The CMU President explains how Pittsburgh builds – and holds – high-tech startups

For a short Earlier this week, Pittsburgh appeared to be the center of the tech universe. Just as Carnegie Mellon alum Duolingo announced it was going public. Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey were in town when Vice President Kamala Harris paid a visit to the City of Bridges to discuss infrastructure.

On the morning of TechCrunch’s City Spotlight, the Pittsburgh Robotics Network hosted its own event to announce a new alliance with members of local government and faculties from nearby universities.

“The alliance brings together executives from leading robotics companies, research institutions and universities in the Pittsburgh area, including Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Argo AI, Aurora, University of Pittsburgh, Kaarta, RE2 Robotics, Neya Systems, Carnegie Robotics, HEBI Robotics, Near Earth Autonomy, BirdBrain Technologies, Omnicell and Advanced Construction Robotics, ”reads a press release. “The Richard King Mellon Foundation commemorated this membership milestone with a $ 125,000 grant to support the continued growth of the PRN.”

Our own Spotlight event, held later that afternoon, was meant to highlight the city’s continued development. For many, Pittsburgh is still the brave but troubled city that was buffeted by the deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s when the factory and industrial jobs that formed its foundation moved out of the city and shipped overseas. The veneer of the rust belt is hard to leave, but the city’s greatest cheerleaders are working hard to transform Pittsburgh’s image into one of robotics, AI, autonomy, and other cutting edge technologies.

Carnegie Mellon has – and continues to be – the cornerstone of this Pittsburgh. A premier research school in every way, CMU is the crown jewel of the dozen of colleges and universities in the area. While the University of Pittsburgh is a huge engine for the city’s medical and scientific communities, the CMU is why it ranks among the leading providers of robots and self-driving cars.

The story goes on

Speaking at our event, Farnam Jahanian identified the school’s The Swartz Center as a key driver in their efforts to support the startup ambitions of students and faculty alike.

“The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon is a system of program activities that provides a unique path of entrepreneurship, education, engagement, collaboration, and opportunity for students, faculty, and employees interested in entrepreneurship from the Innovation Scholars Programs to the Corporate Startup Lab to garages that students and faculties can essentially sign up for to start their businesses, as well as a host of other programmatic things and resources you would need, ”said Jahanian, who became president in 2018 the CMU was appointed.

The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship was founded in 2015 with a $ 31 million donation from CMU alumnus and Accel Partners co-founder James R. Swartz. The center built on previous efforts such as the Carnegie Mellon Center in 2012 and the Olympus Project launched in 2007. The Swartz Center and its recent forerunners are among their success stories Duolingo, DataSquid and AbilLife.

Dave Mawhinney recently told TechCrunch that he had taken on the role of executive director of the center to “catch up with Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard and other major corporate universities.” The CMU is certainly not surpassed by any of the above when it comes to its position as a world-class research university, but Mawhinney admits that the school and town have traditionally struggled with corporate ties.

“You can always learn from what you have and build on it,” says Jahanian. “I would emphasize that it is really about the entire ecosystem. It’s not just about what CMU does – that’s a crucial part of it. It’s the University of Pittsburgh, there are other universities in our region that also contribute significantly to our ecosystem. “

Mawhinney says the CMU’s ability to incubate and nurture tech startups reached a tipping point about a decade and a half ago when Big Tech became increasingly interested in the research the school was doing on areas like AI and automation.

“The groundbreaking event really was when Google opened an office in Pittsburgh in 2006. You have over 1,000 employees, ”he says. “Every big tech company – Amazon, Facebook, Apple – all have hundreds of engineers embedded in our community, so we’re growing really fast. Artificial intelligence was invented at Carnegie Mellon – and that started the robot revolution [ … ] We are now the center of the automated vehicle community. Aurora is here, Argo is here, Aptiv is here. We have a very lively community and want to expand it further. “

Building a successful business obviously takes a lot more than engineers (there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t for the case). In the run-up to our event, I asked several interested parties what the biggest hurdle was in order to continue to attract and expand the city’s startup ecosystem. The overwhelming answer was simple: venture capital.

“What we need is more capital – angel funds, venture funds, so that entrepreneurs have a variety of local funding sources,” Yvonne Campos of Next Act Fund LLC told TechCrunch. “We definitely need more funding for women-run businesses – women raise about a third less capital than men-run businesses. Not because of the business idea or the manager, but because we invest in companies in which we feel most comfortable – we invest in people who look like us. At the national level, only about 20 to 25% of all angel investors are women. We need more women who are active as investors. “

The mayor of the city, Bill Peduto, who also appeared at our event, agreed with this opinion.

“I think the biggest hurdle remains access to venture capital, especially at this stage. I think we were able to convince investors from the coast that companies don’t have to leave Pittsburgh to be very successful and see their investment, ”he told me in an interview. “However, I believe that if we had more venture capital here to take early-stage companies into the critical next expansion phase, it would build itself and significantly outperform all industry clusters.”

During our conversation, however, Jahanian pushed the feeling aside. “I respectfully disagree,” he told me. “Funding is important, but great ideas are encouraged. I’ve seen it all my career. They are funded at a level that really shows that these companies have a chance to be really successful. “

The president of the CMU points to a completely different problem. “You need a lot more than just cool technologies or new research ideas or new concepts or products just to start a company,” says Jahanian. “You need a lot more around it. You need marketing, product management, you need to be able to develop a business plan. So that’s a lot of the resources we make available. “

Bing Gordon, CPO of Kleiner Perkins, mirrored that and spoke to me via email. “[Pittsburgh needs] Importing CFOs, product managers and ad sales, ”he wrote. Another historical concern for the city is to attract this talent. The CMU had no problem in this regard as location is less of a central concern for students applying to research universities. When it comes to careers after graduation, settling down and starting a family, on the other hand, quality of life is suddenly at the top of the list.

Jahanian says that in his conversations with Peduto over the years, he has long advocated green spaces and other community hangouts. He adds that the issue should remain a priority for the city’s new mayor for the next year.

“One of the most important things about the startup and high-tech community in Pittsburgh is the quality of life for the citizens of Pittsburgh,” says Jahanian. “I can tell you, as university president, that an overwhelming majority of the faculty we recruit want to live and enjoy in the city. That’s an important part of it. In addition to the quality of life, there is of course much more. It is important that the city do more to bridge the gap between those who are well off and those who may be lagging behind in the economies that create the high-tech economies. That is the responsibility of the private sector and the public sector. I’m really optimistic that we will have a great partnership with our future mayor like we did with previous mayors to catalyze the economy and raise all the boats. “

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