Project Olympus: A University Incubator That Works

It’s rare that I come across a tech incubator that can claim any more success than the square footage they’ve rented out. It’s not that incubators can’t work, it’s that most confuse office space with synergy. Others try to do too much and end up competing with the entrepreneurial ecosystem around them, e.g. by bulking up on paid advisors and other “experts”.

Given my bias, I was pleasantly surprised to meet with Dr. Lenore Blum, founder of Project Olympus, a two-year old incubator based out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. With a shoestring budget that would make certain government funded incubators blush, Dr. Blum has created a model that will be of interest to anyone trying to figure out how to better commercialize university research.

Here are some key facts about Project Olympus:

Two things stand out as key to Olympus’ early success:

PROBES (Problem Oriented Explorations)

Probes are deep explorations into technologies and their potential as new ventures. Entrepreneurs work with the Project Olympus team as well as its volunteer Advisory Cabinet (which I’m very please to be a part of) to develop avenues of commercialization for the technology as well as to give entrepreneurs hands-on practical training. What impresses me about this method is that it focuses on hands-on ideation rather than business plan writing. The sooner entrepreneurs work with other people and get their feedback the better the chance of success. Regular “show and tell” sessions ensure that entrepreneurs get feedback early and often.

Integration with the Tech Ecosystem

Knowing where an incubator starts and ends is something that many incubators have struggled with. An incubator can’t duplicate or replace an entire ecosystem so “playing well with others” is very important. As the following (somewhat complicated!) diagram shows, Project Olympus has a very clear idea of where they fit. They have one foot in university research labs and the other in the area just before seed funding. This is the perfect spot for a university incubator to occupy because they are increasing the number of entrepreneurs entering the ecosystem (i.e. increasing the size of the funnel at the top).

(click to enlarge)

Once projects graduate from Olympus there are other organizations to pick them up, including Idea Foundry (a non-profit investor and incubator), Innovation Works

(a state-run seed fund and support organization), The Tech Collaborative (a non-profit tech economic development org) as well as local VCs such as Meakem Becker.

Overall, this is a great example of the many pieces at play in a vibrant tech ecosystem, and a rare dose of good judgement for an incubator such as Olympus to find its ideal spot. When the ecosystem works it not only creates great companies but can build and support local communities.

I think universities, especially those outside of Silicon Valley and Boston, could learn a great deal from Project Olympus. I also think this is an important model to study for any city trying to build a functioning tech ecosystem.

What do you think? Would this model work in other universities and communities?

Comments ( 4 )
  • Ian Graham says:

    Hi Raymond,

    Great post and I concur with the sentiment “plays well with others”. The important aspect of playing well is that not only do you have a very clear idea of where you fit in the Tech ecosystem but that the other stakeholders concur with your assesment.

    Blending harmoniously with the existing ecosystem is important. The map you have shown above is a great tool for building consensus and similar to a stakeholder analysis.

    Would this model work in other universities and communities, absolutely. The key challenge IMHO is to facilitate consensus in the key stakeholders .

    How did Project Olympus build consensus in the Pittsburgh Ecosytem? Having started only two years ago they must have been a late entrant into an already existing ecosystem.

  • Ben Yoskovitz says:

    Does the program have projects / alumni to show that it’s worked and what it has produced?

  • Kit Needham says:

    Hello Raymond,

    I am the Senior Business Adviser for Olympus. In response to your very thoughful question, the answer is simply that we truly filled a gap. While there were many professors at CMU who pursued commercialization of their technology that fed into our Tech Transfer system and the other organizations listed, there were many that just had not really considered commercialization. Further, they are often not at the stage where the path to commercialization is obvious. That is where we come in. We have initial exploratory conversations with the faculty and help by providing some preliminary market analysis, walk them through what is involved in commercialization, what their options are, etc. So were are simply creating more, better prepared ‘deal flow’ for our Tech Transfer office and the other organizations in the diagram. For the students, there was no other incubator space where they could meet 24/7, leave their equipment and notes on a white board, and collaborate with other student team members.

    Also, when Olympus was getting started and as we grew, we sat down and talked with the staff of these organizations, and explained what we were intending to do. It was clear that this was going to be a true collaboration where what we did complemented and supported what they do. For instance, once one of our PROBEs ‘graduates’ to another agency or organization, they become the primary adviser. We stay informed but are very careful not to be giving conflicting advice. The staff of the other organizations regularly attend our events and, as mentioned earlier, when we think there is a possible fit with one of the organization’s program, we set up exploratory meetings with the faculty (and students). Again, we help identify (and help prepare) good prospects for their programs that they otherwise may not find that connection.

    To Ben’s question, we haven’t really been in operation long enough for one of our PROBEs to have crossed the finish line, although one student PROBE is getting close. You can go to our website (olympus.cs.cmu.edu) to see the various PROBEs, link to their websites and see recent news about them as well as see the testimonials.

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