Timing is everything

I have often tried to chase timing, hoping that I could leverage time to my advantage. But it has often eluded me. For example:

  • I went to Reed College with Steve Jobs… but didn’t meet him.
  • I left Portland Oregon just before Mayor Goldschmidt closed off the downtown to car traffic and the city became a mecca for cool and livability.
  • I lived in Paris France in the 70s, way after it was the heart of the Belle Epoque and during a height of anti-American sentiment.
  • I moved to Berkeley California after the hippy 60s and before the tech revolution of Silicon Valley.
  • I used Ohio as a transition from one coast to the other, partly to experience what it was like to live in a state with more vowels than consonants. That timing sucked!
  • I moved to NYC in the 80s at the height of the crack crisis when the streets and subways were dangerous. I lived in a neighborhood of old sweat shops which we turned into lofts – we were there before loft living became chic. Now our past neighborhood of packs of wild dogs and needles is the ultra cool area of Williamsburg in Brooklyn that is now dotted with coffee shops and art galleries.

PittsburghThat brings me to 1989 when we moved to Pittsburgh. You know what Pittsburgh was going through at the time. But… timing is everything. When I got to Pittsburgh, it was clear that the city had turned a corner. Finally, I thought, I am in the right place at the right time! I was at a place where I could dig in and ride the wave – on the way up!

Maybe it was because my father was from Pittsburgh (one of life’s little ironies); maybe it was because, after NY, the trees and parks in Pittsburgh were so inviting; maybe it’s because it’s a big small city (or a small big city), but I felt my roots spreading.

It was an exciting time to be at CMU, where I was faculty in the drama department, and which I now refer to as the trauma dept. I had been a fairly early computer user; in fact I had one of the first laptops ever made. It was a Sharp, and was about the size of a sewing machine and weighed about 10 lbs. I remember because it took it everywhere with me on the NY subway! At CMU I was learning this new wonderful means of communication called email. And I heard about this thing called by an acronym, the www – of course, the worldwide web. Because I was at CMU and could, I took a class in www. Do you know what it was? Mosaic. I thought that I was late in coming to the Internet. But really it was the dawn of the consumer Internet that we know today. And that it would change everything was clear.

Pittsburgh was a fun and exciting place to be during the rise of the dot com. I saw the technologies that were coming out of Pitt and CMU as a new direction for creativity. As a member of Richard Florida‘s Creative Class, I decided to go with it. I morphed from theatre to entrepreneurship, and fell in love with early stage technology innovation – startups.

Armed with a new masters degree from CMU, and having taken the entrepreneurship classes at the Don Jones Center for Entrepreneurship, I found that I was pretty good at startup strategy and business planning. I followed this path as a consultant for years, working with the earliest of early-stage companies and watching my two kids grow in the Highland Park area of Pittsburgh. From my house, I really can hear the lions roar at the zoo.

Then I met Tom Petzinger. Tom was then at the only job that he ever wanted, The Wall Street Journal. He had been there for 22 years, and wrote a column published every Friday called “The Front Lines.” I read this column avidly for it was about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Through his insightful interviews and commentary, Tom documented the rise of entrepreneurship until it became a word not underlined as a misspelling in MS Word.

When we met, over lunch at La Feria, a cute Peruvian restaurant in Shadyside, it was immediately clear that we were destined to create something bigger together than either of could create alone. It was 1999; we were at the crux of the rise, just before the fall. It was Tom’s vision that life sciences were the next big thing, the next wave. LaunchCyte was born.

Today, LaunchCyte boasts a portfolio of five companies: Celsense, Crystalplex, Immunetrics, Knopp Biosciences, and Reaction Biology (this last located outside of Philadelphia, but the others all in Pittsburgh). LaunchCyte and its portfolio companies have brought in more than $400M of value (the largest chunk from Knopp as detailed in a previous PopCity post about Knopp).

I’d like to think that in our own small way we helped to kickstart the regional life sciences economy in Pittsburgh. Of course there was Automated Healthcare (Mckesson), Respironics (Philips), and others but we were focused on starting life sciences companies in Pittsburgh – we were really early-stage. Even before the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse (PLSG), our regional life sciences economic development organization.

In the last 10+ years, we’ve seen the startup community in Pittsburgh grow and grow, largely because of our universities. I can see that the entrepreneurial drive has hit mainstream because at CMU all of our entrepreneurial classes are way oversubscribed; we had the largest class ever at our Pitt “Benchtop to Bedside” course this year; and our economic development folks, like AlphaLab, Idea Foundry, Innovation Works, and PLSG, are helping more startups than ever before. Recently for PopCity (and for my own New Venturist blog) I wrote a post about what’s hot at CMU. A couple of weeks ago at Pitt’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition I was bowled over by the number and quality of student projects that will hopefully lead to startups. Upcoming, I plan to write about what’s hot at Pitt, including the Coulter Fellows which I have been advising.

It’s a great time to be in Pittsburgh, the town where everybody wants to be these days. It’s no accident that Obama keeps coming back like the energizer bunny, that we get rated over and over for the best this and that. Our time is today. I am proud to be here, to celebrate our inflection point. If I could propose a toast, it is to the up and coming entrepreneurs, to the entrepreneurs of tomorrow! You have and you will make our city a better place to live!

Students speak out
What hackathons have taught me about entrepreneurship and startups
Robotic telepresence grows up
Seema Patel, Fusing robotics and games with Interbots