Business is booming within the multidisciplinary startup ecosystem of Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship.
From its new location within the David A. Tepper Quadrangle, the Swartz Center serves the entire CMU community, providing intellectual, technical and financial support for students, faculty and alumni. Their innovations improve life in the community and around the globe.
“The Swartz Center will become the front door for startups and commercializing technology,” said Dave Mawhinney, executive director of the Swartz Center.
Building on the long-standing entrepreneurial environment at Carnegie Mellon, the Swartz Center is the next step in cultivating the university’s startup culture. Its new space is highly visible, spanning 8,000 square feet, and is designed to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, attracting innovators from all other disciplines into the Tepper Quad.
The move to the Tepper Quad is the latest in a series of moves CMU has taken in recent years to bolster its leadership in turning research and ideas into commercial enterprises.
In 2012, the Carnegie Mellon Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was created to strengthen the already bustling culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. The CIE was made possible by a McCune Foundation Big Ideas grant and helped unite entrepreneurship programs across campus, including the Don Jones Center and Project Olympus, under one umbrella. The CIE also was awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create an I-Corps site at CMU, which provides funding for scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory to broaden the impact of select NSF-funded basic-research projects. Alumnus and entrepreneur Jim Swartz, a 1966 graduate of CMU’s business school, and his wife, Susan, later provided a transformational $31 million gift, which launched the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship.
“I’m passionate about helping entrepreneurs as the future is in their hands.” James Swartz
“Entrepreneurship is everywhere, and we have an opportunity to nurture startups, shine a light on revolutionary ideas and capitalize on the momentum of innovation happening right here in this community,” Swartz said.
Lenore Blum, founding director of Project Olympus, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science, and faculty co-director of the Swartz Center, leads the effort of accelerating cutting-edge university research and great ideas to development and business stages. Project Olympus provides startup advice, micro-grants, incubator space and connections locally, globally and nationally.
Since 2007, nearly 700 startup projects have gone through the program and 153 companies have been formed. Sixty-three of the companies have gone on to be accepted into local and national accelerators, and 11 have been acquired by other organizations. Guidance is provided at every stage by entrepreneurs-in-residence and a network of economic development partners.
“We want Carnegie Mellon to be the destination of choice for students and faculty who are interested in entrepreneurship,” Blum said. “The knowledge and skills necessary to start a business don’t come naturally, regardless of how gifted a person might be in their chosen discipline. We provide the missing pieces, benefiting not only our faculty and students, but the entire region.”
Alumni are engaged as investors, entrepreneurs and mentors, something Mawhinney says the center does well, citing the support of Swartz, as well as Tepper Quad lead donor David A. Tepper, who earned his MBA at CMU in 1982.
“We want everyone to be successful and contribute to society by solving hard problems,” said Jonathan Cagan, the George Tallman and Florence Barrett Ladd Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and faculty co-director of the Swartz Center. “Companies are now realizing the importance of innovation, and we’re seeing how innovation thinking has become much more prevalent.”
At any given time, the Swartz Center supports dozens of projects at varying stages and levels. A recent success that utilized all the resources available through the Swartz Center is RoBotany, a company modernizing agriculture by developing robotic solutions for indoor vertical farming. RoBotany was a Project Olympus and NSF I-Corps project that also was built in the Olympus incubator space. Led by CEO Austin Webb, a 2017 graduate of the Tepper School of Business, RoBotany secured an initial $1 million in seed capital through alumni-led venture capital firms and subsequently realized another $12 million of investment through its Series A round.
“The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship became an integral resource for me and RoBotany,” Webb said, “from meeting my first co-founder at a CONNECTS event, to working on RoBotany as the class project in almost all of my classes, to having full-time access to my mentor, Dave Mawhinney, along with the CMU/Tepper network and startup competitions, such as McGinnis and Cleantech.”
Another recent graduate, JJ Xu, a 2018 Tepper School graduate, leveraged Swartz Center resources to create TalkMeUp, an AI-based on-demand personalized communication training system. She was awarded a CMU Presidential Fellowship, named an I-Corps Site team and secured $40,000 in investment from CMU in a combination of the VentureBridge and McGinnis Venture Competition funds. This is the second startup, for Xu, who also was a James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Fellow, a program by the center for graduate students passionate about entrepreneurship in the tech industry.
Webb and Xu earned the Swartz Center Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Mawhinney believes the prominence of the center’s new location will encourage collaboration and the sharing of ideas.
“It will increase the number of startups, along with the success of those companies and their value to the community,” he said.