May 23, 2017

What do companies offering a peptide for diagnosing and treating heart disease, water filters for the developing world, an online live music community, and a professional development platform for teachers have in common?

They are all early stage Pittsburgh area businesses that are defining, or reevaluating, their value proposition for customers with the help of the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute.

For Jordan Lippman, participating in the pilot cohort of the Pitt Ventures Fourth Gear program resulted in a significant pivot for his company, ISA Learning, that has dramatically changed its trajectory.

At the core of Fourth Gear is the Lean Launchpad methodology of launching a startup that requires multiple interviews with existing or potential customers to discover their needs, and an analysis of how the company can create value for those customers.

A former Pitt postdoctoral fellow at the Learning Research and Development Center, who had already started two previous educational technology companies, Lippman thought he had the right approach for ISA Learning in developing curriculum for students working collaboratively on projects.

What he discovered by conducting customer interviews through Fourth Gear is that professional development was a more significant “pain point” for teachers and school administrators in this area.

“We had customers, but I was only partially involved in those conversations. My design team was leading those conversations,” Lippman said. “The (Fourth Gear) interviews forced me to expand my network and led me to realize that our business shouldn’t be centered on designing curriculum, but rather around building capacity for teachers. We’re accomplishing the same mission, but doing it differently.”

Fourth Gear Pitt Ventures ISA Learning Updated

ISA Learning is (from left) Kevin McGuire, Jordan Lippman, Anthoney Preston and Rachel Hermann.

Lippman said that the Fourth Gear program also led him to realize that he needed to bring in someone to manage operations.

“I had my hands in too many things. Fourth Gear led me to think more about product vision and make connections with the big clients and investors.”

The customer interviews also resulted in the addition of two members to the company’s board of directors.

Innovation Institute Entrepreneur in Residence Phil Brooks, who is also chairperson of the Growth and Transaction Committee for Pittsburgh angel investment organization, BlueTree Allied Angels, said he recognized an opportunity to bring the Pitt Ventures Gear program methodology to serve Blue Tree portfolio companies.

Brooks spoke with Evan Facher, Senior Director of Innovation Commercialization, who said that he was aware of a similar need that Jessica Sinclair, Director of the PantherlabWorks program at Innovation Institute affiliated Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, had within her group of clients.

“After several meetings and conversations,” Brooks said, “we mapped out the process to roll out a pilot of the Fourth Gear program in the summer of 2016. We changed some aspects to recognize that these were existing businesses that were advanced beyond university technologies, which are typically at a much earlier stage in the commercialization process.”

Each team in Fourth Gear is paired with an experienced business mentor who helps guide them through the program.

Robert Huemmrich, a retired lifelong entrepreneur, who mentors three or four teams in the First and Fourth Gear programs per year, says the mentors serve as a sounding board and extra set of eyes and ears for the startups.

In addition to ISA Learning, he most recently mentored a Fourth Gear team called Kaala, which is developing an online community for live music in Pittsburgh.

Huemmrich said he does not volunteer to mentor startup teams for any potential financial gain.

“It’s great to interact with bright, energetic, positive people. I’m retired and it keeps me occupied and I love doing it,” he said.

If you have a startup or small business that may benefit from participating in Fourth Gear or if you would be interested in serving as a Gear program mentor, contact Jennifer Ireland.


Fourth Gear Teams, Winter/Spring 2017

Auratek: Pillowcases incorporating the latest in textile and skin science

CardioTrak: Cardiac targeting peptide for diagnosing and treating heart disease

Folia Water: Water filters for the developing world

Kaala: Underground music scene platform

School Life: Real-time student proficiency dashboard

Simple Origin: Cryo Electron microscope refilling system