Filling A Gap In Education For Pittsburgh's Aspiring Start-Up Founders

Jan 9, 2018

Whether it’s an app or a device, the path from start-up idea to full-fledged company often leads through programs called accelerators or hubs that can provide workspaces, guidance and even funding.  In Pittsburgh, there is AlphaLab, AlphaLab Gear and Ascender.

But competition can be stiff for the limited spots in these programs. For those who do get in, it's usually a full time commitment, said Randy Eager, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh's Innovation Institute.

"In Pittsburgh, if you're not a student or you haven't gotten accepted to one of those accelerators, you really have no way to go through an education program in this field," said Eager.

Eager and Greg Coticchia, another Pittsburgh entrepreneur and the former leader of the Innovation Institute's accelerator, Blast Furnace, are leading the launch of a potential solution: a Pittsburgh chapter of the Founder Institute.

Based in Silicon Valley, the institute has chapters in 150 cities around the world. For a fee, its programs offer reading and video material, mentorship and seminars to would-be innovators as part of a 3.5-month curriculum. Mentors in the Pittsburgh program include Ilana Diamond, managing director of AlphaLab Gear and Henry Thorne, CTO and co-founder of 4moms, a local company that produces high-tech gear for babies and young children.

Their first free start-up education event begins this month and runs through the start of the official program in April.

Coticchia said they are looking for people who are flexible, driven thinkers with a tolerance for rejection. These future founders may already know the problem they want to tackle, he said, or they may just be interested in a specific field. 

"We're really serving people that may be working full-time but want to create a business. It may have started, as people like to call it today, as a 'side hustle' and now they're asking, 'What could I do to actually turn this into a job?'" said Coticchia.

All applicants must be able to pass a psychological assessment designed by the Founder Institute to predict future entrepreneurial success. Eager said Founder recognizes that approach isn't perfect, but they believe it's accurate more often than not.

One of Founder Insitute's most successful graduates is Gagan Biyani, a co-founder of Udemy, a San Francisco-based online learning site. To date, Udemy has raised more than $173 million in funding and has more than 2 million users.

Ideally, that happens for others. Founder wants its students to leave with a developed idea for a company that will be attractive to customers and could land them a spot in an established accelerator.

"You're more likely to get accepted if you already understand your customer base, you've done customer discovery and you've thought through your business model," Eager said. "You're more ready."