Carnegie Mellon University
May 07, 2015

Entrepreneurial Inspiration

figures on bridge

CMU students don't just have big dreams — they make big things happen.

Courtney Williamson (TPR'12, '15), a Tepper School of Business Ph.D. candidate, is determined to improve the quality of life for Parkinson's patients.

"There are 20 million Parkinson's patients worldwide, and western Pennsylvania has the largest percentage per capita," stated Williamson, whose own mother suffered with the disease for 25 years.

"She struggled day to day with simple tasks we all take for granted, including posture and balance, causing trouble with walking, reading and having a conversation at eye level," Williamson explained. "I decided to do something to change that."

She founded AbiliLife, a startup whose first product is a unique, adjustable back brace that restores equilibrium.

Williamson and her fledgling company were given a leg up at CMU by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's Project Olympus. It's an opportunity shared by many student and faculty entrepreneurs-in-the-making.

AE Dreams is developing connected toys like Turtle mail to increase hands-on play.

Alysia Finger (TPR'14, A'14) points out that the average American child spends seven hours a day in front of a screen. She and Niko Triulzi (A'10) co-founded AE Dreams, a startup developing connected toys that increase hands-on play. Turtle Mail, their first creation, is a mailbox that prints messages from family and friends.

John Dieser (S'14) and Glenn Philen (E'15) plan to change the future of freight with their startup, Carbon Freight. They're designing lightweight, carbon fiber freight containers to replace the heavy aluminum ones in use for decades. The product would improve fuel efficiency, durability and cost.

"Our mission has always been to bridge the gap between cutting-edge university research/innovations and commercialization."
— Lenore Blum

Srinath Vaddepally (E'13) wants to "help hospitals and senior care communities reduce cost and improve quality of care." His startup RistCall, is developing a wearable call bell. This cleanable, rechargeable device would reduce call time and improve patient safety and clinical workflow.

"When we started in 2007, there were no other student incubators in town," said Lenore Blum, Project Olympus founding director and distinguished career professor of computer science.

"Our mission has always been to bridge the gap between cutting-edge university research/innovations and commercialization," she continued. "And we start this process at the very, very early stages of the value creation chain, as our students and faculty explore the commercial potential of their research and ideas."

Since its founding in the School of Computer Science, Olympus has supported more than 160 student and faculty teams. This has led to the formation of more than 120 companies (two-thirds of these student-led) that have received more than $165 million in follow-on funding.

Notable success stories include DuoLingo, Apple's 2013 app of the year, founded by CAPTCHA creator Luis von Ahn (CS'03, '05) and SolePower, a 2015 SXSW Accelerator finalist that created shoe insoles that generate on-the-go, renewable power for mobile devices.

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is a campus-wide organization that demonstrates the entrepreneurial focus and support of the university's thriving innovation ecosystem.

Debra Lam
Debra Lam talks with Eleanor Haglund (DC'16) at the recent Show and Tell event.

The student and alumni teams presented at Project Olympus Show & Tell 19 — an annual event highlighting new developments and fostering connections.

"These are great forums to show-off the incredible interdisciplinary collaborations between our students and faculty," said Dave Mawhinney, co-founder/director of the CIE and associate teaching professor of entrepreneurship. "Designers, engineers and business people come together to innovate and create new value in the form of products and companies."

"I am so impressed with the caliber of the professors and student entrepreneurs here," added Debra Lam, the Pittsburgh Mayor's Office chief innovation officer and guest speaker. "It reminds me from a city perspective how lucky we are to have CMU right in our backyard. There are wonderful activities going on. It's a tremendous asset."

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