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$7M grant gives birth to CMU business incubator

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Oriented Business Explorations incubator in Oakland is a hotspot for students to gather and work on their ideas. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Nitsan Shai student learns to play the guitar through a program Alex Soto developed at CMU’s business incubator with a $50,000 grant from the McCune Foundation. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

Nitsan Shai strums AC/DC's “Back in Black” on an electric guitar while he follows the notes on a website with his laptop.

If he misses a note, the program stops and an online maestro offers tips.

Shai, 18, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, is a part-time programmer at tunessence, a startup company founded by CMU alumni and faculty with the help of $50,000 from the McCune Foundation.

The money came from a $7 million grant from McCune, its largest ever, and the first in a series of “Big Ideas” grants, to provide financial aid for undergraduate and graduate students who are entrepreneurs and seed money for companies they and faculty establish.

The grant started the Carnegie Mellon Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with a goal to start businesses and jobs in Western Pennsylvania. In the past, such companies and their employees often left for greener — as in, more money — pastures.

“The company debated between going to Silicon Valley or staying in Pittsburgh,” acknowledged Alex Soto, founder and a 2011 graduate of CMU from Miami. “The largest reason (we stayed) was the network I had from this program and the funding I received through them.”

Soto helped establish tunessence on the basis that 70 percent of would-be guitarists quit within two months out of frustration. This company utilizes popular music that users choose and gives them the experience of a personal teacher online.

“Our goal is to become the Rosetta Stone for music,” he said.

Shai and Soto visit an Oakland incubator, a converted horse barn, set up for CMU entrepreneurs. The incubator provides technological and business know-how, and makes available mentors, a network of sources and seed money.

Students sprawl around tables with whiteboards where they plot ideas and dream companies. A Brag Board posts the honors they garner. The students covet moving upstairs to the loft, a mezzanine where successful companies such as Dynamics took root. Cheswick-based Dynamics prevents fraud by rewriting credit card information while cashiers and waiters process cards.

The goal at Carnegie Mellon is to make the region a launching pad for companies, said Lenore Blum, co-director of the new center.

“We say, ‘When you're rich and famous — and we hope you will be — remember us,' ” Blum said.

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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