Revolutionary Entrepreneurship: An Interview with David Mawhinney of CMU
Donald Bonk interviews David Mawhinney, executive director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. This is the first part of a two-part interview, conducted before COVID-19. The transcript is abridged and edited for clarity.here. Read David Mawhinney’s bio here.
“How can I help make Carnegie Mellon the best fountain of innovation in the world and therefore the best entrepreneurial university in the world?” —David Mawhinney
Donald Bonk: We’re here with David Mawhinney, executive director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University. You’ve accomplished so much in the business world and in academia, leading many important issues at the university. To start, give us a little bit of your background and then share a bit about your role here as executive director of the Swartz Center.
David Mawhinney: I’m a western Pennsylvania kid, born and bred. My grandfather was a steel worker at J & L Steel down on Second Avenue and where the Hazelwood Green is right now. My father was a Presbyterian minister and a social worker. So I had a varied background, probably very similar to most of the lower middle class kids here in the Pittsburgh area that have grown up and done interesting things. I grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. My parents split up when I was very young, so I had the opportunity to go to four different school districts.
I went to the Air Force Academy to play basketball. I didn’t like it and transferred to IUP because IUP had a highly-rated basketball team and that’s what I cared about at the time. But I got scared straight and realized that if I was going to make anything of myself, I had to work much harder and became a physics, applied math and computer science major, which led me to an early career in software engineering.
Ultimately, I decided I want to be an entrepreneur. I came back to Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon to transform myself into an entrepreneur. I studied entrepreneurship under Jack Thorne, Frank Demmler and Tom Canfield. I was very, very fortunate to meet my lifelong mentor, Don Jones, who’s a famous entrepreneur in the region.
I talked Don into starting a company with me. And so, in 1990, I started a company. I was the only person in my class coming out of Carnegie Mellon that actually started a company. I was 27 years old when I graduated with an MBA.
Fast forward, I was part of starting five companies. The last one was called mSpoke; we were the first company that was purchased by LinkedIn. It was an AI content recommendation engine. I have also been a partner in a corporate venture capital firm, PNC Technology Investors. That’s the PNC that we all know. So I’ve been on both sides of the table and lately as an angel investor as well.
I feel like I am well-positioned to help lead entrepreneurial activities here in the Pittsburgh area. I came back to Carnegie Mellon after my last startup because I wanted to make Carnegie Mellon the best entrepreneurial university in the world.
Carnegie Mellon was not known for being an entrepreneurial university, although we are a great entrepreneurial university. We didn’t always open our arms to our alumni entrepreneurs to open the networks that are so strong. So, I made that my mission over the last decade to really change things and achieve commitment.
We’ve had a lot of help from the community along the way. The McCune Foundation gave us the Big Idea grant in 2012, which allowed us to bring all of the entrepreneurial activities in the university under one roof: Project Olympus, The Don Jones Center, ultimately, the Venture Bridge from Engineering in what was called the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the time, and then fast forward to 2016 to Jim Swartz, who is the founder of Accel Partners, one of the top V.C. firms in the world.
Jim Swartz is a native of Coraopolis and he got his MBA from Carnegie Mellon. He always felt that Carnegie Mellon was an important player, and played a really important role in his life and his success. We were able to show Jim that we had opened up entrepreneurship to all of the disciplines across campus, which is our brand at Carnegie Mellon—interdisciplinary collaboration. Another thing that we did was we didn’t focus only on current students and faculty, but we opened it up to alumni.
Bonk: Kind of the life cycle of students from just out of the door to 30 or 40 years out of school.
Mawhinney: You know, once a Carnegie Mellon student, always a Carnegie Mellon alum. And we use that phrase for a lot of our programs. We have a program called Swartz Fellows for Professional Masters. This is a pay-it-forward world. If you’re going to participate with us in this Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon, then we want you to have this attitude of helping the community and getting help from the community—this beauty of reciprocity.
This beautiful space that we have is just world class. It was made possible by a $31 million dollar gift from Jim Swartz and his wife, Susan.
Right now, we have 400 entrepreneurs from every discipline—design, the arts, engineering, computer science, life sciences, public policy and business—all working together in this space. They’re representing 80 different startup companies. Now, many of them are just at the idea phase and will never get beyond the idea phase. But we’ve created this community, this front door to the university for all of our alumni.
For those in the community that are interested in entrepreneurship, for venture capitalists from across the world, they’re getting to know the Carnegie Mellon name and brand. We’ll talk more about that as we talk about the city and the region. So, it has been transformative. And again, it was made possible by the Swartz family.
Bonk: You’ve created a crossroads here of energy, ideas, people, students, alumni and community around the ecosystem of entrepreneurship and passion. This is ground zero.
Mawhinney: It’s not just Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon is an international university. We get students literally from every continent here. I wish I could say every country, but that’s probably not true. We are the most international university amongst the top 50 universities in the world. If you’ve walked on campus, you’ve seen it’s like a United Nations here. I think that’s just so wonderful because we can get diverse viewpoints from all skill sets and backgrounds. And that really, I think, adds to a community of innovation, creating that mindset at the Swartz Center.
We definitely want to create entrepreneurs, but before that, we want to create the entrepreneurial mindset. And if you have the entrepreneurial mindset, you can apply that in the corporate world, in the nonprofit world design.
Bonk: It’s good to give us that background so that we understand when you’re talking about Pittsburgh’s future. You’ve been an integral part of building it, especially over the last 10 to 12 years. This mission of yours is to create a dynamic, sustainable entrepreneurship community.
Mawhinney: If Carnegie Mellon is going to reach our goal of being the best entrepreneurial university in the world, it takes a village. It’s not just people that are students at CMU or alumni, but it’s people from the community, people that are friends of Carnegie Mellon, that will help us get there.
Bonk: Now that’s a great way of understanding it. It’s a continuum within the university and in the community, and then around the world, because a lot of our alumni are living in global cities, whether it’s Shanghai or Singapore.
Mawhinney: Exactly. In the United States, Pittsburgh is where most of our alumni are. But the Bay Area is number two and New York is number three. So we’re building programing to reach out to our alumni, into the investors in those communities called the Venture Bridge. One, it’s where the money is. So our startups have to communicate with those sources of risk capital. It’s hard to do from across the country, so instead of expecting them to come here, we take our best companies there.
We’ve been successfully doing that in the Bay Area for a couple of years now, and now we’re taking it to New York City. New York has gone in the last 20 years from being a non-entrepreneurial city to being the number two entrepreneurial city in the world.
Bonk: Mayor Bloomberg had a big role in that.
Mawhinney: He absolutely did. We’re excited about our ability to reach beyond the geography of Pittsburgh, but maintain Pittsburgh as the hub headquarters in the community.
Bonk: We see that there’s a campus of Carnegie Mellon in Silicon Valley. Can you talk briefly about that campus and how it plays an integral role in some of the work that you do?
Mawhinney: The campus in Silicon Valley is in Mountain View on the Ames NASA Moffett Field complex right there. It’s also right next to the Googleplex. It’s right in startup central, perfectly situated. It’s also the home base for our Venture Bridge program. We partner closely with the engineering college here at Carnegie Mellon, which manages that that facility. We have workspaces like a workday space in the campus there that our teams will work on.
We also maintain rented, shared space in San Francisco because some people want to be in San Francisco where a lot is happening. So we’re sort of bipolar, you know, 50 miles apart in San Francisco, but also in Mountain View on the CMU campus. And we do programing in both places throughout.
Bonk: It’s a fully-functional extension of our campus here in Pittsburgh.
Mawhinney: Absolutely. And very, very critical to the future of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon.
Bonk: The Center of the New World. Now, we’d like to pivot Pittsburgh proper. The focus of this series and the discussions we’ve been having is around what would make Pittsburgh the best city in the world.
Mawhinney: Well, let’s give credit where credit is due. Pittsburgh’s been winning awards as one of the best cities to live in America for the last…
Bonk: Since 1985. I remember the original. Rand McNally.
Mawhinney: Exactly. So you know there’s a lot that’s good about Pittsburgh. I always say Pittsburgh is a big city in terms of the amenities, but has a small town feel. We have great major league sports: the Pirates, the Steelers, the Penguins. We have some of the best arts in the world. The Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Ballet, our museums, thanks to Mr. Carnegie, are world class. It’s really a great place to live and it’s affordable. That’s not something that you have in the Bay Area or in New York City.
Bonk: Is there an ideal version of Pittsburgh? Do you have a vision of the Pittsburgh that you want to see in the future?
Mawhinney: I asked myself that question ten years ago: What is going to sustain Pittsburgh as a world class city? And, a little bit later, the Brookings Institution did a study which basically said the world class universities are the gems of the cities.
Bonk: That’s the natural resource.
Mawhinney: University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and UPMC. Being a native Pittsburgher, I believe that. I thought, well, from my perspective, as a technology entrepreneur, Carnegie Mellon is the source of great innovation for the long term. So I looked at it and said, “How can I help make Carnegie Mellon the best fountain of innovation in the world and therefore the best entrepreneurial university in the world?”
You ask the question about the ideal city; here’s what I think. Pittsburgh is a great place already. A lot of people probably don’t think about it this way, but I do. The metaphorical renewable energy source for Pittsburgh is 3,000 of the smartest people in the world come to Carnegie Mellon every year. 3,000 new smart people every year. In one decade, that’s 30,000 smart people. If we can attract a portion of those people to stay here and to build the next new industries like autonomous vehicles; Uber ATG, Argo AI, Aurora Innovations.
By the way, all three of those companies are Carnegie Mellon-related. Between the three of them, they have $7.5 billion dollars of committed capital to build this new industry right now. That’s exciting.
Bonk: That’s life changing and transformational.
Mawhinney: It is. So, the most important piece in the equation is the people.
Bonk: I just did some quick math. You’re saying 30,000 over a decade. Over a three-decade period, that’s almost 90,000 smart people who are going to come through the city of Pittsburgh and think about and solve critical problems.
Mawhinney: And that’s what Carnegie Mellon has done forever. With the Swartz Center, we have three goals that I hope will help us get there. The number one goal is what I’ve already said: We want to be the number one entrepreneurial university in the world. We want to attract the future entrepreneurs, whether they be students or faculty. Let’s kick Stanford’s and MIT’s asses, because they are the benchmark and they’re great universities.
Bonk: They’ve got the Super Bowl trophies at the moment, and we’re in the hunt.
Mawhinney: Exactly. And the second goal is one that Jim Swartz made absolutely number one in his mind, which is to create valuable companies out of Carnegie Mellon. The way I like to think about this, so that people can understand it, is that Harvard has Facebook. Stanford has Google. Carnegie Mellon has… Fill in the blank.
There’s not that company yet that everybody knows. There are some candidates: maybe Duolingo or a 4moms or maybe Uber ATG or Aurora. Those are going to be valuable research driven international companies. But we haven’t gotten there.
Bonk: We haven’t hit the grand slam.
Mawhinney: If we strive to hit the grand slam, we’re going to hit a lot of home runs, a lot of triples and doubles. That’s going to be good. That will create many companies that are creating high wage jobs here in the region.
The third goal is this: We are not a coastal city that has a lot of risk capital, so we need to virtually leverage the 110,000 living alumni that we have in the Carnegie Mellon network.
Every one of those 110,000 living alumni should be a customer, a supplier, a mentor, or an investor in a Carnegie Mellon start-up. We’re getting a lot of interest and participation in the ecosystem because everybody really understands that the intellectual capital at Carnegie Mellon is of way more value even than the intellectual property that’s getting created here.
Carnegie Mellon’s reputation over the last couple of decades has been that we train the soldiers, the great engineers, that fight in the wars of generals from other universities like Stanford and MIT. We’re changing that paradigm. This is now general officer training school here.
Bonk: You’re like a West Point or Annapolis, or Air Force Academy of Entrepreneurship.
Mawhinney: Exactly, of entrepreneurship. We still have a long way to go to catch up to MIT and Stanford, but we’re in the game. We’re in everybody’s top ten, right in the middle.
Bonk: You can see the trajectory.
Mawhinney: Absolutely. But a lot of work there to do and we do have some hurdles in front of us.
Bonk: Now we want to move to the second question in this Pittsburgh Tomorrow series, the moonshot question. Give me one big idea that not only transforms Pittsburgh, but that transforms the narrative of Pittsburgh. Can you share what you’re thinking?
Mawhinney: 50 years ago, this moonshot blasted off, but it’s taken 50 years to get to the point where it’s credible and tangible and will create value. And it’s “Artificial Intelligence for All” (from Herb Simon and Alan Newell, professors at Carnegie Mellon).
Bonk: The democratization of artificial intelligence.
Mawhinney: The democratization of AI. There’s a lot of reasons. But it started with Herb Simon and Alan Newell here and Marvin Minsky at MIT that sort of did the thought experiments on what artificial intelligence could be. But the computing power, the data, the bandwidth for communications didn’t exist. So we had in the 1980s this whole great promise of artificial intelligence that crashed and burned and literally made the word AI a bad word for the next 20 plus years. I think where we started to see a major turnaround was within the DARPA Autonomous Vehicle Challenges in the mid 2000s.
Bonk: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; basically the Pentagon’s think tank.
Mawhinney: And funding of research. They had these challenges for different universities to create driverless cars. They started in the desert and they moved to urban challenges in the Mojave Desert.
Red Whittaker (legendary CMU robotics professor) is at the center of all of this. He built the autonomous robot that went into Three Mile Island in 1979.
Then, into the 1980s and 1990s, that technology evolved and developed. But in 2005, when these DARPA challenges happened, that made it real and tangible. And you’ve just seen an acceleration over the last 15 years of artificial intelligence because the foundational infrastructure technologies can support it now.
We’re in this generation where all routine cognitive tasks that human beings do are going to be replaced by outsourced technologies. And so you’re seeing a wide range of artificial intelligence applied for it.
For example, we have the autonomous vehicle companies that we’ve already talked about. But just here in the Swartz Center right now, we have Zensors which are using natural language processing and AI to manage spaces. Their killer app is to be at the TSA lines in airports and give you a wait time.
Nimbus Robotics is making robotic shoes, which use artificial intelligence to understand your gait and to be able to predict your stop and start pattern, so you can walk three times faster than normal. If you use this in the last mile commute in a city, you can get two or three weeks of your life back every year.
We also have TalkMeUp, which is using artificial intelligence to do communications training. It’s instantaneous feedback on how you’re presenting, whether you’re using filler words, whether you’re blinking your eyes, whether you’re smiling. Those are those are important tasks of communication. But they also allow a content rubric and they can use the natural language processing to say if you are hitting the important points for the speech. So it’s every way you can imagine, and in every aspect of life.