LaunchCMU event presents Pittsburgh startups to students

Investors and start-up heads alike sat around white-clothed tables in the Rangos Ballroom last Thursday for the third annual LaunchCMU showcase. Hosted twice a year by the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), LaunchCMU is a presentation of technology inspired by Carnegie Mellon research, according to co-director of the CIE and opening speaker Dave Mawhinney.

This year’s theme, “the business of learning,” focused on technologies aimed at improving education. According to director of the Simon Initiative, Norman Bier, this field has been steadily growing since Herb Simon introduced an approach to “learning science,” or the idea of improving education through data-driven analysis. Bier was one of the eight speakers at the showcase.

According to Bier, the Simon Initiative, launched in 2013, is what President Subra Suresh was told to “get excited about” when he ascended to university presidency the year after. Along with its breakthroughs in research, the Initiative also forged better relationships between other industries and the university, through projects such as DataLab, which uses data-driven analysis to improve learning outcomes, and the Global Learning Council, which unites global leaders in technology-based learning. Such partnerships further the university’s entrepreneurial aims, according to Provost Farnam Jahanian. Jahanian cited the CIE’s mission statement toward the end of his opening words as making the university a “destination of choice” for all those interested in entrepreneurship.

Several different Pittsburgh-area and Carnegie Mellon-based startups presented at LaunchCMU.

Carnegie Mellon math professor Po-Shen Loh brings attention to the Pittsburgh area not only for coaching the winning United States team in the international Math Olympiad, but also because of the fact that Expii, the startup he founded, is headquartered in Bakery Square.

Expii, an online tutoring tool, has brought $1 million dollars in local investments. Loh described the app as “Wikipedia on steroids.” All “course materials” on Expii — whether text, video, or even questions — are crowdsourced by contributing authors. As students progress through each topic, they get feedback on questions they missed and concepts they did not understand.

Such availability of information, Loh said, perfectly embodies two American principles to which he credits his famous Olympiad win: “freedom of happiness, and freedom to pursue information.”

In his presentation, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor and founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, explained that education, rather than being a great equalizer, could in fact be a cause of inequality. In this talk, he cited learning a language as one such example. Although the most in-demand second language is English, and those motivated to learn it are usually lower-class immigrants, software tools like Rosetta Stone can cost around $500.

Thus came the inception of Duolingo: a completely free online language learning tool. Duolingo proves to be about as effective in 36 hours as one semester of foreign language in college.

Like its user-base, Duolingo is constantly improving its abilities: within six hours, the website can gather enough data on users to compare whether one method of language learning is stronger than another. “It’s not based on philosophy, or anything,” von Ahn said. “It’s based on data collected from our users.”

TutorGen Inc.
Next came HCII professor and founder of TutorGen, Inc., John Stamper. Digital adaptive learning — or teaching tools that “adapt” to individual students’ needs — can often be expensive and difficult to implement. With TutorGen, Stamper strives to provide a solution to his own question: “How can we make adaptive learning broader and more usable around the world?” With its components, SCALE (Student-Centered Adaptive Learning Engine) and DataLab, TutorGen brings a quantitative approach to improving currently existing educational technology by using machine learning to identify “gaps” in students’ knowledge.

Acrobatiq, a branding and advertising company, finds its biggest enemy in the graduation crisis, according to Chief Marketing Officer Allison Pendergast. Half of U.S. students who start college will never finish their degrees.
The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) already exists at Carnegie Mellon to provide free and open online courseware. “If the OLI was a medical trial, it would have to be stopped because of its success,” Pendergast said.
Acrobatiq aims to rebuild the OLI on a more localized scale, so that faculties of individual universities can author content and use data analytics to keep track of each student’s progress in the course to determine “who needs help, when, and where,” Pendergast said.

Digital Dream Labs
“Imagine a world where we solve No Child Left Behind,” stated Chief Executive Officer Jacob Hanchar, “and we did that through gamification.”
Digital Dream Labs was launched by graduates from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon.
Hanchar hopes to bring a vibrancy to education, similar to Pixar’s vibrancy in the arena of entertainment, by having students interact with games. For young children, he believes that the most effective learning should be tactile, not abstract. “We need to have something in our hands,” he said.

Simcoach Games
“In many ways, [games and learning] are intertwined,” stated Chief Executive Officer Jessica Trybus, another graduate of the Entertainment Technology Center. Simcoach Games was developed in order to educate an especially large niche: employees.
In a demonstration, Trybus played a game that trained cashiers at grocery stores in methods that could prevent the risk of overexertion, such as grabbing heavy items with two hands, while still being efficient. If the potential employee doesn’t win the game, explained Trybus, they would not pass the training — a much larger indicator of readiness than simply “showing up” to a presentation.

While technology increasingly takes the shape of “an Internet of things,” as phrased by Chief Executive Officer Gary Kiliany, engineering hardware remains an especially slow and expensive process.
Interstacks’s solution to this problem is as simple as snappable electronic “blocks,” each of which can be programmed to serve a single function, ranging from sending a tweet, turning on the remote, or raising the volume.
With this technology, Kiliany hopes to not only support large industries, but also a growing DIY culture.
“The smartphone/Facebook generation is not just consuming mass-produced products from mass-produced companies,” Kiliany said. “They’re taking advantage of these new technologies.”