Commentary

Demo Day showcases the next entrepreneurial wave in Pittsburgh


Adapted from my new PopCity blog today…

As Y Combinator is to Silicon Valley early-stage entrepreneurs, so is AlphaLab to Pittsburgh. We have a thriving early-stage entrepreneurial community, due in no small part to startup accelerator, AlphaLab.

AlphaLab provides $25,000 in seed funding and entrepreneurial mentorship to 12 startup companies per year in two cycles. Twice a year, Demo Day showcases these startup prodigies.

Entrepreneurship@CMU. CMU is another cornerstone of our region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The majority of startups in Pittsburgh over the past 10 years have CMU affiliation, either through technology spun out from the university, student-driven new ventures, or CMU faculty-student-alums at the helm.

Under the umbrella of Greenlighting StartupsSM, multiple initiatives are at the root of CMU’s success at stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation: Don Jones Center for Entrepreneurship, Project Olympus, Institute for Social Innovation, the Quality of Life Technology Center, Open Field Entrepreneur’s Fund, and Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation.

AlphaLab and i6 Demo Day. Last week we got a glimpse of what AlphaLab and CMU are producing in the way of startups around very cool ideas. Demo Day showcased six projects from the i6 program and six AlphaLab companies. Of note, all six i6 projects, and three of the six AlphaLab companies came through Project Olympus.

Dave Mawhinney

i6 Program. “I” is for innovation; “6” is for the six regions of the country that received this two-year $1 million award from the Department of Commerce that partners CMU and Innovation Works. Led by Dave Mawhinney, entrepreneur and Associate Director of the Don Jones Center for Entrepreneurship, the i6 program provides funding and mentoring to do one thing: get in front of customers. Dave tells me: “We provide startup support that results in a better chance of success. It is hard to build a company, one of the hardest things on the planet. We help them do it right.”

Demo Day highlights. The three faculty i6 projects are showcased below.

  1. Eriko Nurvitadhi explains Transactional DA

    Transactional DA. Recognizing the commercial value in Dr. Eriko Nurvitadhi’s PhD research at CMU, Dr. James Hoe, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Eriko patented their technology and teamed up to form Transactional DA. Eriko, Transactional DA’s CTO, with both a PhD and a MBA, presented the startup’s story: “We offer a way to more efficiently design embedded processor chips, which control the execution of a myriad of things that you use every day, like thumb drives. There are 10 billion of these chips sold every year, so a savings of, say, $.17 per unit results in over $1.5 billion.” Nice market opportunity, Eriko!

  2. Guna presents Classroom Salon

    Classroom Salon. Computer Science prof, Ananda Gunawardena, known as Guna, writes his own textbooks and puts them online in a unique framework that encourages students to annotate, comment, ask questions, and interact. Known as Classroom Salon, named after the French literary salons of the 17th and 18th C, the system is now used by 8,000 users in over 50 academic institutions. The Salon project has received $500,000 in NSF and Gates Foundation funding.

    By networking the textbook, Salon provides a solution to the declining paper book publishing market. Guna is finding that the story resonates with publishers, and is beta testing Salon with McGraw Hill and Norton. Guna tells me, “The textbook industry is broken, and we can help fix it. A textbook is the single place where students find reliable and relevant material for their studies. By reinventing the textbook, we solve a major problem in the industry.” Having previously founded Textcentric, which was sold to Pearson Custom Publishing, we ask that you do it again, Guna!

  3. Edan Yago presents Enzium

    Enzium. Lest we think that all of CMU is about software, let’s remember that Pittsburgh is known for its healthcare. While CMU doesn’t spin out cancer-curing compounds, it does spin out other kinds of life sciences companies. Including Enzium, which was formed last spring by Biology Prof, Peter Berget, and Tepper MBA students, Crystal Falco and Edan Yago. Crystal, Enzium’s CEO, couldn’t present because she was presenting at a biotech partnering conference in Philadelphia. Luckily she sent co-founder and marketing guru, Edan, to present Enzium to us in his charming South African accent.

    Enzium sells reagent enzyme activity detection kits that allow drug companies to screen next generation therapies for cancers, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and infectious diseases. Enzium kits are unique because they can easily be integrated into each phase of drug development. The Enzium technology is offered at a time when drug patents are expiring and pharma is looking for new solutions. And Enzium provides enzyme activity based clinical trial diagnostics just as the FDA is requiring such testing.

    The problem Enzium solves garnered a $10M NIH center grant to CMU. Unfortunately, our region has lost Peter Berget who took a faculty position as Chair of the Biology Department at University of the Sciences, a top pharmacology school known for partnerships with large pharma companies. Edan took a job in Silicon Valley to pay back student loans, but the fact that he presented shows his commitment to the company.

    And Crystal? A biologist trained at Johns Hopkins, she worked in Dr. Berget’s lab and helped invent the Enzium technology. Crystal embodies the science AND the business. And she’s a woman CEO. I think we have a gem on our hands.

    But we are in danger of losing her and Enzium. Crystal went Boston this summer as a participant in the Mass Challenge program. There, she built relationships with serial life science entrepreneurs as mentors and was introduced to funders and potential customers. But Crystal wants to stay and grow Enzium in Pittsburgh: “I love Pittsburgh. I’ve built my life here and hope I can continue to build my company here.”

    As a region, we need to not to lose this opportunity. I call upon Pittsburgh to prove that we have the depth of entrepreneurial expertise to make Enzium a successful Pittsburgh-based company!

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