By MARTY LEVINE
“I live and breathe startups,” says Babs Carryer, director of Pitt’s Big Idea Center.
Carryer has been an entrepreneur in the arts and the life sciences; she has taught students how to start a startup, has blogged about it and has even written a murder mystery about startups. She came to Pitt in 2007 from Carnegie Mellon University, where the startup culture is pervasive, because she saw the opportunity for Pitt to ramp up its own “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she says.
“I like to create new things,” Carryer adds. “I like to build something new and pass it off to someone else. That’s where Pitt came in.”
Pitt is larger and has more students from Pennsylvania and surrounding states than does CMU, and those students are thus more likely to keep their startups in the region, Carryer says. But for entrepreneurship to grow here, she realized she had to demonstrate that the Innovation Institute, and then the Big Idea Center within it, were for all schools — “so everyone would be a partner. I know that’s what you need to be successful.” She has spent the past seven years helping to build them both as recognizable places on campus, with established, growing programs.
Carryer talks quickly and enthusiastically about the institute and center. Her work has focused on creating student programs to spark business innovation among students in all schools, and at all levels.
Two years ago, entrepreneur Bob Randall gave $2 million to the University to form the Big Idea Center. Now it runs the Big Idea Blitz, which drew about 100 students this January to spend 24 hours pitching their startup ideas, building a team of peers around that idea, and working together on their concept.
“They’re trying to put some muscle around that idea,” Carryer says. “They look at the market. They look at the competition. They maybe put together a prototype” and sometimes even build a business model. Then they pitch their idea to judges with entrepreneurial expertise, for a $3,000 prize.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
The Randall Family Big Idea Competition, which was supposed to conclude with an awards presentation on March 26, is moving online.
Babs Carryer polled the student participants and the majority said they wanted to soldier on, as they have all put a lot of work into their ideas and several are graduating seniors.
Students will communicate virtually with mentors and entrepreneurs in residence. Then each team must submit a pre-recorded 10-minute presentation with slides that will be submitted to outside judges.
The Big Idea Center hopes to hold a Zoom event for the Awards Celebration, which will give out $100,000 in prizes, during the week of April 20.
Up to half of Blitz participants are inspired to move on to the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, a two-month startup boot camp that helps students create a business presentation, competing for 14 prizes, including a $25,000 first prize. The Randall Family Big Idea awards were to be given out at a celebration on March 26, but have been postponed and because of the coronavirus precautions.
Some of the entrants move on to the Blast Furnace program, a student accelerator offered in May and June, for further training. A new incubator program, the Forge, began last fall.
“That’s why I came to Pitt, to do something big like this,” Carryer says. “And we have big plans,” including a more permanent space for the center on campus. Her team also is looking at University-wide certificate programs, including one for undergraduates in innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t just doing startups,” Carryer says. Teaching innovation is teaching the art of problem solving, she explains. “Understanding that process is extremely valuable for their careers — no matter where they go,” she says of student participants. “The process of innovation is a vital skill that they must learn” — and it is a skill most easily gained outside the classroom, she believes.
Students in Big Idea programs and classes say it helps them get internships and interviews and opens up career paths they didn’t previously consider, Carryer reports. Students may not see Pitt as a top spot for formulating startups — yet – but they discover ideas here: “My goal is to train students and get them excited about innovation and solving problems the world has. They come to one of our programs and it gets de-mystified.”
The whole process “is very exciting to witness. It’s life-changing for them,” she says. “And even if they fail, they’ve got nothing to lose.” When she talks to current business professionals, she explains, she finds them impressed by the effort these students undertake. “They said, not only are you employable after that experience, you are more employable. You’ll have experiences in many areas of business.
From theater founder to entrepreneur
Carryer’s journey to Pitt began with the founding of a small theater company with her eventual husband, Tim Carryer, taking their comedies all around the world and eventually running a theater in New York City.
“I didn't know it at the time, but we were entrepreneurs in the arts,” she says. After 20 years of theater pursuits, the couple had kids, and a career shift was in order. In 1995, Carryer joined the CMU faculty as an adjunct in the drama department. It was the dawn of the Internet, and the exhilaration of new tech drew her to seek a masters in Public Management degree at CMU, thinking she would go into arts management.
“But I realized that was a sideways move,” she says. “I had much bigger ideas.”
She founded Carryer Consulting to write business plans for startups locally, then in 2000 formed LaunchCyte to support new life sciences businesses. But she missed academics and returned to CMU in 2003 to teach entrepreneurship in several schools, later advising a project in the School of Computer Science that worked with faculty and students aiming for startup success.
Today, at Pitt, she is happy teaching startup fundamentals in the Swanson School of Engineering and the School of Computing and Information, adding to her other duties. She has found the University less political than other places in academia. And “Pitt students, they love it here,” she adds. “It’s like family. They’re much more loyal to the alma mater than I have found at other institutions.”
Carryer can’t stop thinking about startups, which inspired her to write a murder mystery, featuring a mashup of people she’s known at Pitt but set at a fictional Pittsburgh research university. She turned her Big Idea blog into another book, called “Startup Briefs,” on the suggestion of her students, and is at work today on her startup murder mystery sequel, this time set on a sailboat.
That’s no stretch for Carryer, since she and her husband last year sailed across the Atlantic, from Bermuda to the Azores and finally Portugal, with another couple. They have more sailing plans for the future.
In the meantime, Carryer can’t stop her startup ardor: “That’s why I’m dedicating my career to building these programs. These are the people who are going to be leaders, so let’s train them.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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