Team's Internet Startup Forecasting Tool Wins Carnegie Mellon Open Innovation Competition

BY Byron Spice - Tue, 2010-03-23 11:03  Printer-friendly version

PITTSBURGH—A team of graduate and undergraduate students won first place in Carnegie Mellon University's first Open Innovation Competition March 20 with a proposal to predict the success of Internet startups by incorporating social networks into the traditional Delphi method of forecasting.

Nine teams of six students each presented their ideas for predicting emerging consumer Internet trends to a panel of six judges, including Charles Moldow, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who sponsored the campus-wide competition. The first-, second- and third-place teams won prizes of $2,000, $1,000 and $500, respectively.

Moldow, a general partner of Foundation Capital, said the competition was one step toward developing a long-term relationship between his firm and Carnegie Mellon. "In the last couple of years, we've seen a number of interesting projects that have been started by CMU alumni and we've invested in a couple of them," he said.

Those investments include Carnegie Mellon spin-off Conviva, an Internet video distribution company founded by Computer Science Professor Hui Zhang, and HomeRun.com, a shopping site founded by Matt Humphrey, who earned his bachelor's degree in computer science at Carnegie Mellon and an MBA at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

The Open Innovation Competition is an interdisciplinary project sponsored by the School of Computer Science's Project Olympus, the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at the Tepper School of Business, and the Institute for Social Innovation and the Masters of Information Systems and Management Program in the Heinz College.

The competition wasn't meant to yield potential startups in which the foundation might consider investing, but ideas that might produce tools that the venture capital firm could use. "We thought it would really be great if we could create an XYZ that would help us decide where to make our investments," Moldow said. Ultimately, one or more of the ideas from the competition might receive support as a commercialization or a "capstone" class project, he said.

The winning entry in the contest was developed by the Orange team consisting of Marina Santana and Joao Pina, both students in the master's degree program in software engineering; Logan Powell, a Tepper MBA student; Shing Yan Lau, a junior majoring in statistics; Elaine Lee, a senior majoring in mathematical sciences; and Rakesh Mishra, a Ph.D. student in the Mellon College of Science.

In its proposal, the team noted the success of the Delphi Method, an iterative process developed by the RAND Corp. in which a panel of experts anonymously answers questionnaires and the results are summarized by a facilitator over two or more rounds until a consensus emerges. To apply the method to forecasting Internet consumer trends, the team concluded that an extremely large group of experts would be required. They plan to use social networks to gather rankings regarding the merits of various Internet consumer ideas and then use an algorithm to evaluate each participant's predictive power over time.

"Thus, the most successful forecasters would emerge organically from the crowd and could be 'harvested' for their insight for a number of potential applications," the team said in its proposal.

Second place went to the Purple team for InnoDash, a product that would provide visual real-time assessments of thought leadership activity, research and development activity, customer utilization and market activity. Purple team members were Terrence Louis Copney and Brett Harris, a senior and junior, respectively, in computer science; Oladapo Fakunle, a Tepper MBA student; Meera George Plackan and Adam Simone, both master's degree students in biotechnology and management in the Heinz College; and Ayshwarya Subramanian, a Ph.D. student in biological sciences.

Third place went to the Green team, for its proposal "Using sentiment analysis to predict Internet startup success." Members are Francisco Uribe, a master's degree student in e-commerce in the Institute of Software Research; Rodrigo Carvalho, a Tepper MBA student; Jose Frech and Paul Mastin, both master's degree students in public policy and management in the Heinz College; Jonathan Harbuck, a junior majoring in computer science; and Aaron Jaech, a junior majoring in mathematical and computer sciences.

"The competition that Charles Moldow proposed to us required savvy in both technology and business, which plays to the natural strengths of this university," said Lenore Blum, professor of computer science and director of Project Olympus, which provides early support to students and faculty interested in commercializing their ideas. "One of the main goals of Project Olympus is to create an environment that nurtures talent and enables ideas to be developed within the region. So we were definitely pleased by the amount of interest the competition attracted on campus in just its first year."

"This competition really builds on the cross-campus collaborative environment at Carnegie Mellon, and it gives us an opportunity to assemble teams that focus on innovation at its earliest stage," said Art Boni, John R. Thorne Chair of Entrepreneurship and director of the Donald H. Jones Center. The Jones Center focuses on developing and delivering programs to support entrepreneur and innovators including company formation. "The interdisciplinary team approach is a key enabler for innovation and a catalyst for new venture development. We teach entrepreneurship and innovation across campus, and I've had several of the business students in my classes and am very pleased to see how they integrated the entrepreneurial process into their team's presentations and proposed projects."

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Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice [atsymbol] cs.cmu.edu