Pitt and CMU students pitch products


Thomas J. Yang

Optipik was the fourth graduate team to present their 90-second pitch in the Pittsburgh Project Development and Management Association student pitch competition Friday night. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer)

By Nina Kneuer | Staff Writer

Christopher Dumm made an auditorium of 50 people laugh when he pulled an old surgical retractor out of a bag and tossed it on the ground in front of him.

Dumm wasn’t a comedian, but rather a student innovator trying to pitch his idea for a new form of surgical retractor in less than 90 seconds — the time usually allotted for an “elevator pitch” — to the panel of judges in front of him.

“The entire point of a 90-second pitch is, if you’re in an elevator, you need to be able to get your point across and get somebody interested enough to ask for your business card,” Dumm, a Pitt graduate student studying mechanical engineering, said.

Dumm was a representative for one of eight teams who presented their pitches to a panel of judges Friday night in the William Pitt Union Lower Lounge during the Undergraduate and Graduate Innovation Competition as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week — a week offering a number of events related to innovation, entrepreneurship and startups.

The event was split into a competition between four teams of graduate students and four teams of undergraduate students. In each competition category, there were two Pitt teams and two Carnegie Mellon University teams.

The teams had 90 seconds to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges comprised of board members of the Product Development and Management Association — the sponsor of the event and a global advocate for product development and management professionals — and representatives from local companies.

Prizes for winners of the contest included a product design advertisement from Bally Design, consultation in product design from Daedalus, Inc., consultation in digital marketing and e-commerce from Mylan, prize money and an invitation to the 2018 PDMA Annual Conference.

Dumm, who represented the team Steeltown Retractors, pitched an idea for a new surgical retractor, a tool surgeons can use to separate the edges of a surgical incision or wound. Steeltown Retractors took first place in the graduate student category, while Four Growers — a Pitt team that created a robot to more efficiently pick tomatoes — placed first in the undergraduate category.

Craig Markovitz, an assistant teaching professor of entrepreneurship at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, helped start the pitching competition last year with Greg Coticchia, director of The Blast Furnace at the Innovation Institute — which helps student entrepreneurs to commercialize their ideas — and PDMA Pittsburgh chapter president Andreas Maihoefer. Markovitz said they wanted to engage students in entrepreneurship during Global Entrepreneur Week.

“It’s a really nice example of both universities coming together, working on a project, having a great event, bringing students in. And you get to meet new people and see cool ideas,” Markovitz said.

Coticchia said the initial competition went so well last year they wanted to repeat it, and in the future, they hope to bring in other local universities.

“It’s always tough versus CMU … but Pitt in the last few years, under the guidance and leadership of the Innovation Institute, has caught up an awful lot, and we’ve made a lot of great progress,” Coticchia said.

Participant Brandon Contino — a Pitt electrical engineering spring 2017 graduate from the winning team Four Growers — said getting to practice pitching their business idea was already a prize win for them.

“It’s really good practice because any time you want to really build a startup company at some point, you’ll likely have to pitch to investors,” Contino said.

Contino said in addition to Four Growers being one of the first place winners, the team also benefited from networking at the event. During a competition break after they presented their pitch, a representative from a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley approached the team members and expressed interest in maintaining contact with them as they grow their business.

“A large part of building a company is your network, and who you know. So when you do a pitch event like this, you get a lot of publicity and it’s a very quick way to meet a lot of people … to get your idea out in a very fine-tuned area of people who are all interested in entrepreneurship,” Contino said.

Because pitching can successfully convince people, he said, it’s entertaining in and of itself.

“We participated because it’s always fun to pitch,” Contino said. “It’s also fun to represent Pitt, especially in a fun little Pitt vs. CMU battle.”

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