It’s rare that I come across a tech incubator that can claim any more success than the square footage they’ve rented out. It’s not that incubators can’t work, it’s that most confuse office space with synergy. Others try to do too much and end up competing with the entrepreneurial ecosystem around them, e.g. by bulking up on paid advisors and other “experts”.
Given my bias, I was pleasantly surprised to meet with Dr. Lenore Blum, founder of Project Olympus, a two-year old incubator based out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. With a shoestring budget that would make certain government funded incubators blush, Dr. Blum has created a model that will be of interest to anyone trying to figure out how to better commercialize university research.
Here are some key facts about Project Olympus:
- It’s embedded within the School of Computer Science, a vibrant source of research given that it is actually composed of 6 academic units (Computer Science Department, Human-Computer Interaction Inst, Institute for Software Research, Language Technologies Institute, Machine Learning Department, Robotics Institute)
- It actively generates new ventures by reaching out to professors, graduate students and researchers to help them take the first step
- It focuses on helping developing ideas with commercial potential rather than getting bogged down with university tech transfer offices (which is a later step)
- It focuses on the real problems of commercialization (bulletproofing ideas, finding target markets, team building) rather than things like office space and advisory services
Two things stand out as key to Olympus’ early success:
PROBES (Problem Oriented Explorations)
Probes are deep explorations into technologies and their potential as new ventures. Entrepreneurs work with the Project Olympus team as well as its volunteer Advisory Cabinet (which I’m very please to be a part of) to develop avenues of commercialization for the technology as well as to give entrepreneurs hands-on practical training. What impresses me about this method is that it focuses on hands-on ideation rather than business plan writing. The sooner entrepreneurs work with other people and get their feedback the better the chance of success. Regular “show and tell” sessions ensure that entrepreneurs get feedback early and often.
Integration with the Tech Ecosystem
Knowing where an incubator starts and ends is something that many incubators have struggled with. An incubator can’t duplicate or replace an entire ecosystem so “playing well with others” is very important. As the following (somewhat complicated!) diagram shows, Project Olympus has a very clear idea of where they fit. They have one foot in university research labs and the other in the area just before seed funding. This is the perfect spot for a university incubator to occupy because they are increasing the number of entrepreneurs entering the ecosystem (i.e. increasing the size of the funnel at the top).
Once projects graduate from Olympus there are other organizations to pick them up, including Idea Foundry (a non-profit investor and incubator), Innovation Works (a state-run seed fund and support organization), The Tech Collaborative (a non-profit tech economic development org) as well as local VCs such as Meakem Becker.
Overall, this is a great example of the many pieces at play in a vibrant tech ecosystem, and a rare dose of good judgement for an incubator such as Olympus to find its ideal spot. When the ecosystem works it not only creates great companies but can build and support local communities.
I think universities, especially those outside of Silicon Valley and Boston, could learn a great deal from Project Olympus. I also think this is an important model to study for any city trying to build a functioning tech ecosystem.
What do you think? Would this model work in other universities and communities?