazelwood-based venture capital fund Innovation Works, AlphaLab is more than a place -- it is a six-month program designed to accelerate the birth and growth of software, Internet and gaming companies.

The companies, selected from a field of more than 60 applicants from seven states, have been awarded $25,000 each by Hazelwood-based venture capital fund Innovation Works, and also will receive mentoring from Innovation Works' roster of consulting executives.

"It seemed like an underserved -- and a very attractive -- segment where there was an opportunity for a new model to emerge," said Innovation Works Chief Executive Officer Rich Lunak.

Program director Jim Jens said that besides helping the companies to interact with each other, one of the goals of AlphaLab was "connecting them into the entrepreneurial community." To help that happen, owners of established companies will visit to speak with participants about such matters as marketing and the licensing of intellectual property.

When he first moved to Pittsburgh, Mr. Lloyd shared office space with Eric Brown, chief executive officer of Impact Games, another Innovation Works portfolio company. Mr. Brown encouraged him to meet the people at Innovation Works, and when he did, Mr. Jens said: apply for AlphaLab.

"Folks here actually return calls and take meetings and put you in touch with other people," he said. "I don't think it would have happened that way in another city."

He said AlphaLab mentoring had already proven valuable in helping him to rethink the entrepreneur's eternal question of how to generate revenue. Skill-Life is an online game designed to help young people gain financial literacy by having their avatars perform such real-world activities as choosing a career, paying bills, shopping and investing (the goal of the game is to have one's investment income exceed one's expenses). While many Internet-based ventures focus on advertising, Mr. Lloyd originally thought in term of licensing Skill-Life to schools and education providers. Now, partly because of AlphaLab discussions, "I've had the notion that it would be good to go directly to parents."

The model under consideration would have a parent buy a child's Skill-Life membership, with the idea that the child could earn back most of their parent's investment through game play. For instance, with a $50 gift, the child might be able to earn $45 through the game.

As an online game, Skill-Life will have a strong social component that encourages players to share what they learn with one another.

Another AlphaLab company, BlenderHouse, exists entirely to take advantage of social networking on the Web. Co-founders Jason Wilburn and Mike Cham are working to create applications that exploit social networking to help users with decision-making.

For instance, Mr. Wilburn said, a person trying to decide what car to buy might go to such established sources as Consumer Reports or car magazines for information on quality or performance issues.

"But what you can't get is, 'Does that car fit my personality?'" he said, "because they don't know who you are. Your friends know who you are. We provide a structured mechanism to get that feedback in place."

He and Mr. Cham learned about AlphaLab from a local blog.

"It fit our timing perfectly," Mr. Wilburn said. "The types of things they provide are exactly the things we needed."

By the end of their stay in AlphaLab, Mr. Wilburn said, "We should be able to have three or four different applications running on Facebook and, hopefully, one on MySpace. "

BlenderHouse's revenue model will rely on advertising, ranging from text-based ads, such as those offered though Google's AdSense program, to sponsorships.

Other participants in the first cycle of Alpha Lab include Chogger, which is developing a tool that will allow users to create their own comic strips; crono, creating software to automate and simplify communications, schedule appointments and book services; GameHuddle, a social network for gamers -- users can review games, blog and create microsites for clans and guilds; and Sonya Labs, which is developing a search engine and research tools for the legal industry.

"Without AlphaLab, we'd probably be three guys in a garage," said Chogger founder Jeremy Herrman. "Now we've incorporated, we're fleshing out a business plan and are developing our product. Maybe we would have done that ourselves, but AlphaLab is making our company real right now."


Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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