Pitt entrepreneurial institute's setup catching eyes

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When the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence launched in 1993, founder Ann Dugan said chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor made a couple of requests.

"I was told two things -- and, by the way, this is going to be the title of my book one day -- 'don't get in any trouble and don't ask us for money,' " she said.

More than two decades later, the institute's approach of leaning heavily on outside funding sources for survival is being recognized across the country.

"Our model, how to connect universities with economic development and entrepreneurs in real ways, is something that can and should be replicated nationwide," Ms. Dugan said, adding that since an article she wrote about the institute for The Huffington Post ran last week, her phone and email have been deluged with inquiries.

Addressing a crowd of around 20 entrepreneurs and media at Turner's Dairy Farm in Penn Hills on Wednesday, she said statistics from the institute's newly released 2013 annual report offer proof of the model's staying power.

Despite only 4 percent of 2013 funding coming from the university, the institute was able to raise more than $13 million in capital through its educational programs and companies paying annual membership fees, as well as federal and state funds, foundation grants, donations and sponsorships.

The institute will go into the 2014 fiscal year with an operating budget of $2.5 million.

For the Pittsburgh region's small business owners, the institute's 2013 tally shows it has assisted more than 900 individuals, helped to create 47 new businesses, and introduced entrepreneurs to resources that helped them increase bottom lines by $9 million and raise more than $13 million in new capital.

Those dollars, said Ms. Dugan, have gone toward both startups seeking their first infusion and later-stage companies seeking to expand.

"We're very proud of those funding numbers because they don't represent two loans of $4 million each," she said. "Oftentimes we work just as hard for that first [$8,000 or $50,000] a company gets as we will for that $250,000 or million. It's just helping to get the money a company needs to grow."

Charles Turner Jr., third-generation president of the 83-year-old dairy, said the institute has helped his family navigate responsibilities and transitions of power.

By linking with the institute, Mr. Turner and other family members joining the business took leadership development classes and participated in computer forums.

"The institute and Ann have been invaluable in helping us not only get from generation two to three, but helping me and my cousins and my brother and my sisters figure out how to run the business together," said Mr. Turner.

"Now I'm pleased to say that I have a son and nephew looking to join the business in the next couple years. So now the same kind of programs we used to go to with my dad and my uncle, I go to with my son and my wife, my nephew and my brother."

For Karin Mayr, owner of Robinson-based Sabika Jewelry, the institute's assistance helped to secure copyrights for the brand, modernized information technology platforms and put four family members through its Entrepreneurial Fellows Program, a certified business management course. Ms. Mayr said the institute has also been instrumental in helping the company plan its expansion to a new facility last year.

On Wednesday, Ms. Dugan also announced the creation of a new Entrepreneur Hotline. Starting Monday, entrepreneurs will be able to call toll free 1-844-PITTIEE from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for real-time guidance from institute staff members. The hotline will run throughout March.

"Sometimes people think you can just go on a website and get all of that information, but it's not the same as having a knowledgeable voice on the other end of the phone that can really talk about it," she said.

The founder of the institute will end her 20-year career there once her successor is chosen, a decision she said could be announced in the next few weeks.

However, with organizations across the country hoping to use the formula she has created at Pitt, Ms. Dugan said retirement won't look exactly like she thought.

"Retirement is probably a word that is scary to me, but I'd like to think of it as stepping down -- creating that next chapter for the Institute of Entrepreneurial Excellence, as well as being able to help other parts of our region and country in thinking through ways of doing economic development as impactful as ours."

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

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