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Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The University of Pittsburgh is a city campus complete with a 4-year accredited undergraduate program, which is complemented by numerous prestigious graduate programs such as the School of Medicine, School of Law, School of Pharmacy, and School of Business. The University of Pittsburgh is a reputable research institution which has cultivated an environment that has fostered the growth of an incredibly young, yet impressive entrepreneurial landscape. Pitt is also very reputable in life science innovation, partnering its engineering and business programs with the international conglomerate UPMC has yielded a plethora medical device inventions and innovations in addition to numerous patents, start-ups, and licensing opportunities. This success is trickling down through the ranks allowing students to become instrumental in large entrepreneurial pursuits. Programs such as the Coulter Program and CMI fund medical innovation and are beginning to recognize the untapped potential of undergraduate innovators. In addition, opportunities like the Randall Family Big Idea Competition help support any venture at the university. Through special project funds and micro grants, these programs are giving students a chance to contribute to Pitt’s entrepreneurial success. Undergraduate funding is an incredibly new standard for our entrepreneurial faculty and the overwhelming success of the pilot groups of undergraduate teams has ensured the sustainability of undergraduate funding for years to come.

Update 2016: All of the programs and oppurtunities listed above continue to play a large role in the I&E landscape today. Coulter and CMI are powerful programs that continue to be relevant today, and DesignHub, a project based student organization, has leveraged a partnership with CMI to generate project teams to solve medical device problems at UPMC. The Big Idea Competition has grown from two years ago, and is now a huge, university wide event. The engineering and business schools are increasingly pushing funding and students towards I&E. We have come a long way over the past two years, and more and more undergraduates are becoming involved in the movement. At the same time, faculty are increasingly realizing the power of cultivating a community of innovators.

Update 2019: The Big Idea Center was created in 2018 with a director, Babs Carryer. The center is thriving with dedicated Entrepenuers in Residence (EIR). The Big Idea center participates in a variety of programs from Global Entrepeneurship Week to Hackathons with a mission to increase women in STEM. The Swanson School of Engineering is an integral part of pioneering the way for innovation and entrepeneurship at Pitt by offering engineering students the opportunity to participate in the Innovation and Entrepeneurship certification program (which is just a few credits shy of receiving a minor). The Business school also has a innovation certification program. The campus overall is flourishing with innovation spaces that can be found with a variety of hardware and resources free to students. 

Faculty Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Since 1996 Pitt has seen a steady rise in the number of startups occuring each year; 23 startups began in 2018 alone. Many of these start-up companies emerge from life science research conducted by faculty members at Pitt. The faculty research is often funded by large government grants such as the NIH or NSF. However, that funding does not provide a viable means for launching a potential business from a research facility. The University has turned to Coulter program and CMI to facilitate the transition of these ideas to the marketplace. The University of Pittsburgh received $3.54 million from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation in 2011 to fund translational research to be supplemented by $1.5 million dollars from the schools of Medicine and Engineering respectively. The grant covers five years of funding and was awarded to only six universities nationally. The goal of the Coulter program grant is to accelerate the introduction of new technologies to address current clinical deficiencies. CMI (Center for Medical Innovation) is an initiative that is similar to the Coulter program however, is Pitt-specific. CMI was started through the Coulter initiative and is intended to be the perpetual seeding program after the Coulter grant has finished. In addition to these funding opportunities, Pitt is also equipped with the Big Idea Center, run through the Innovation Institute. The Big Idea Center provides students with a space run by faculty where they can share ideas and receive mentoring from an Entrepreneur In Residence (EIR). These EIRs are successful entrepreneurs who are employed by the Big Idea Center specifically to be available to students and assist them with their endeavors. With these programs Pitt faculty has been overwhelming successful in moving their innovative technologies into the marketplace.

University Technology Transfer Function

The Office of Technology and Management at the University of Pittsburgh is responsible for disclosing and managing all innovations and inventions.  The process one follows to acquire intellectual property is as follows:

  • Meet with a group interested in pursuing a project
  • Define the parameters of the project within the scientific group including:
  • Product specifications
  • Necessary collaborators
  • Proposed budget
  • Meet with the Office of Technology and Management to conduct relevant patent searches
  • Determine whether the product is worth pursuing
  • Acquire funding for approved product
  • Design and build a prototype
  • Bring prototype to TTC committee (group of legal experts)
  • TTC committee makes a ruling on whether or not prototype is fit to patent
  • Submit patent application

In 2018, Pitt and the Innovation Institute helped facilitate the approval of 98 US Patents and 162 licenses. Since 2014 a total of 420 patents have been issued through Pitt.


University-Industry Collaboration

The University of Pittsburgh utilizes the Innovation Institute and the Big Idea Center to give students a more hands on approach when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2018 alone, Pitt startups have gained $1.23 billion in third-party investments to assist in funding. Pitt has served 1,209 businesses this past year, while aquiring 250 member companies. This has also contributed to a $31.7 million sales increase. Students are working hands-on with clinicians and are bringing small ideas to life, which are leading to larger successes down the road.  Many of these ideas start as small projects but turn into start-up companies and small businesses.  The bottom line is industry collaboration is not necessary to make entrepreneurs at Pitt successful, better collaboration between departments will lead to a booming age of entrepreneurial partnership between UPMC and the rest of the university.


Regional and Local Economic Development Efforts

The City of Pittsburgh is, perhaps, one of the quickest and most vibrantly emerging entrepreneurial landscapes in the country. Pittsburgh is well known for low labor costs and having strong student graduates (36,000 annually from 36 colleges and universities). Further $3 billion is invested in R&D per year and Pittsburgh is located within 500 miles of half of U.S. power buyers. Fun fact: The Economist named Pittsburgh “Most Livable Place in the Continental U.S.” for two consecutive years.

Important entrepreneurial developments in Pittsburgh include:
  • Pittsburgh is now home to a local Protohaven branch.  This Protohaven houses machine shops and electronic labs for design and is posed to become a design hub.
  • Ascender - a non-profit organization that hosts business plan competitions an incubator space, and great networking opportunities for budding entrepreneurs.
  • Startup Weekend Pittsburgh began in 2012, following the national movement, allowing anyone to pitch their startup idea and receive feedback from their peers. 

Overall, it is evident that Pittsburgh startups are beginning to take off.  Companies like Astrobotic are budding and national entrepreneurial organizations like Venture for America are taking note.  No doubt, Pittsburgh is in the process of becoming a home to innovation and entrepreneurship and will continue to develop over the coming years.

The Innovation Institute and The Big Idea Center

Innovation Institute

The announcement of the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute in 2013 began a dramatic increase in innovative and entrepreneurial activities at the University of Pittsburgh. The Innovation Institute serves as the housing entity for the Office of Technology Management, the Office of Enterprise Development, and Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. The Innovation Institute’s mission is to promote and foster a community of innovation throughout the Pitt campus, and to unite the various Pitt colleges, faculty, and students in entrepreneurial endeavors.

The Innovation Institute manages design and business competitions, events, and educational opportunities for aspiring innovators. One of the most prominent competitions is the Randall Family Big Idea competition, a competition focused on start-up creation and exploring the potential of new ideas. The Big Idea competition supports twelve winners with upwards of $25,000 in support of their idea. Student teams learn how to pitch ideas orally and via video media, develop business plans, evaluate intellectual property, and potentially start full-fledged companies. Other competitions include hackathons, such as the brand-new She Innovates! all-womens hackathon as well as the IBM Smart-tag hackathon.  Startup Weekends, give students the opportunity to meet like-minded students of different disciplines as they contemplate their own ideas. Long-lasting competitions, such as the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PINCH) and the Pitt Mobile App Challenge provide students the exposure to innovation competitions.

The Innovation Institute manages events that allow Pitt students to learn from entrepreneurs at Pitt and in the Pittsburgh area. Last fall [circa 2016 or earlier], the Innovation Institute hosted the first MIT Enterprise Forum at Pitt, a public event at which students and faculty could learn from local entrepreneurs at various stages in the commercialization process. The Innovation Institute also hosts free seminars so that students may learn about different aspects of entrepreneurship, from general workshops on business model formation, to specific seminars discussing how to start a business on an F-1 Visa.  Furthermore, the Innovation Institute provides formal classes, such as the Benchtop-to-Bedside course, to provide faculty and students with the support needed to translate research projects into sustainable businesses. Outside of the University of Pittsburgh, the Innovation Institute promotes Pittsburgh community events including the Thrival Innovation and Music Festival, the Steel City Codefest, and the Three Rivers Venture Fair. The Innovation Institute maintains relationships with investors, business networks, and local accelerators including Innovation Works, the Alphalab and Alphalab Gear Accelerators, the Idea Foundry, and Thrill Mill.

The presence of the Innovation Institute is spurring new movements from both students and faculty. Undergraduate and graduate clubs such as Enactus, Launch Pitt, the Pitt Startup Network, and Design Hub, are committed to giving students the exposure to both hard- and soft-skills, innovative practices, and most importantly design thinking mentalities.  Faculty at the engineering school are sponsoring the Design Expo, an event that, showcases the design projects of seniors involved in their capstone project. Finally, new undergraduate and graduate course offerings include The Art of Making: An Introduction to Hands-On Systems Design and Engineering; Medical Product Ideation; Technology Innovation, Adoption, and Diffusion; Entrepreneurship and New Venture Initiation; and Client-Centered Rehabilitation Engineering Design. 

Landscape Canvas

Google Doc Link: https: //docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1OdpjdNErKToEEMNG7H6W5BAcJPcB_aC__GHDcI95Cpc/edit?usp=sharing

This Landscape Canvas was updated in September of 2019.

Other & Current Happenings

Student Initiatives

  • Opportunities for clubs to come up with products and seek patents

School Resources

  • Primary entrepreneurship focus in School of Engineering, School of Business with target towards graduate and undergraduate students
    • ​SCPI (Swanson Center for Product Innovation)
  • Support for funding and collaboration:
    • Office of Enterprise Development
    • Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence
  • Randell Family Big Idea Competition
  • Entrepreneurial Scholars Awards


Currently in the news

Pitt computer science students running their own startup with a Pitt professor. They were helped through the innovation institute. https://www.pittwire.pitt.edu/news/smart-solution-thermostat-wars

Related Links

University of Pittsburgh

University of Pittsburgh Student Priorities

University Innovation Fellows

Fall 2019:

Claudia Jester

Sara Kron

Elizabeth Petley

Katelyn Morrison

Spring 2017:

Tiffany Smith

Daniel Yates

Sean O'Brien

Shruthi Shankar

Sinjon Bartel

Spring 2016:

Mark Doman

Grant Jacoby

Emily Klonicki

Zach Patterson

Aakash  Sudhakar

Spring 2015:

David Jacob

Madhur Malhotra

Ian McIntyre

Harinee Suthakar

Fall 2014:

Jennifer Sommer

Fall 2013:

Brian Rhindress

Nathan Smialek

Fall 2012:

Karuna Relwani