4 Carnegie Mellon Spinoffs Acquired by Global Companies in 2015-Project Olympus - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, March 7, 2016

4 Carnegie Mellon Spinoffs Acquired by Global Companies in 2015

Pittsburgh is on a roll. While everything from the food scene to the arts scene has captured the media spotlight, here’s what the global tech world sees: Autonomous cars, machine-translated language and robotics-assisted surgical access. That and more is all coming out of Pittsburgh.

Fed by nationally-recognized research universities, an existing manufacturing infrastructure and a healthy business network, Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community is in high gear. And Amazon, Delphi Automotive (Delphi) and other global, household name companies are taking notice. They are acquiring Pittsburgh companies, scooping up intellectual property, integrating software solutions, expanding the application of robotics and creating new approaches to education.

Following is a brief recap of just a few Pittsburgh companies—all CMU spinoffs—that were acquired in high-profile deals in the last year.


How about a car that travels up to 70 miles per hour, changes lanes and navigates construction zones across a 3,400-mile trip from San Francisco to New York City? Not that impressive, unless 99 percent of that journey was made without human interaction. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Pittsburgh-based Ottomatika.

Dr. Raj Rajkumar is a George Westinghouse Professor at CMU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and founder of Ottomatika. He and his team developed the software intelligence that powers Delphi’s Drive System, a complex network of software technology for autonomous vehicles.

An autonomous, or self-driving, vehicle mimics a plane on autopilot. Dr. Rajkumar points out, however, that an autonomous car requires additional layers of complex sensors necessary to respond intelligently to unexpected braking, pedestrians and hazardous road conditions. Eventually, he predicts, the technology that powers a $100 million airplane will be available in an automobile that sells for less than $50,000.

Ottomatika’s path as a company was intense, jettisoning from creation to acquisition in less than 18 months. Now that he has handed over his “baby” as part of Delphi’s August 2015 acquisition, Dr. Rajkumar will continue as a CMU professor, working to develop embedded technology that will further transform transportation and manufacturing as we know it.

Safaba Translation Solutions

Next consider Amazon’s acquisition of Pittsburgh-based Safaba Translation Solutions (Safaba), also completed in 2015. Another Carnegie Mellon University spinoff, Safaba was the brainchild of Dr. Alon Lavie, a research professor at CMU’s Language Technologies Institute, and Dr. Robert Olszewski, Ph.D. in Computer Science at CMU, whose specialty is machine learning.

Safaba’s technology has improved the accurate translation of digital content, aka machine translation, a service that is especially beneficial to global enterprises. By the time Amazon acquired the company, Safaba was already servicing Paypal, Dell and other high-profile clients.

While the Safaba brand (Hebrew for language inside it) is no longer in existence, the company’s translation technology is a central cog in Amazon’s newly formed Machine Translation R&D Group.

Dr. Lavie views Pittsburgh as a leader, particularly in the areas of big data, machine learning and robotics. He notes, “Pittsburgh is a mecca of talent that is difficult to find and fiercely sought after. That’s one reason companies like Google, Apple, Uber and Amazon are developing local R&D facilities.”

Blue Belt Technologies

Smith & Nephew (SNN), a global medical technology company that boasts nearly 15,000 employees worldwide, announced in 2015 its acquisition of Pittsburgh’s Blue Belt Technologies (Blue Belt), another CMU spinoff company.

Craig Markovitz, Blue Belt’s co-founder and seven-year CEO, explains how the company’s robotic technology is reshaping mobility for patients undergoing partial knee replacements. Blue Belt’s Navio Surgical System (NAVIO) allows surgeons to achieve robotics-assisted accuracy and precision when planning, balancing and implanting an artificial knee.

The precision of the NAVIO robotics-assisted procedure increases accessibility to partial knee replacement surgery for both surgeons and patients.

Blue Belt is also a prime example of what Pittsburgh wants to see. Instead of technologies that follow companies out of Pittsburgh, Smith & Nephew is building a Pittsburgh presence where none existed. The company has already shown a commitment to focus on its talent network throughout Western PA, with Pittsburgh serving as the company’s center of engineering, as well as quality and regulatory oversight.

“Pittsburgh leads robotics innovation, research and commercialization,” says Markovitz. “There is no argument that, when you put together a short list of world-class robotics centers, Pittsburgh is absolutely at the top of that list.”


Acatar, acquired by The Learning House in 2015, calls attention to another of the region’s strengths. “CMU is a world leader in the science and digital enhancement of learning,” explains Dave Mawhinney, co-founder and director of CMU’s Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “Local researchers have put us on the map,” he says, “by marrying the physical and virtual worlds to create an intuitive, turnkey approach to education.”

The acquisition of Acatar positions The Learning House, an online program management company, to be more competitive as an enabler of high-end online courses that appeal to the country’s most prestigious universities.

Mawhinney sees what he believes to be a positive 10-year trend. “Pittsburgh is attracting companies from other high-tech hubs, not only because of the talent pool, but also because we offer a loyal workforce, a good quality of life and an affordable cost of living.” He notes, for example, that office space in Pittsburgh is on average four times less costly than comparable space in San Francisco.

Leaders of each acquired company agree that the region has an unparalleled level of talent and R&D capabilities. They also agree that Pittsburgh needs more capital to further advance its reputation as a hub for high-tech startups. More investors, they say, are a necessary part of creating a continuous and stronger cycle of research, product development, and regional business growth. Read More»