CMU showcases its lengthy list of fledgling companies at venture event -Project Olympus - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, October 9, 2015

CMU showcases its lengthy list of fledgling companies at venture event

ech startup Expii Inc. has its offices above a bagel shop on Forbes Avenue off of Carnegie Mellon University's campus but still only steps away.

Founder Po-Shen Loh said he made sure to stay close.

“We are so connected to Carnegie Mellon,” said Loh, a CMU math professor.

Loh started the company in January 2014 to develop an online educational tool, and has since treated CMU as something like Expii's very own Bell Laboratories. Expii's employees attend CMU seminars, participate in CMU-sponsored events and have tapped a robust alumni network to boost the company's profile and attract talent.

The university is only too happy to oblige, said Dave Mawhinney, co-founder and director of the Carnegie Mellon Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The success of startups like Expii helps build CMU's reputation as a center for innovative companies and attracts more investment dollars to Pittsburgh.

On Thursday, Expii was among the companies featured in an event called LaunchCMU, a bi-annual showcase of the university's technology startups. Held in Silicon Valley in the spring and Pittsburgh in the fall, LaunchCMU aims to introduce venture capitalists, angel investors, other entrepreneurs and the wider public to fledgling companies emerging from CMU.

“It's really a celebration of the great companies that are coming out of Carnegie Mellon,” Mawhinney said. “It creates a broader awareness of the breadth and depth of technology companies that are coming out.”

The university says it has generated more than 1,000 startups, averaging about 25 new companies a year in industries that include robotics, health care, energy and finance. Companies that have come out of CMU include search engine Lycos, baby gear maker 4Moms, space robotics firm Astrobotic, and Duolingo, a language learning and translation service.

Venture investment in Pittsburgh has grown significantly in the past couple of decades and last year reached a high of nearly $338 million, but remains far behind the epicenter of high-tech investment, San Francisco, where companies raked in $15.7 billion in venture funding, according to the Money Tree report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.

Events like LaunchCMU can help boost Pittsburgh's profile and move it up the ranks of national hotspots for tech investment, Mawhinney said. But the showcase has a broader goal to spread awareness among local entrepreneurs and the general public about the companies being formed here, he said.

More than 300 visitors came out on Thursday. Pittsburgh venture capital firm Birchmere Ventures was among them. Founding partner Ned Renzi said he was there primarily to touch base with companies and CMU faculty more than hunting for investment opportunities.

“A lot of the stuff we do is building long-term relationships,” Renzi said.

North Side-based Digital Dream Labs had a demo booth on Thursday to spread word about its educational toy called Puzzlets.

The toy is a kind of game console, a plastic tray with small square tiles. It connects via WiFi with an iPad to play educational games. Puzzlets just hit the market ahead of this year's holiday shopping season and is being sold online at and, as well as the company's website,

Events like LaunchCMU are an important marketing opportunity, said CEO Jacob Hanchar.

“We're selling our units and we need to raise awareness,” Hanchar said.

Building public awareness of Expii is where Loh said his focus has been. The company's product is an online learning tool that works similar to Wikipedia, where a community of experts organize lessons on geometry, calculus, physics, astronomy and other science and technology-related subjects. Like Wikipedia, anyone can contribute information to the lessons. They can also vote on which ones they like best. Long term, Expii hopes to let users ask questions and even connect directly with expert tutors to get one-on-one help.

Expii raised $1.3 million from investors last year and is gearing up for another round of funding next year. The LaunchCMU event is an opportunity to build interest among potential investors, Loh said, but more importantly, builds public awareness about his company.

“Our goal over the next three calendar months is to inform the world that this resource is here to use,” Loh said. “This is a way of putting our mission into the press.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or Read more»

By: Chris Fleisher