In the Loop: Lenore Blum

Lenore Blum is Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Tech, she took academic computing with Alan Perlis, and earned her doctorate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Before joining the SCS faculty, Blum founded the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at California's Mills College and served for 13 years as its head. She also held research positions at the University of California at Berkeley and the International Computer Science Institute, and served as deputy director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

Her research includes developing a theory of computation and complexity over the real and complex numbers, combining ideas from mathematics and computer science. A tireless advocate for increasing the participation of women in math and science, she was a founder and past president of the Association for Women in Mathematics and the founder of Women@SCS.

Blum recently spoke to Link Managing Editor Jason Togyer about her newest initiative--Project Olympus (olympus.cs.cmu.edu), which helps innovators turn their research into commercially marketable ideas.

What was your motive for founding Project Olympus?

There were actually two. One came out of my work as co-director of the ALADDIN Center. Our goal was to show that key computer science algorithms had applications across many different domains. It occurred to me some of these ideas could be commercialized to support our research and regional economic growth.

The other motive was to create an entrepreneurial environment that would encourage our students to stay in the area. When I looked at our student body a few years ago, less than five percent our SCS graduates were staying in Pittsburgh. Our competitors--MIT, Stanford, Berkeley--have huge technology infrastructures in their communities that are spinoffs of those institutions.
I wanted to create an environment where faculty and students would stay here and make a positive impact on the region's economy.

How does Project Olympus support innovators?

Olympus supports what we call "PROBEs"--Project-Oriented Business Explorations--which are teams of faculty and students working to explore the commercial potential of their research.

Some PROBEs need space, some need equipment and some need money. Everyone needs connections and visibility. We have great incubator space off Craig Street, and we provide connections with advisors and collaborators on and off campus.

We try to move quickly and we haven't created much bureaucracy. A lot of places have big long applications. We don't need that, because our students and faculty have already been vetted.

I mean, the faculty and students are brilliant. Why would I say no to them?

Don't you need to see a business plan first?

We certainly want to see a plan, and we have said no when things have looked very bad, but otherwise we rarely say no. We're more interested in seeing their enthusiasm, their excitement and their commitment to working on their project.
With faculty, for instance, I don't want them spending all of their time on business plans. We get teams of MBAs to provide market research and business plans for our faculty PROBEs.

And we do provide guidance. We are fortunate to have Babs Carryer as our embedded entrepreneur, and Kit Needham as our senior business advisor. One of our main goals is eventually to provide our faculty with "Innovation Fellows" who spend their time working on the business aspects.

If these innovations are so good, why doesn't the private sector support them?

Some of these ideas are at a very early stage. Whatever you think of as "early stage," we provide help even earlier than that.

Also, unlike Silicon Valley, the venture capital climate in Pittsburgh tends to be very risk-averse. And that's a concern. We're trying to change that climate, eliminate the roadblocks that keep innovators from receiving funding, and show Pittsburgh that you've got to be less risk-averse.  

What sorts of PROBEs are people working on right now?

I'm very excited about our SCS faculty PROBEs. A couple of our newer PROBEs have recently become companies. Safaba Translation Solutions, headed by Alon Lavie, is a spinoff of products developed at the Language Technologies Institute, while Jamie Callan's TellTale Information--which also comes out of LTI--allows government agencies to automatically manage all of the filings and documents they receive.

And then there is POW!--that's Mor Harchol-Balter of the Computer Science Department--which develops optimal algorithms for power management. Just starting up are Graphics Parallelism in the Cloud, which is Adrien Treuille of the Robotics Institute and CSD, which is poised to become the next revolution in the gaming industry, and GGideaLab--Carlos Guestrin from Machine Learning and CSD, and Seth Goldstein of CSD--which is trying to optimize the usefulness of social networks.

How many PROBEs do wind up becoming successful spinoffs?

So far, we've had about 45 PROBEs, and more than half have become companies. Our very first faculty PROBE was reCAPTCHA, which built on Luis von Ahn's work and has since been acquired by Google. One of our student PROBEs was Dynamics, which is developing a kind of fraud-resistant credit card, and that's received almost $6 million in venture capital funding.

Does that mean Project Olympus is sustainable for the long run?

We've really been operating on a shoestring budget compared with other major university centers that do similar work with entrepreneurs. The Deshpande Center at MIT, for instance, was initially funded by a gift of $20 million.

At the moment, we're relying on foundation grants. In our case, the Heinz Endowments provided initial funding of $400,000, and then followed up with $245,000. We've received additional support from various economic development agencies and the university, and we're seeking donor gifts.

Right now, we're exploring models for long-term stability, such as a kind of hybrid that would combine both for-profit and non-profit investment and equity ownership, as well as a membership-based model.

Could any of the PROBE successes contribute financially to Olympus?

We are part of the university--in fact we are an initiative of SCS--and so we can't directly invest in companies that come out of Olympus.

But we're not purely altruistic! We say to everybody: "When you make it big, remember us."
For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu