CMU puts out call to inventors

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, June 18, 2011

President Obama is expected to tout Carnegie Mellon University's campaign to invent businesses and create jobs when he visits the university on Friday.

Richard McCullough, the university's vice president for research, and other officials are looking for faculty and students to follow the path of famed inventor Thomas Edison as part of a campaign to brand CMU as the inventors' university. The Greenlighting Start-ups campaign would grant money and provide other support to help start businesses and jobs -- a goal Obama will emphasize when he visits the Oakland campus.

"We want people to know not only do we have programs to start companies, but also that these companies will have access to capital, talent and mentorship to ensure they get started and survive," said McCullough.

Pittsburgh will be Obama's latest stop on a tour of manufacturing facilities and colleges to promote the importance of technology and manufacturing in helping the nation toward economic recovery. At CMU, Obama will focus on cost-cutting technologies to enhance the nation's global competitiveness, with the goal of speeding ideas from the drawing board to the manufacturing floor, a White House spokesman said on Friday.

In the past three weeks, Obama, dogged by Republican attacks on his economic policies, visited a Jeep assembly line in Toledo, Ohio, a community college in northern Virginia and a lighting manufacturer in Durham, N.C., where he announced a program to train 10,000 engineers. Through it all, he talked repeatedly about job creation.

McCullough said the university assisted with the creation of more than 350 companies over the past 15 years and wants to increase that number.

Officials set that goal when they created Greenlighting Start-ups, a one-stop shop encompassing several CMU business and technology incubators, the Office of Technology Transfer and the Open Field Entrepreneurs Fund, which will provide budding businesses with grants of up to $50,000.

The CMU program could break new ground, said Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a national foundation that promotes entrepreneurship. Many universities have that goal, Litan said, but few have streamlined the process to take research to the marketplace, and no one has married that to the size of awards the Open Field Entrepreneurs program proposed.

University officials declined to disclose how much they plan to give away through the grants, which are being started with an initial gift from Jonathan Kaplan, inventor of the Flip video camera. Kaplan would say only that he's hoping to grow the fund to $25 million as fellow alumni sign on with support.

"If Carnegie is the first school out with a money-plus-licensing agreement, that would be a decisive factor, an important factor on whether someone chose Carnegie, Cal Tech, MIT. ... Nobody's really tried to compete on this dimension," Litan said.

He predicted others will copy the model if they see good results.

McCullough hopes CMU's Greenlighting Start-ups program will attract students such as Chris Harrison.

"He's truly an 'Edison' person," McCullough said.

Harrison, 27, a doctoral student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute in the School of Computer Science, developed Lean and Zoom, a device that enlarges the print on computer screens as readers lean toward it, and Skinput, a device with a tiny projector that can let you type a text message on your arm. He believes the research culture at CMU has worked well for him.

"They tell you, 'Your job is to learn and invent the future.' ... I've had the freedom to develop things I want and a lab where we can drink coffee and do research at 3 in the morning," Harrison said.

The program could yield results for the region, said Gerald McGinnis, a CMU alumnus who founded Respironics in 1976 and built the medical device company into a market leader that employed more than 5,100 workers by the time he sold it three decades later.

Today he takes a keen interest in young entrepreneurs as sponsor of McGinnis Venture Competition, an international contest for young entrepreneurs bringing technologies to the marketplace. He said CMU is pushing in the right direction.

"Minimizing the cost to try out ideas while providing guidance and counsel to budding inventors will enable that many more opportunities for success to happen," McGinnis said, adding there are many failures for every successful startup.

Kaplan said failure is part of entrepreneurship. He hopes the Open Field grants will give entrepreneurs the opportunity to "fail, fail up and learn from their failures."

Audrey Russo is president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a trade organization that represents 1,400 Western Pennsylvania technology companies. She said CMU's effort to develop an international brand as a center for inventors will build on what the school does.

"They've been doing all of these things for a long time. They realized they needed to brand it, and they also realized the huge gap was capital. Now they've put it together. I love the fact that they have a fund that is significant," Russo said.

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