Pop Star: Jessica Trybus
It's a typical Hollywood success story. Young woman studies classical acting in college, leaves for La La Land to seek fame and fortune, signs on as a go-fer with a hot production company, impresses everyone with her ability and enthusiasm . . . and boomerangs to Pittsburgh to launch a company that uses cutting-edge game technology to improve training at traditional industries.
Cut! That's not the way the second reel usually unfolds, but that's the script Jessica Trybus is fashioning. She's doing it quite well, as the start-up she and Don Marinelli founded, Etcetera Edutainment
, has products, customers, revenue and a happy ending in its future.
That's not at all what Trybus, a North Hills native, envisioned when she was graduated from Cornell University in 1999 and headed west with her then boyfriend, now husband, Anthony Lacenere. The entertainment business was her goal, and she took a major step when she found work as a receptionist with Drew Barrymore's Flower Films.
"I wasn't very good at answering phones or making coffee, but I could read scripts, I could make suggestions, I could help around the office," she recalls. "The company was very small at the time, and a lot of the people were busy in pre-production for Charlie's Angels
, so I was able to cover a lot of bases at the office. I learned a lot about production and the entertainment industry."
But Silicon Valley's tech sector, still thriving in the months before the dot.com meltdown, lured her from Hollywood. She worked for several years for the budding search engine AltaVista before Lacenere suggested they relocate to her hometown.
"I thought that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen," she says. "We lived right off University Drive in Palo Alto, having access to Stanford. I didn't think there was any way Pittsburgh could compete with all the excitement of Silicon Valley."
Her big Burgh connection came when she hooked up with Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center
, which already was exerting a profound impact on game technology. She earned her master's degree there, met Marinelli and began pondering how she could transform her new skills to a profitable venture.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about, okay, I'll have a very specialized degree when I get out of here. I'll be very employable, but how do I apply that in Pittsburgh? I reached out to companies here to understand what we could do."
The answer: apply game technology to industrial training, such a novel concept that when the company launched in 2005, Trybus had no ready-made market awaiting her. She recruited her first customers with a decidedly low-tech tool. The CEO of Etcetera Edutainment made cold calls.
"I thought I knew how to do it, so I called and said, 'What are you guys doing for training? What needs to be improved?' We built a team around delivering to those first couple clients. I would say for 90 percent of the companies we talked to, it was a love fest."
Nuptials weren't far behind. With input from those pioneering customers, Etcetera developed two software tools — Forklift Safety Sim and Electrical Safety Sim: Low Voltage— that provide computer-delivered training exercises for real-world situations that forklift operators and electrical workers face. The simulations are thickly detailed and memorably graphic. Forget a safety step and an electrical arc may blow a fiery hole in your simulated chest, leaving your hapless alter ego writhing on the ground.
Moreover, the sessions aren't honor-system blow-offs. They're graded, with results available to supervisors.
Etcetera bootstrapped for more than three years, perhaps a longer fundraising curve than a start-up would like, but now has angel investors and anticipates a broader investment round. A third product is about set for release, and the 15 employees at the company's Strip District headquarters also produce custom work — Westinghouse is among the buyers — that provides the majority of current revenue.
Trybus and Lacenere have settled in Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood. She's playing her beloved ice hockey, teaching at ETC and rediscovering the joys of her hometown.
"What's going on in Oakland is unbelievable," she says. "It's awesome. I'm getting to do exactly what I want, and I don't know another place in the country where I could do it like this."
She may be far from the theater, but Jessica Trybus hasn't left the stage.
"I miss it, but I feel like I'm incorporating a lot of the things I learned in school," she says. "I act every day, c'mon."
Main picture: Jessica Trybus. Group picture, l to r: Adam Chizmar, Eben Myers, Courtney Francis, Matt Denton, Kenny Riddile, Jessica Trybus, Ken Rockot, David Hsu.Sign up for Pop City to receive it every week.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen