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How to Fuel Start-ups and Keep Talent in Pittsburgh

When you think of Pittsburgh's burgeoning hi-tech economy, you probably envision a 20-something computer science whiz in a very cool office space furnished  with bright bean bag seating,  pool tables, bowls of M&Ms and big primary colored letters on the wall that spell GOOGLE.  You would be right.

But you would only be half right. Because the inspiration behind a number of the new technology based spin-offs in Pittsburgh is a business-savvy grandmother who also happens to be a renowned mathematician and computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Professor Lenore Blum is the founder of Project Olympus – an initiative that she founded in 2007 to foster the regional commercialization of the groundbreaking research emerging in Carnegie Mellon's laboratories and classrooms.  She is passionate about creating the kind of collaborative entrepreneurial community in Pittsburgh that will encourage the young talent emerging from Pittsburgh's universities to remain in the region.

 So far, so good: since its inception in 2007, Project Olympus has already spun off 23 start-up companies in the Pittsburgh area.  
In a knowledge based economy it is all about the talent; the talent of every age group.  Project Olympus is proving itself a model of the cross generational collaboration that will be necessary for not only Pittsburgh, but for the United States overall, to compete in a global knowledge economy.

The two largest generational cohorts, Gen Y (under 30s) and the Baby Boomers (over 50s) share a number of core values; Gen Y's are. after all. the beloved children of the Boomers. Two of these core values, the desire to give back to the community, and the desire to work collaboratively in teams, are at the heart of Project Olympus and Pittsburgh's growing 'knowledge' economy.

I spoke with Lenore while she was in San Francisco in January promoting Project Olympus to Bay Area venture capital firms. "Project Olympus fosters cross-generational mentoring", she proudly asserts.  "And it happens in both directions, believe me. I work with faculty and students: one fuels the other."

While Lenore was meeting with the venture capitalists that are so vital to the success of Project Olympus, her young protégées were busy commercializing their exciting new ideas in Pittsburgh.  Three of these successful 'Gen Y' entrepreneurs shared their thoughts on multi generational collaboration and Project Olympus with me.

 Marek Michalowski is a newly minted CMU Phd. and the founder and developer of Beatbots.  Keepon, Beatbots world famous robot, has both research and therapeutic use with children that have autism. The adorable little robot made its NBC Today show debut last year.

 Marek notes that Olympus, "Serves as a stepping stone for students and faculty who work on cool technology but who might have no idea about even the first steps required to commercialize that technology." He lauds Lenore for her "tireless advocacy of creating a culture of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon and in Pittsburgh".  Marek also credits Kit Needham, Project Olympus Senior Business Advisor (and Boomer!), for supplying, "invaluable experience and advice as I have gone through the process of considering various partnerships and contracts". 

Needham, part of the Project Olympus management team, brings many years of experience  in business development, economic growth, and innovation to the collaborative efforts of Project Olympus.

 David Chen, CMU senior and 22 year- old founder of Fooala, an online ordering service for restaurants, notes that Project Olympus not only provided 'incubator' space for his first office, but made key introductions that, re necessary to take his business to the next level.  He describes Lenore Blum as "a leader with an amazing background. She does everything she can to make it possible for us to stay in Pittsburgh and develop a successful business."

Betty Cheng , CMU graduate student, is the team leader of the  student-led Olympus  probe that spawned Mindkin,  a fun and innovative social- networking site that aims to quickly connect like "mind"-ed individuals ( by connecting  them through real time synchronization of  anonymous thoughts)  without having to fill out a long profile. Betty notes that Olympus has certainly given much needed business advice and connections to her all- computer scientist team.  "As a technical student at CMU," she says, "it's easy for me to find alumni at any of the big companies - Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Amazon, etc. But finding investors and business advisors, that's another story."

Likewise, Lenore sings the praises of her young protégées.  "Marek, Betty, and David are just the sort of talented students that Olympus aims to help attract and retain in the region, to help them develop their ideas here – a major Olympus raison d'être.

Lifestyle is also an important component of attracting top tech talent. Pittsburgh has long been known for its winning sports teams and world class museums. But how does Pittsburgh fare against technology- hub heavy weights like Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston?  Lenore, Marek, Betty, and David all hail from outside of Pittsburgh – and all have developed varying degrees of fondness for their adopted home.
Lenore extols the cultural opportunities and the diverse neighborhoods including Shadyside, Bloomfield, and the South Side. She believes that the 'older' population finds Pittsburgh a, very congenial place to live at the same time the Gen Y set enjoys the robust night life of Pittsburgh's South Side and Strip Districts. 

Twenty-two-year-old David Chen concurs, describing Pittsburgh as a wonderful city with so much to do."  World class sports teams and museums aside, Betty Cheng observes that Pittsburgh is still,  "lacking on the multicultural aspects compared to the bigger coastal cities. But things have definitely improved over the seven years that I have been here – Pittsburgh now has dim sum and we can get fruit bubble teas finally!"

Ultimately, Betty adds, "For me to stay in Pittsburgh, I need educational opportunities on technical and business topics as well as job opportunities. Pittsburgh already has an abundance of technical research talks and seminars via Carnegie Mellon…I find this crucial in coming up with new ideas for my product. But it would be great if business topics such as how to create a startup, how to license out a product, etc., were available as independent seminars and accessible to people from non-business backgrounds. Project Olympus is helping and we are seeing changes. And Olympus is definitely helping us make business connections…including Idea Foundry, Innovation Works and Meakem Becker."

Lenore Blum and Project Olympus have successfully charted a path to attract and support the multi generational talent, and the financial resources, that are the future of Pittsburgh's knowledge economy. They have come a long way in three short years – but there is still a long way to go. Will Pittsburgh's talent, treasure, and determination follow Lenore's lead?

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Mary Lawrence Wright a Chicago-based executive coach, specializing in multigenerational workforce issues. A Pittsburgh native, Mary is always inspired by Pittsburgh's ageless spirit of renewal. Check out her website at www.careercompassworldwide.com. To read more about Project Olympus, click here.

Pictures, from the top: Professor Lenore Blum; group picture (back row, l to r) - Kariithi Kilemi (CommunityVibe), Brett Wiewiora (onlyinpgh), Kit Needham (Senior Business Advisor - Olympus), Marek Michalowski (beatbot), (front row, l to r) - Brian Babyak (V-teractive), Kenneth Hendrata (V-teractive), Betty Cheng (Mindkin), Bharanidharan Rajakumar (Learnbop!!); Betty Cheng; Marek Michalowski.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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