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Corporate Startup Lab’s Jim Jen on how Pittsburgh tech has changed over 20 years

Now, "they know Pittsburgh is great," the ecosystem leader said of former naysayers in this RustBuilt Q&A. Here's where he thinks the region can grow further.

Jim Jen. (Photo courtesy of RustBuilt)
A version of this Q&A was originally published on RustBuilt's website and is republished here with permission.
Pittsburgh got its proverbial hooks into Jim Jen.

The newly minted director of the Corporate Startup Lab and distinguished professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University came to Pittsburgh 21 years ago as something of a compromise after spending half his life to that point in the Bay Area, first at Stanford and then working at Hewlett-Packard.

After 9/11, the Salisbury, Maryland, native wanted to be closer to his family back east, and his wife’s parents lived in Wheeling, West Virginia.

“We always thought Northern Virginia would be the logical middle point,” he said.

But his wife had attended Duquesne University and still had friends here, and on visits, he liked what he saw of the Steel City and its scrappy but burgeoning tech community. Young parents themselves, they were further drawn in by the quality of life opportunities for raising a family.

“We had a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old and honestly, it was: Where we want them to grow up?” he said.

They set down roots, and in the years since, he’s become an indispensable part of the Pittsburgh startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem at Innovation Works, where he cofounded the AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear accelerators.

RustBuilt sat down with Jen recently to talk about his time in Pittsburgh, and what he hopes to accomplish in his new position.


RustBuilt: So, paint a picture for me — it’s 2002 when you first arrived in Pittsburgh. What it’s like then coming from Silicon Valley? What was the city, and the tech scene like at that time? And how has it changed?

Jim Jen: That’s a great question, because I think sometimes you need that 20-year perspective. If I think back to 2002, there were a couple of things that strike me from that time. One was — even people I met here locally — would say, why’d you move here? They were surprised someone from California would move to Pittsburgh. And when I think about the technology scene, there were definitely startups and larger companies. But I think in terms of this ecosystem now, there’s events going on all the time. You look at the RustBuilt community newsletter, you’re like, OK, which events I go to? Back then I remember that there was maybe one networking event that happened maybe once a month. So from an ecosystem standpoint, it’s more vibrant today. There’s more activity, there’s more connectivity.

The other thing is CMU and I think all of the universities here — Pitt, Duquesne, all of the universities — have done a great job of bulking up their entrepreneurship programs and connecting to the ecosystem. We saw that over at AlphaLab where some of these teams coming out of the universities are getting very well trained and familiar with a lot of the startup concept. So we sort of took some of that out of the curriculum, saying that’s already been handled.

What’s your elevator pitch to somebody if you wanted to draw them to the region to work with them, or encourage their startup to either spread its wings here or to remain here?

I think it’s [three-fold]. If I were trying to encourage a large corporation to open a subsidiary here or an R&D, the pitch to them is if you want to stay close to some of the leading-edge technologies and research in the world, this is a great place to do it. I would obviously point to CMU, depending on whether they were like biomedical life sciences, and then would also point to all of the major companies that are already here — Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Bosch, Phillips. So the proximity — and because Pittsburgh is so approachable — you’re gonna wanna be here to take advantage of that.

And, of course, access to talent. There’s so many universities here, and they are developing and training young people for careers in this area. You can make the talent argument. I believe that students want to stay here. There’s a greater emphasis for people on where do I want to live, rent and reside.

Then you get into livability. Pittsburgh’s done a lot and this is another thing that over the last 20 years — people don’t question why you would move to Pittsburgh. When I was at my business school reunion last fall at Stanford, they know Pittsburgh is great. The word of mouth is so different from 20 years ago, when I told people I was leaving. What we see here in terms of perception is that it is real.

You’re also continue to be a champion for the overall region as a new board member for Visit Pittsburgh.

I believe in the region. Before I always was very focused on startup technology, but, Visit Pittsburgh, joining the board, I’ve enjoyed that because it’s allowed me to think more broadly than just one segment. And, my wife and I feel like we sort of embody that as well. Sometimes we’re thinking about where we want to go for a long weekend or a couple of days, and instead we’ll pick some place in Pittsburgh, and stay and just walk around and enjoy it.

From a technology standpoint, Pittsburgh has strength, because there’s multiple areas where Pittsburgh is strong. Obviously AI, robotics, advanced materials, biomedical engineering, life sciences. There’s a diversification in terms of the industry sectors that comes from a lot of core research strengths. Pittsburgh’s well positioned, especially if you think about right now, one of the biggest trends is around AI and generative AI. [At CMU,] there’s a lot of world-class AI machine learning. Pittsburgh is well positioned for all of these things.

When I think about Silicon Valley of late, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of good news coming out of there when you read the headlines — outside looking in, it just seems like it went from being this sort of tech utopia to just really kind of aggressively toxic place. Is there more of a collaborative spirit and collegial atmosphere here?

This goes back to I think what I really love about Pittsburgh. As a community one of the benefits is that we’re not quite at that scale yet. So, therefore, you can still have a lot of personal relationships and connections that are more accessible. And I also think that because of the strong nonprofit influence here, I think social impact starts coming into play more. Plus in Pittsburgh, everyone knows each other.

What we have to do is figure out ways to continue building bridges — if you’ll allow the analogy — that will allow the region to be bringing more folks into entrepreneurship and of course, always connecting to outside of Pittsburgh. There’s lots of folks, companies, and investors outside of the region that are very interested in Pittsburgh. And there’s also I think the alumni. And when I say alumni, I don’t mean just the university alumni, I mean people who have lived here. I mean, that’s why Steeler Nation is Steeler Nation. You go to any game, you see any road game, there’s that dynamic.

There’s Pittsburgh alums, CMU alums around the world. I think [we can do more] to make them feel connected to what’s happening here, even if they’re not physically here. At CMU, at the Swartz Center, that’s been a point of emphasis. You’ve got folks who have a connection to Pittsburgh who are doing great things around the world. We’ve got to also continue to embrace that. We’re playing the long game. Investors from around the world are very interested in Pittsburgh.

What do you uniquely want to accomplish at CSL?

The Corporate Startup Lab was founded by Sean Ammirati and Matt Crespi with the premise that startups can exist anywhere, including inside of corporations, and that, ultimately, if you can bring sort of startup best practice, entrepreneurial best practice, into the innovation processes of a company, that’s how you can really identify some of these opportunities. What I want to do is just to continue to build on that.

One of the key principles I want to bring over that I’ve always embraced in venture startups is that you’ve got to rapidly test and iterate as quickly and as cheaply as you can test the idea, figure out it has merit. We’re trying to help companies test out five or six ideas almost simultaneously, without putting in a ton of budget, or having internal commitment bias. And then that same time, the students are getting a great learning experience, because it’s hands on with a company, kind of solving their most pressing problems.That’s what I want to do continue to do, while looking for ways to continue to expand the community and bring it together so the peer groups among the corporate innovation folks are finding the growing tech companies so they can learn from each other.

The other area that I’m thinking a lot about, though, is how do we continue to grow and scale the region? All the ingredients have been there and you see signs of success. How do you make it a more repeatable engine? That’s where the opportunity to work out with the larger companies, the corporations, comes into it. Ultimately, what we all care about is economic growth here in the region. The tech side is a key driver, but there’s also a lot of established companies that have a lot of assets and strengths and scale. If they’re able to capitalize on that, it can have a really big, big effect. Ultimately, it’s bringing both sides together.

Companies: RustBuilt / Innovation Works (Pittsburgh) / Carnegie Mellon University
Series: Power Moves

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