Meet Kit Needham: Assistant Dean for Entrepreneurship Initiatives at CMU

Kit NeedhamIn March 2021, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University announced that Kit Needham was named the first Assistant Dean for Entrepreneurship Initiatives. Kit is also the Director and Executive-in-Residence for Project Olympus at CMU. Continue reading to learn more about Kit and her roles at CMU.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I moved to Pittsburgh from Washington, DC, in 2000 for an opportunity with Mellon Bank working in financial services. I met Marty McGuinn (Chairman and CEO of Mellon Bank at the time) and we started a new unit called Mellon Labs to create revenue-producing businesses. I was the COO for the new unit.

Then, I moved to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development as Senior Vice President, where I wore many hats including education and economic development initiatives. We were looking at small startups for business development in the region. I met Lenore Blum through my connections with Allegheny Conference and landed at CMU in 2008 to begin the genesis of the Connects Program and Project Olympus.

Your new position as the School of Computer Science’s inaugural Assistant Dean for Entrepreneurship Initiatives was just announced. What are some of the exciting things happening with entrepreneurship at SCS and CMU?

Requests for our assistance in exploring commercialization remain strong despite being remote. It is more challenging for team building, but we are still finding ways to do it. We are increasingly seeing more PhDs, Post Docs, and Faculty who are interested in the services offered at CMU. We are also excited to have the 4th AI/Robotics Venture Fair with Innovation Works coming up on May 26.

 Tell us about Project Olympus and how this is different with challenges and new opportunities.

Project Olympus is the startup incubator for CMU. Our goals for the inventors are 1) learn the thinking and methodology to evaluate the commercial potential of an idea; 2) find a product/market fit and a feasible revenue model; 3) get them to a stage where they are fundable. To date, there have been 1,037 Project Olympus startup projects with over 2200+ CMU alumni, students, faculty, and staff. The NSF I-Corps Program funds 30 startups each year and is particularly useful for those commercializing their research. Teams can receive up to $2,500 in grant funding to conduct customer discovery and market research. The Innovation Fellows is a year-long program for PhD candidates and postdocs to learn how to commercialize their technology. Since 2015, 30 program participants (27% from STEM underrepresented minorities) have raised $16m in follow-on funding.

What are the next steps you would like to see happening with entrepreneurship at CMU?

 We are working on providing a more structured commercialization programming for faculty-type startups: those who are Licensing IP from CMU. This differs from working with the students because the students start out with a problem and have an idea for the solution. The faculty start out with a great technology and look around to find out who has the problem. It’s harder to have the solution and then work backward to find out who has the problem! We are already doing this in some ways, but we need to do it in a more formalized manner and get more bandwidth. I am looking forward to moving forward with it.

Learn more about Project Olympus and NSF I-Corps through the resources below.