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Project Olympus: Keeping CMU Grads in Pittsburgh

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The goal of Olympus is as lofty as its name: to transform Pittsburgh into the next Silicon Valley.

Approximately 95 percent of Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science grads leave Pittsburgh upon graduation, says CMU professor Lenore Blum. Tired of staffing west coast start ups, Blum’s newest venture, Project Olympus is designed to retain Pittsburgh’s brain trust.

“We produce the best and most sought after high tech products and resources on the planet ---namely our students,” says Blum, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science. “Then we export them everywhere but here.”

Project Olympus provides funding for CMU’s intellectual stars to develop “Next Generation Computing” companies without having to leave Pittsburgh. Through the help of an innovation lab, professors and students collaborate to transform creative computing ideas into start up businesses. Blum believes these technologically advanced start ups will encourage the next wave of high tech companies to establish offices in Pittsburgh (a la Google).

“The time is right,” Blum says, “It wouldn’t have been right 10 years ago.”

THE NEXT SEATTLE (or FREEDOM TO FAIL)

Blum, along with Silicon Valley angel Scott Russell, recently unveiled Project Olympus to a SRO crowd of grad students, professors, VC managers and business elite where Russell challenged the local community to embrace a new culture.

“Pittsburgh has an opportunity to move forward to be a lot like Seattle or Austin,” says Russell, but to be successful, it must understand and support entrepreneurs. “A community really has to help their entrepreneurs…get started with as little friction as possible,” he says. It’s “an individual question, not a government question.”

Entrepreneurial students need access to capital and networking as well as the freedom to fail and the ability to be hired if their idea is not successful, says Blum.

“Only about five to 10 percent of all start ups go on to make a profit,” says Russell. “You need a lot of startups because a lot fail.”

The Three Steps to Start Ups

To create a climate for success, Russell outlined three things that Pittsburgh’s rank-and-file can do to help startups:

1. Network, network, network. Fledgling businesses around the world need help recruiting talent, he says. Pittsburgh is no different. “Can you use your network to get more talent into startups?” Russell asks.

2. Unconditional love. Entrepreneurs need encouragement, he says. “Give them a community hug. Say we’re not going to throw you out of the community if you fail.”

3. Respect for their time. “They’re swamped. They’ve got to move quickly.” Don’t meet with them eight times (for funding) to tell them no, he adds, “Quick no's are very valuable to entrepreneurs.”

Funding Secured

Thanks to a $400,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, effective January 1, Blum has five ventures already underway. “I can’t fund people for a year, “ she says. “What I can do is give a team $25-to-$30,000 to start. I happen to be very frugal.”

In just five months, Blum has rallied the technology community around her initiative. Olympus’ Advisory Cabinet reads like a high-tech who’s-who: Google, Apple, Seagate, Intel, Microsoft and Yahoo!, along with local VC funds.

Three Olympus project leaders presented a 30,000-foot view of their new business ideas:

Next Generation Medical Imaging

This Olympus team, in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh, developed a technology that allows doctors to better identify tumors, as well as track their growth and treatment progress over time. Today’s MRI and OCT imaging technology is more qualitative and diagnoses are based on doctors’ interpretation, says postdoctoral fellow David Tolliver. The new imaging technology clearly delineates different types of human tissue, and gives doctors “a quantitative tool,” he says.

Tolliver believes the technology will be ready to “spin off to Siemens or GE in two to three years.”

Reliable Process to Digitize Manuscripts

McArthur Genius Award winner Luis von Ahn has found another use for his CAPTCHAs (Completely Automatic Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), the squiggly text words on Web registrations. Because computers cannot read the lopsided text, but humans can, CAPTCHAs prevent automated computer programs from infiltrating websites and sending spam.

With von Ahn’s newest venture, reCAPTCHA, he channels the 60 million (yes, that’s seven zeros) CAPTCHAs solved daily to help digitize books. Computers digitize books by reading hard-copy text, and transferring it to a hard drive. Aged manuscripts are not 100 percent legible to the computers, so von Ahn and his team use the non-translated manuscript words as CAPTCHAs for humans to solve. If people identify the unsolved manuscript word consistently, then the team knows the word’s translated correctly. Van Ahn launched the site www.recaptcha.net just weeks ago, and says he is already “talking to a major newspaper to help them digitize their 1850s archives.”

Improving Efficiency of Online Video on Demand

While online video on demand is cool, it’s not profitable, according to Matt Humphrey, Chief Strategy Officer for start-up company Eivod. Humphrey’s team has developed new technology that allows online video sites to keep their web presence and content identical while dramatically reducing costs.

In today’s model, sites send full videos to every user. With Eivod, users automatically share the video file while streaming. This peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing is “invisible to the user,” says Humphrey, and reduces the amount of video --and cost--coming directly from the server.

Eivod is the second start up for Humphrey, age 20. “It’s definitely stressful,” he admits. “There’s a lot of ups and downs.”

Humphrey was lured to Boston for a summer high-tech entrepreneur’s workshop. “Those guys in Boston are wicked-fast at writing checks,” warns Russell.

Blum, who feels the heat of competition from other tech cities on a daily basis, has funded two other project teams, and will add more as she secures additional backing. Support from the local community is critical to Olympus’ success,

Although Humphrey will return to CMU in the fall, Blum says, “I’ve got to make it desirable for people to stay. If we don’t keep this going; it’s going to go elsewhere.”

Silicon Valley has shown that cities that support start ups are a magnet for top-level talent, high paying jobs, and investment. “You want (entrepreneurs) to be successful,” says Russell, “it’s good for the community.”


Anne Lutz is a freelance writer whose last article for Pop City was about great shopping for women. To read it click here.


Captions:

Lenore Blum

Project Olympus logo

Scott Russell

David Tolliver

Luis Van Ahn

Matt Humphrey

All photographs courtesy Ken Andreyo/Project Olympus
Home page photograph, montages © Jonathan Greene

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