Big ideas meld into businesses

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If Carnegie Mellon University student David Chen and his collaborators have their way, by the end of this year Pittsburghers will be able to use the navigation systems in their cars to not only find restaurants, but also to check their menus and to make reservations.

Mr. Chen is a co-founder of Fooala, a company created to help restaurants exploit more fully the possibilities of e-commerce. Fooala is one of the companies that will be featured in a Show and Tell this afternoon as evidence of the continuing success of Project Olympus, a CMU-based incubator for tech companies created by students and faculty.

Project Olympus, the brainchild of CMU computer science Professor Lenore Blum, was launched in January 2007 "to create a culture, climate and community that will enable talent and ideas to grow in the Pittsburgh region."

The program centers on creating "problem-oriented explorations," or "probes." Each probe brings together a team of students, graduates, faculty and business advisers to seek a solution for a specific problem -- and a way to commercialize that solution.

To date, the project's Web site lists 15 probes that are in various stages of becoming viable companies. Each Show and Tell offers between three and five presentations on companies that Project Olympus has helped to bring into being. Previous sessions have introduced audiences to Impact Games, a maker of videogames based on current events; Bright, an online forum for seeking or offering professional expertise; and Dynamics LLC, offering a fraud-resistant type of credit card.

Besides Mr. Chen's presentation on Fooala, today's program will include presentations on Tropical Health Systems, which is developing a medical device to combat malaria, and Carnegie Speech, whose software program NativeAccent teaches users to speak new languages with the inflections of a native speaker.

With the depth of research being conducted on local campuses, Pittsburgh is "sitting on a gold mine of great innovations," Ms. Blum said. "If we do just a little bit more, we can get them into the marketplace."

The Heinz Endowments agreed.

Through its Innovative Economy Program, the foundation gave Project Olympus $400,000 to get off the ground. The project also will benefit from a recent $400,000 grant to CMU's School of Computer Science.

One of Ms. Blum's goals is to have Project Olympus become self-sustaining by 2012, funded by licensing and returns from its investments in the companies that it has helped to birth.

Meanwhile, her hope is that events such as today's will catch the attention of both the business and the nonprofit communities.

Noting that programs similar to Project Olympus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California have received much higher levels of funding ($20 million and $10 million, respectively), she said, "We've been able to do a lot with what we've had."

For more information about the Show and Tell, visit www.olympus.cs.cmu.edu/events.


Elwin Green may be contacted at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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