CMU's Project Olympus retains and trains future local entrepreneurs


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At the Project Olympus show-and-tell this week at Carnegie Mellon University, it didn't take long to see this wasn't your typical science fair.

The Smart.Mirror team built a computer program that is already being used by the Charles Spiegel For Men clothing store in Squirrel Hill. It scans an item's tag and then recommends accompanying pieces.

And V-teractive designed a program that can replace profile pictures on dating websites with true-to-life avatars capable of receiving virtual gifts for virtual flirtation.

But lofty as the projects were, the closing requests at the 10-minute PowerPoint presentations revealed these ambitious entrepreneurs are still making small moves. Instead of asking for money from venture capitalists, the speakers ended by soliciting mentors, or asking for advice, or even trying to recruit new team members who thought their idea was cool.

Founded in 2007, Project Olympus at Carnegie Mellon supports student and faculty companies at the (very) embryonic stage. In the first three years of the program, 23 companies have formed -- including star performers, reCAPTCHA, an online text digitizer recently acquired by search engine Google, and Dynamics Inc., which acquired $5.7 million in funding last year.

In September 2009, there were 21 groups in the project. That number had nearly doubled to 41 by December.

The program, founded by computer science professor Lenore Blum, seeks to introduce members to the differing -- and sometimes dueling -- sensibilities of research scientists and business professionals. But the in-house incubation has had another effect, as Dr. Blum saw at a recent meeting with the Olympus groups.

"I asked how many were planning to stay in town with their companies," she said. "Every single one said 'yes,' which is a total sea change from a few years ago."

Dr. Blum said CMU students weren't previously as interested in founding a startup in Pittsburgh -- mostly because they'd secured jobs in Silicon Valley before commencement. Project Olympus has doubled as a starting point for companies that eventually work with Pittsburgh seed-funding organizations like AlphaLab.

Project Olympus rents out a 1,300-square-foot space on Craig Street for budding entrepreneurs to use as a test space and crash site.

"It's the modern version of the garage," she said.

In addition to retaining talent for the region, a top focus of the program is melding the sensibilities of researchers and entrepreneurs.

Researchers "share everything, and talk about everything," and don't typically care about pesky things like patents, said Dr. Blum. But the business-minded are more likely to keep things under wraps and secretive for competitive advantage.

Project Olympus was initially funded with a Heinz Endowments grant, and more than $7 million in follow-up funding for Olympus proposals has come from university and outside sources. But that doesn't mean the well is deep.

"I have to pay my employees month-to-month because we don't always know where the next funding is coming from," said Dr. Blum.

Olympus employees include Kit Needham, a senior business adviser, and Babs Carryer, an embedded entrepreneur with the program. Both are oft-cited mentors to the burgeoning companies.

Ms. Needham said the show-and-tell events -- which are open to the public -- let students practice their selling skills and "present their concepts crisply and articulately." Community members can attend the presentations and register at http://olympus.cs.cmu.edu/ under "Events."

In addition to online dating improvements and outfit coordination programming, Wednesday's five presentations demonstrated innovative solutions to specifically college problems.

Education Works!! wants to help tutors build computer-adaptive tutorials for students behind in class. The team behind myCampus envisions a cloud-computing alternative to those messy bulletin boards covered in expired event posters. And People's Labs has created a website for resume customization.

Smart.Mirror co-founder Jonathan Ma said his Olympus micro-grant has been used for advanced hardware and conference costs. The work with Project Olympus has put his company on a hopscotch tour of Pittsburgh's grant programs for young startup companies.

"We're actually planning to apply to AlphaLab, so if we do get it, we'll be on East Carson Street for another half year or so," he said.


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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