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Entrepreneurial spirit promoted at CMU, Pitt

Emily Balser
| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

Students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are working on start-up companies with focuses ranging from 3-D printing to bone regeneration.

Both universities promote entrepreneurial efforts through institutes established to help guide students through the process of creating a product or company.

CMU's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Pitt's Innovation Institute combine different offices on each campus into programs that address all aspects of a start-up — from the science behind a product to the business model shown to potential investors.

“We're trying to bring entrepreneurship to all the different schools on campus,” said Marc Malandro, the interim director of Pitt's Innovation Institute.

The newly formed institute combines the Office of Technology Management, the Office of Enterprise Development and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. Two of Pitt's most recent start-ups are Formabone Inc. and 3Storm Inc.

“About 75 to 80 percent are probably health sciences-focused,” Malandro said. “What it takes to start a life sciences company is a lot more that what it take to create an app on a smart phone.”

Some have to be approved by the FDA, he said.

Formabone Inc. has licensed an injectable bone cement and similar injectable pastes that contain proteins, cells, plasmid DNA and drugs to promote bone regeneration. Prashant Kumta, a bioengineering professor, and Charles Sfeir, a professor of dental medicine, founded the company.

3Storm Inc. has licensed a mobile app that allows professionals, beginning with nurses, to manage their continuing education credits and requirements. Steven Benso, a traumatic brain injury research nurse at Pitt, Anthony Chao, a fellow nurse and student in Pitt's nurse anesthesia program, and Richard Fera, information technology coordinator in the School of Nursing, founded the company.

Innovation Institute brings together students, faculty and staff from across the campus to establish start-ups and understand what it takes to turn it into a business, Malandro said.

“We find when you have that, you have the most chance of success,” he said.

CMU has several start-ups, two being Piecemaker Technologies, a 3-D printing company, and The Biogenous Project.

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship combines efforts of Project Olympus, which focuses on innovation, with those of the Don Jones Center, which focuses on business. A lot of these start-ups begin and grow at the Project Olympus student incubator on the CMU campus.

“The whole idea is it's a safe place to learn,” said Kit Needham, entrepreneur in residence of Project Olympus, who also runs the student incubator.

Needham said students can come to the incubator and do research, test ideas and receive feedback on how to move forward.

PieceMaker Technologies and The Biogenous Project have used the incubator.

PieceMaker Technologies created a 3-D printer so consumers can personalize items such as toys at brick-and-mortar retail locations.

“Consumers can come in the store, browse a bunch of content, edit it, personalize it and then the store will print it in less than 20 minutes,” said Arden Rosenblatt, CEO and co-founder of the company.

Rosenblatt, who is enrolled in a dual-master's program at CMU specializing in mechanical engineering and innovation management, and Alejandro Sklar, enrolled in a dual-master's program specializing in electrical/computer engineering and innovation management, have been working on the company for about a year. It is now part of AlphaLab Gear, a local accelerator program for start-up companies in Pittsburgh.

“Right now, we're really trying to talk to parents and store owners and make sure we understand well what everyone's stake in this is,” Rosenblatt said.

The Biogenous Project, founded by Carnegie Mellon graduate Jacob Douenias, is a company patenting a process to turn organic waste produced in homes and businesses into clean-burning natural gas.

“We use technology like anaerobic digesters and photobioreactors, that are existing technology, and redesign them so that they can be retrofitted to these buildings and seamlessly interfaced with people's lives to meet their energy needs and waste management needs,” said Lena Tesone, a designer with the company and recent Carnegie Mellon graduate.

Lenore Blum, co-director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said the university has been successful in producing many start-up companies.

“There's a lot of interaction and synergy going on here,” he said.

Emily Balser is a freelance writer.

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