Project Olympus showcases entrepreneurs

An array of Carnegie Mellon start-ups were on display at Project Olympus’ 18th Show and Tell last Thursday. From providing essential nutrients to solving crossword puzzles, each of the concepts used technology in novel ways.

The event, which took place in the University Center’s McConomy Auditorium, featured distinguished professors and alumni, as well as students and staff. The program highlighted a small selection of the many entrepreneurial activities within Carnegie Mellon.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor in the Robotics Institute and the director of the CREATE lab, discussed his efforts to empower people to take charge of environmental issues by arming them with data. Nourbakhsh has made inexpensive air quality sensors and water quality sensors, which are particularly useful for residents near fracking sites. “We want technology which is inherently creative,” said Nourbaksh, who feels his sensors will lead to “public discourse supported by data.”

Boris Sofman (SCS ‘05) presented the most commercially successful product of the event, Anki Drive. Sofman launched his first project, a cyber-physical racing game, last year. Users race on their iOS devices while physical cars move around a track. Sofman discussed the launch of the product at Apple’s famed World Wide Developers Conference last year, and showed a soon-to-be released advertisement. His product is currently sold at all Apple stores throughout North America.

Project Olympus awards exceptional entrepreneurs with Project Oriented Business Exploration (PROBE) grants, which include a $50,000 investment and additional mentorship. Three awardees presented their work, including Elijah Mayfield (SCS’13), who founded Lightside; Mary Beth Wilson (CIT ’13), who founded Innovesca; and Daniel Gorziglia, a sophomore in electrical and computer engineering, who founded AssignLink.

Many of the entrepreneurs presenting attributed much of their success to Kit Needham, the associate director.

“I really leaned on Kit for lots of business mentorship,’ said Wilson in an interview after the show. “I have an engineering background — I’m not a business student.” Wilson’s company processes plants grown in sub-Saharan Africa, which create jobs in an impoverished region, and provide more sustainable nutrition. “We’re developing ingredients with optimized nutrition from underutilized plants in developing regions. We make use of nutrients in food that already exist as opposed to genetically modified foods.”

Gorziglia had a similar appreciation for the work of Project Olympus’ staff. “Kit Needham is my business adviser. We meet biweekly,” he said. “Project Olympus is really good having you connect with people.” And these connections have paid off. Assignlink, which offers innovative calendars for students, has already been implemented in five schools.

Several current Carnegie Mellon students who had won TartanHacks competitions also presented their entrepreneurial work. Out of many projects presented, sophomores in computer science Bram Wasti and Michael O’Farrell, and sophomore human-computer interaction and information systems double major Stefan Dasbach presented a version of RaspberryPi, a computer that costs only $35, that could serve as an Apple Airport, which costs $99. Another project, PuzzelPal, allows users to photograph a crossword puzzle with a smartphone. The app then solves the entire puzzle. Senior computer science major Siddharth Dhulipalla and junior computer science majors Jonathan Goldman and Harsh Pandey created PuzzlePal. The program ended with a speech by Dan Gilman (H&SS ‘04), a Pittsburgh city councilman. Gilman said he wants to transform Pittsburgh’s government to make it friendlier to the plethora of startups which want to stay here, but are often lured to the west coast due to funding and a more functional local government. “We’re behind the times in every front,” said Gilman, “but we can lead with the technology coming out of our schools and our hospitals.”

In an interview after the show, Needham said, “I was thrilled — it’s easy to take a lot of time to explain things, but everyone had only two minutes.” Needham encouraged more Carnegie Mellon students to work with Project Olympus. “My goal is that anyone who has an idea feels comfortable showing up — just to learn.” She emphasized that the ideas do have to be a finished product; the goal of Project Olympus is to help students learn what might work in the business world.