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Heinz College Alumni Surging in Pittsburgh's Tech Sector

By Michael Cunningham

“We love calling Pittsburgh home.”

While you might expect that statement to come from a family of Steelers fans, it actually came from a blog post released by Uber earlier this year, as it announced the expansion of its operations in town.

Uber, like fellow tech giants Google, Apple, and IBM, has consistently grown its corporate and research presence in Pittsburgh, citing the city’s research universities and commitment to innovation. Heinz College students and alumni benefit from this new tech ecosystem with countless employment and educational opportunities and are finding it easier to start their own companies in this climate. 

With the support of local startup accelerators and incubators like AlphaLab, Ascender, and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, Heinz alumni are turning entrepreneurial ideas into profitable realities in fields ranging from health care and robotics to food preservation and agriculture.

Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse Invests $50,000 in AlphaStroke, a Company Founded By a Heinz College Student

Only one in seven hospitals in the U.S. is a certified stroke center, meaning that of the 800,000 patients who suffer strokes each year, at least half are taken to hospitals that aren’t equipped to treat them. 

“Most of the time, this is because first responders don’t have reliable and effective tools for diagnosing stroke victims,” said Matthew Kesinger, a current Master of Science in Health Care Policy and Management student at Heinz College.

To mitigate this problem, Kesinger, a former EMT who also attended medical school, developed AlphaStroke, the first device that screens for strokes across all point-of-care environments, and can be used by all medical personnel.

In his role as CEO Forest Devices, housed in Pittsburgh’s AlphaLab startup accelerator, Kesinger has raised about $500,000 in investor capital to develop a beta version of AlphaStroke, and fund its initial clinical trials, which began enrolling over the summer. This month alone, Foerst Devices has raised $100,000 in startup funding.

On Sept. 12, Forest Devices won the 2016 LaunchKC event, earning a $50,000 startup grant in the process. And later this month, the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, a nationally-recognized investment firm committed to empowering entrepreneurs to build innovative and successful life sciences companies, will invest $50,000 in Forest Devices to help bring AlphaStroke to market.

“Being an individual physician, you can help individuals on a daily basis,” said Kesinger. “But being able to create something that can change the practice of other health care providers, it really is thrilling, and at the same time humbling and scary.”

Heinz Alumnus Helps Power $275 Million Acquisition of Blue Belt Technologies

Coming in as a mechanical engineer from a consumer product background, I very much wanted to do two things when I came to Heinz,” recalled Adam Simone, a 2011 Heinz College graduate. “One was to enter the life sciences, specifically medical technology, and then number two was to find a startup.”

Simone accomplished both goals when he began working for Blue Belt Technologies, first as a student intern in 2009 and later as a full-time employee after graduation. He eventually worked his way up to building and leading both the marketing and clinical sales departments for Blue Belt, which was recently acquired by Smith & Nephew, a global technology business, for $275 million.

“We grew the business from 10 people to over 150 people, and from pre-revenue to two FDA-cleared commercial medical devices and, of course, the acquisition, which took place in January,” said Simone.

At the heart of the acquisition is Blue Belt’s Navio® surgical system, which provides robotics-assistance in partial knee replacement surgery through CT-free navigation software and a unique hand-held, robotic bone-shaping device.

“Our philosophy around robotics wasn’t to replace the surgeon, but rather to enhance the surgeon’s normal tools,” Simone said. “We layered our proprietary technology, which is based on computer vision and three-dimensional simulations on top of a surgical drill, for example. So something that a surgeon is very comfortable and used to using, suddenly, we turn it from a dumb tool to a very smart tool.”

For Simone, who recently started his own Leaf Razor business, jumping into a startup with two feet gave him the skills and confidence he needed to quickly move up within Blue Belt’s ranks and eventually create an entrepreneurial venture of his own.

Heinz College Grad Founds Agriculture Startup; Wins $50,000 National Science Foundation Grant

Imagine you’re a farmer, trying to project your crop yield for the coming season. You know how much you planted, but you don’t know how many of those plants actually took root. And of course, you’ll need to account for factors such as pests and weather damage that may further reduce your harvest potential.

Enter Brendan Carroll’s new venture, Skycision, a data-driven farm management platform built around the collection and processing of high-resolution aerial imagery obtained via drone technology. The Heinz College Master of Information Systems Management alumnus recently has raised over $300,000, with $50,000 allotments coming from the National Science Foundation and from two accelerators, Acceleprise and AgLaunch. Skycision leverages CMU’s core competencies in computer vision, machine learning, and robotics to revolutionize the agricultural industry.

“When we take pictures from above, we can pinpoint crop stress at a very early stage, and then notify the farmer to take the appropriate action,” said Carroll. “Today, a given crop scout spend up to, and sometimes over, 10,000 hours per year scouting their fields for pest and disease. With our technology, they can scout their fields in a fraction of the time, and we can tell them exactly where issues reside, with reccomendations on how to respond. The time and yield savings can be tens of thousands of dollars per year, depending on the operation.”

It’s this combination of innovation and practicality that make Skycision so attractive, not only to farmers, but to investors. The NSF grant is one of several sources of funding in a series of public and private funds that Carroll and his team have already raised, including contributions from CMU alumni and the Acceleprise and AgLaunch incubator programs.

“We’re at an exciting point of growth,” Carroll said. “We’re growing our team and scaling sales, we’re excelling in all the right places, and now it’s just a matter of managing growth and delivering on expectations.”

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