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Student innovation could be boon to economy

| Friday, Dec. 14, 2007

An Army captain who served two tours of duty in Iraq wants to take the idea behind a battle-tested computer program and apply it to civilian use -- selling knowledge over the Internet for a fee.

Carnegie Mellon University graduate student Brian Wirtz has a vision for an Internet-based company that would connect people looking for information with experts who could provide it. The experts would post their qualifications and their fees for service.

Wirtz's proposed company, Bright, would get a fee for helping to make the connection.

"We're the eBay for answers," Wirtz told about 80 people at a Project Olympus "Show and Tell" session this week at the Collaborative Innovation Center at CMU. It was one of four presentations from students and faculty members who have ideas for technology companies.

Project Olympus, which started with the help of a $400,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to CMU's School of Computer Science, "is trying to create a culture within the university campus that will promote entrepreneurial activity," said Lenore Blum, director of Project Olympus and a professor at the School of Computer Science.

"We're trying to connect the research on campus (done by students and faculty) with business opportunities," Blum said. Prospective investors were among the audience at the Show and Tell event.

Six of the projects assisted by Project Olympus have been sufficiently developed to be in the market for funding. "Several more are in the pipeline," Blum said. Project Olympus has distributed seed money to stimulate their development.

The concept for Bright came from Wirtz's experience in Iraq, where he was a communications officer with the Third Infantry Division, said Wirtz, a 29-year-old Kansas City native. His division used a computer program, "Command Post of the Future," which allowed commanders on the ground to communicate with headquarters and each other in real time.

"I felt that changed how the war was fought," Wirtz said.

Wirtz already has six interns working on the project and two more will start next year. He hopes to make a presentation to potential investors by the end of the month.

"I think we'll create a lot of wealth for investors," Wirtz said.

One potential investor, Charles Glassmire, chief executive of Digital Dream Inc., an Ingram computer graphics company, was interested in another concept called Wild Pockets, in which people interact in a computer-generated world they visit on the Internet.

"When you merge film, photography and video games with the Internet, you are seeing the emergence of a brand new world," said Glassmire, a retired Westinghouse Electric engineer.

Wild Pockets is targeted at 12-to-24-year-olds who use social networking sites on the Internet, said Jesse Schell, a co-founder of Southside-based Sim-Ops Studios Inc., which developed Wild Pockets. Schell is an instructor of entertainment technology at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center.

Blum is hoping Project Olympus will create opportunities for business dreams to become a reality. That would make it easier for information technology graduates from CMU to remain in the Pittsburgh region after graduation. Fewer than 1 in 20 stay and many of those are here to get advanced degrees, Blum said.

"My idea is to do something to keep a lot of the talent and ideas and to help keep them going in town. Up until now, as soon as we produce them, we've exported them everywhere except Pittsburgh," Blum said.

"They'd stay if they had half a chance ," she added.

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