CMU continues to be an incubator of innovation

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 8:50 p.m.

Aubrey Shick's furry robot blinks, giggles when petted, and moves on its own.

Shick, 29, of Squirrel Hill designed the robot, Romibo, to engage children with autism without the distracting and confusing body language and facial expressions of humans.

“Children with autism are often overwhelmed by all the complexities we take for granted and our abilities to just process them without thinking,” said Shick. “Romibo helps children with autism focus on the problem at hand instead of the social complexities.”

Romibo, like hundreds of other products, concepts or ideas, was spawned on Carnegie Mellon University's 100-acre Oakland campus. More than 300 companies have gotten their start there since the mid-1990s. The spinoff companies represent about a third of companies established in Pennsylvania based on university technologies in the past five years.

The school nationally is the “gold standard” for developing viable ideas and turning them into marketable companies, said Rich Lunak, a Carnegie Mellon graduate and president and CEO of Innovation Works, a South Oakland-based tech incubator.

The Governor's Manufacturing Advisory Council last year commended Carnegie Mellon as a model for having “a highly effective practice of commercializing research into new companies, processes and products.”

Lunak and others said a number of factors play into that, including leadership that makes entrepreneurial culture a priority, a progressive policy for tech commercialization and encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“The culture on campus definitely promotes an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Carnegie Mellon grad Hahna Alexander, who teamed with two classmates to form Sole Power, a company developing a shoe insert that, with each step, charges a battery that could power small electronic devices such as music players or cellphones.

“Even at the business school, I was able to enroll in classes at the computer science college, the design college. ... I got exposed to a lot of things outside my focus,” said Robb Myer, 37, of Point Breeze.

The school's “environment and ethos,” as well as helpful faculty and alumni, helped the 2006 graduate of Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business co-found NoWait, an application that allows restaurants to send text messages when a customer's table is ready. More than 1,200 restaurants in the United States and Canada use the product.

Shick, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in industrial design in 2006 and received her masters in human-computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon in 2010, said the school “makes it really easy to do something (starting a company) that's pretty hard.

“Whether you sink or swim is still up in the air, but they make it look very attainable,” she said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or

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