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Shrewd venture capitalist makes $31M bet on Carnegie Mellon

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Venture capitalist James R. Swartz
Venture capitalist James R. Swartz

You won't catch venture capitalist James R. Swartz making a grandiose claim about Pittsburgh becoming “the next Silicon Valley.”

Still, the shrewd investor born at Allegheny General Hospital speaks optimistically about the city's fledgling tech industry spreading its wings to encompass some of the nation's brightest innovators.

“Look, I don't have any stars in my eyes. I grew up along the Ohio River in Coraopolis, and I've spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, so I understand the differences, and Silicon Valley isn't slowing down,” said Swartz, a Harvard and Carnegie Mellon University graduate who in 1983 cofounded Accel Partners, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based global venture capitalist firm that now manages more than $8.8 billion. “But at the same time, I think there is definitely opportunity for Pittsburgh — and Carnegie Mellon in particular — to take a significant leap forward in terms of its ability to harness young companies and innovative ideas.”

Swartz, whose firm has placed winning wagers on startups including Facebook, Etsy and Dropbox, has placed a $31 million bet on Carnegie Mellon's ability to become a “destination of choice” for research-driven entrepreneurs and creative problem-solvers from around the world.

“With Google, Uber and Apple and Microsoft being here, that's really changed things,” said Swartz, who earned a master's degree in industrial administration at CMU in 1966. “The time is right now, and I wanted to make a transformational gift.”

Swartz, who resides in Park City, Utah, and five senior members from his firm joined university officials, students, startup founders and local business leaders Tuesday to celebrate the launch of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, touted as a new “hub for universitywide entrepreneurial activities.”

Borne out of $31 million donated by Swartz, the center will provide for new formal collaborations, support services and physical meeting space for students and professors doing innovative work across schools and disciplines at CMU, whose faculty and students have created almost 150 spinoff companies since 2009.

Cybersecurity, computer science and robotics are probably the top three emerging tech industries, said Swartz, but each depends upon input from multiple disciplines and skills learned at the likes of CMU's School of Design.

The new center, which targets “researchers, hackers, hustlers and designers,” aims to expedite getting research-based innovations and ideas deployed into the marketplace and ensuring CMU students, faculty, staff and alumni all have access to “tap into the innovation ecosystem,” said Dave Mawhinney, director of the Swartz Center. He said the center will focus heavily on mentorships and giving students opportunities to work “in the trenches” at the likes of startups to experience things “that can't be taught in the classroom.”

At Tuesday's launch event, the audience heard from the CEOs of several CMU-rooted startups such as AirViz, which built an indoor air-quality device called Speck and is improving upon it by studying social behaviors; Surtrac, which used artificial intelligence and traffic theory to create “smart” signals that reduce motorist delays; and Covey, which developed an popular app to connect and support new parents.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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