University of Pittsburgh
March 30, 2018

Pitt Innovation Institute Establishes Big Idea Center for Student Entrepreneurship

University of Pittsburgh Trustee Bob Randall provides signature gift of $2 million to Innovation Institute

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PITTSBURGH—The University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute, with the support of Bob Randall, is establishing a Big Idea Center to advance student entrepreneurship at Pitt.

The Big Idea Center will enhance educational programs, competitions and resources offered to Pitt students at all levels through the Innovation Institute. It will also strengthen ties to schools, clubs and other organizations across campus and in the regional innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“There is a growing hunger for innovation and entrepreneurship among Pitt students. Whether it is an undergraduate developing a world-changing idea in his dorm room, or a graduate student commercializing her laboratory-based research, the Innovation Institute can help them reach their goals,” said Innovation Institute Interim Director Evan Facher. “We look forward to providing even more students the skills and confidence to bring their ideas to life through the Big Idea Center.”

The center’s initial funding comes from a $2 million seed gift by Bob Randall and family. Randall (A&S ’65), a Pitt alumnus and trustee, will assist in a fundraising effort to support the sustainable growth of the center, which will be based at the Gardner Steel Conference Center at 130 Thackeray Ave. on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus. The Big Idea Center is expected to open in the 2018-2019 academic year.

“Equipping Pitt students with entrepreneurial skills and mindset is critical to preparing them for success in the real world, whether they intend to launch their own enterprise or lead innovation initiatives inside a larger organization,” Randall said. “I am thrilled that Pitt’s leadership recognizes the value of weaving entrepreneurship education into the fabric of the University.”

The center was announced March 29 as part of the 10th annual Randall Family Big Idea Competition at the Charity Randall Theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial on Pitt’s campus.

Randall and his children, all successful entrepreneurs, were inspired to create the competition because of their belief in the benefit of teaching entrepreneurship skills to prepare students for life after college. A suite of programming and resources has been constructed around the Randall Family Big Idea Competition to meet the rising demand for experiential entrepreneurship learning opportunities.

The Big Idea Competition is the region’s largest student innovation and entrepreneurship competition, and this year’s program was the largest ever. Nearly 300 Pitt students competed as part of more than 100 teams vying for $100,000 in cash prizes to advance their innovations. This year's $25,000 grand prize was awarded to Four Growers, which is developing a tomato harvesting robot that uses machine learning to identify and pick ripe tomatoes in a greenhouse setting.

About the new center

The growth in student entrepreneurship at Pitt has been accelerating since the creation of the Innovation Institute in 2014. To help meet the expanding demand, the Big Idea Center will have five focus areas:

  • Education: The center will provide extracurricular programming that encourages participation in cross-disciplinary teams. The center will also increase classroom opportunities across campus through partnerships with schools and departments, including assisting with curriculum and course design and faculty training.
  • Events and competitions: The center will host events year-round, including regional and national speaker visits, networking opportunities, interaction with the regional startup community and competitions such as the Randall Family Big Idea Competition. The center will also promote involvement in national and international events and competitions such as the ACC InVenture Prize and the Rice Business Plan Competition.
  • Funding: Financial support for student projects through the Big Idea Center will include assistance with market research, prototyping and testing to encourage students to take their ideas to the next level.
  • Opportunity acceleration: The center’s space, available to participants around the clock, is designed to foster innovation and will be the home to its programs, helping to accelerate advancement of student ideas from concept to new company.
  • Mentorship: The Big Idea Center will be the hub for mentoring students through the existing Entrepreneurs in Residence program, as well as for connecting students to volunteer mentors from the community, many of whom are entrepreneurs with personal experiences to share.

For more information on the Big Idea Center and student entrepreneurship at Pitt, contact Babs Carryer, director of education and outreach at the Innovation Institute:

Bob Randall with his son Brett, daughter Robin and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

More than 300 students participated in this year's Randall Family Big Idea Competition.

Four Growers team members Rahul Ramakrishnan, Brandon Contino (ENGR '17) and Daniel Garcia hold their $25,000 grand prize check.