Commentary

Innovation @ U Pitt


The University of Pittsburgh has a lot of exciting things starting around innovation and entrepreneurship. 2014 promises to be a ramp-up year for new entrepreneurial initiatives, starting with the campus-wide Innovation Institute,which debuted last November. The Institute represents a major push at Pitt from the top down (Chancellor and Provost) and the bottom up (students) to make entrepreneurship important. We kicked off 2014 with PantherlabWorksStartup Bootcamp, Friday, January 11. The room was full of aspiring graduate and undergrad students from computer science, engineering, business, medical school dental school and other schools around campus. Some of them have entrepreneurial ideas; others are seeking to join teams around existing ideas. All were willing and ready to learn at 9am on a Saturday!

Coming up, we have Pitt Startup Weekend from January 24th through the 26th, where students and faculty have the chance come up with an idea, build a team, develop a prototype. We are demystifying entrepreneurship and creating opportunities for invention, collaboration and commercialization – all with the goal of doing more and better entrepreneurship at the University than in the past.

Pitt Big Idea competition

Pitt Big Idea competition

February kicks off the Randall Family Big Idea competition at the University, with $100,000 in prizes. A Pitt business and psychology student, Mark Visco, made a video about the competition featuring a couple of last year’s winners. The competition has been around for a few years, generously supported by the Randall family, whose entrepreneurial endeavor was Traco Window and Door company which grew to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues before it was acquired by Alcoa. This year the competition is under the new Innovation Institute, which means that it is not part of a particular school or department but is campus-wide. This is an important step for Pitt because it demonstrates a broader and deeper institutional commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship.

It’s critical that universities support and encourage entrepreneurship at every level. Universities are, by nature, hives of innovation, and they need to do all that they can to foster a culture where inventing, innovating and creating startups is standard fare. The best minds in the world can be found in the labs at major research institutions; students come from across the world to partake of our higher educational offerings. It is incumbent upon universities to enable a viable culture where creativity and entrepreneurship can flourish. It’s not easy, perhaps, for institutions to adopt this attitude as a priority, but it is necessary today for universities to act entrepreneurial to fill the gaps and demands of their own stakeholders: faculty and students.

It is also critical that the innovation outreach of the university extend to the regional (and national) community around entrepreneurship. Universities must engage with the outside people and organizations which support entrepreneurship: other entrepreneurs, economic development organizations, angels, venture capitalists, and corporations which can be early customers for startups. Without this connection, startups are cast from the lab or the classroom to the void.

Strong bridges must be built between the university entrepreneurial ecosystem and the regional one, and even beyond that across the nation (and perhaps the world) to optimize these early stage endeavors for success once they leave the university. And to remain connected. Universities want to be able to claim origins in startups, even if the companies leave the school’s geographic region. After all, students graduate and fly the coop. They are still alumni, they still have roots where they went to school. Most research universities have students that come from and end up all over the world. Universities would do well to think of themselves as global institutions with a global network including entrepreneurs who will give back in many ways.

I am helping to triangulate entrepreneurship at Pitt through experiential educational offerings, competitions, and mentoring/coaching across the campus and across all levels of students and including clinicians, researchers, and faculty. With a goal of increasing university-technology spinouts as well as student spinouts, look for great things to happen in Pittsburgh!

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